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Can't We All Just Get Along?

THE ARGUMENT CULTURE: Moving From Debate to Dialogue.\o7 By Deborah Tannen\f7 .\o7 Random House: 352 pp., $25\f7

April 12, 1998|JONATHAN RAUCH | Jonathan Rauch is national correspondent for National Journal magazine and the author of "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought."

Are Americans too argumentative? In her earlier books, such as the big bestseller "You Just Don't Understand," Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, showed herself to be a shrewd and sensitive student of how people use language to communicate and, often enough, miscommunicate. Now she shifts her sociolinguistic lens from the personal to the political. You know how people sometimes talk past each other and find themselves doing more misinterpreting than communicating? Remember the girlfriend or husband or colleague who just didn't want to do anything but argue? That is modern-day America. "Our public interactions have become more and more like having an argument with a spouse," Tannen says.

Too often, in her view, American culture engages in "agonism": ritual verbal combat, in which people reflexively boil down complicated questions to two crudely polarized positions which are set in conflict with one another. The impulse to criticize and oppose has become knee-jerk, thoughtless and ubiquitous. The result is "a pervasive war-like atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight." Thoughtless antagonism is nothing new, she acknowledges. But lately it "has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems. Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention--an argument culture."

But society is not like a conversation, any more than an economy is like a job. To indict "the argument culture," it is not enough to show that some people are too argumentative (of course they are) or that there are many arguments (there may be a lot to argue about). Tannen must show that public discourse is becoming dysfunctional and that runaway disputatiousness is the cause rather than the symptom of what is wrong. In meeting this burden, her method is to look around. Wherever she sees negativity--in White House press conferences, in courtrooms, on TV--she condemns it as knee-jerk antagonism.

The peculiar result is a book that is itself as reductive and bipolar as the sort of talk it deplores. Show Tannen a polarized debate or a sharp public dispute, and she will show you a mindless ritual or a campaign to obstruct progress or sheer cussedness. She declares that global warming is a settled fact and that skeptics are oil-company shills. (She lists global-warming doubters right alongside Holocaust deniers.) She chides abortion opponents for stubbornly insisting that abortion is intolerable when they would get further by "increasing education about and availability of contraception" to reduce the number of abortions. She views the "tragic demise" of President Clinton's health care plan in 1994 as "a dramatic example of the politics of obstruction." She sees persistent criticisms of Clinton and other leaders as "rituals of attacking a leader." She cites controversies surrounding various public personages, from Lani Guinier (Clinton's failed civil rights nominee) to Joe Klein (the author of "Primary Colors"), as gratuitous campaigns of vilification.

Awkwardly, however, the people whose criticisms so gum up society's works often believe they are right. Abortion foes are stubborn because they believe that millions of human lives are at stake. Global-warming skeptics urge caution because they believe that a rush to judgment may waste many billions of dollars, and would divert attention from more pressing environmental problems. Opponents of HillaryCare believed it would cripple the health system or the government or both. Many Clinton critics believe that renting out the Lincoln Bedroom is genuinely disgusting. And it is not unheard of for the critics of public personages to believe that their targets have done something, or will do something, immoral or dangerous or stupid.

Now abortion opponents, global-warming skeptics and the rest may in fact be wrong, but there is only one way to find out: Argue each case on its merits. To hunt for mistakes--one's own and other people's--is the highest intellectual duty in a liberal society. Looking for mistakes means comparing and debunking ideas, which means pitting them against each other. Certainly there are other more circumspect and supportive ways to talk. But the exchange of public criticism--the requirement to submit our beliefs to checking by others--is the only reliable and efficient way to sort good ideas from bad ones.

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