Deborah Tannen moves into the public affairs arena -- and discovers ogres at war

March 15, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Deborah Tannen has written some 16 books, but two have made her a popular public figure. The first, "You Just Don't

Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," was on the bestseller lists for almost four years after publication in 1990. The second, "Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace - Language, Sex, and Power," was published in 1994 and did very well.

The first of those is a brisk, refreshing, challenging exploration of chasms of understanding that separate many women and men. Though it became a sort of fad book, riding high on the self-help surf, there is no question it made significant contributions to connubial and other private human relations. The workplace book was valuable as well, if not as ground-breaking.

Tannen is an engaging, articulate, civil and sensitive writer. She is a scholar, primarily of linguistics, a University Professor at Georgetown, where she has taught since 1979. She also has written intelligently for magazines and newspapers and been on lots of television talk-shows.

Now she has come forth with "The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialog" (Random House, 348 pages, $25). Its essence, I believe, can best be seen in this statement, from more than two-thirds through the book:

"The dangers of the argument culture and the culture of critique lie not in the open expression of opposition but in an

overapplication of agonism: using opposition as a required and ubiquitous way to approach issues, rather than as one of many possible ways of getting things done by talk." She is fond of the term agonism, as there defined.

Culture-driven

A bit talky, I know. And most of her prior work is not. Perhaps another sentence, from the very beginning, is a better distillation: "The argument culture urges us to approach the world - and the people in it - in an adversarial frame of mind."

The book , with a very broad brush, paints modern American society as angrily, miserably and paralyzingly captivated and driven by that "culture."

From beginning to end, she doth protest too much. In expressing her scorn, she insists that "war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking," and condemns, indeed, the usages of the "war on drugs" and the "war on cancer." She does not make a case for why it would be preferable to have a dialog with cancer a tea party with narcotics.

And so go her diatribes against the political style of the country today, the press and other news media, no small number of academic powers, the entire adversarial legal system, the potentials of the cyber-age and more, much more. Tannen says that journalism today is "agonism: automatic, knee-jerk aggression." The Anglo-American, adversarial, system of law is poisoning.

This tone of political criticism, she argues, drives the best people out of politics. The rage is as pervasive as it poisonous. There seems to be no bed in America, public or private, that does not have an Argument Ogre lurking beneath it.

The entire premise seems to me to hover between being contrived and being trivial.

Time and again this volume calls for a return to a mythic American past in which everybody was apparently sweet, polite, reasoning, civil. But a serious look at the journalism, the political discourse, the congressional debate, and almost every other major window into discourse about public concerns in American history leads to dismissions that perspective as naive.

I know of no publication in America that meets the levels of vitriol that routinely can be found in newspaper articles of most prior periods of American political debate, going back to the bitter, ugly and often violent constitutional debates in which the republic is rooted.

From that standpoint, indeed, the present day is a period of relative banality. If there is ground for nostalgia, it might best be for H.L. Mencken, Drew Pearson, other poison-pens, the Know Nothings, the muckrakers of a century and more ago and their equally angry predecessors, syndicalists, anarchists, nakedly unashamed racists, Nazis and Leninists.

Placid politesse

I don't know a single well-read newspaper editor who believes for a moment that more than a tiny percentage of - say, Mencken - would or could be published now, so fierce are the tones of Mencken's "arguments" and so placid and polite are today's usages and strictures.

Finally, the book's underlying perspective and insistence seem to stand on the implicit premise that the human race - and, by extension, its members - is perfectible.

History and each day's events repudiate that notion at every turn. And so, the idea of supreme government free from a culture of debate - and, yes, even antagonism - terrifies me. As to the anxiety that carping drives worthy people out of public service, I believe Harry Truman was entirely right about heat and kitchens.

The final and concluding paragraph of "The Argument Culture":

"We need to use our imaginations and ingenuity to find different ways to seek truth and gain knowledge, and add them to our arsenal - or, should I say, to the ingredients for our stew. It will take creativity to find ways to blunt the most dangerous blades of the argument culture. It's a challenge we must undertake, because our public and private lives are at stake."

Cutting through the shards of metaphors, looking back on the book, it seems to me that primarily it is making a shrouded but impassioned argument for turning America into a nation of cloned sheep. Bleating very softly, mainly in the same key.

Everybody could be called Dolly, followed by a hyphen and a nice neutral number. Peace!

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