Sometimes, authors offer insights that become more meaningful decades after their books appear. This is the case with Deborah Tannen, who wrote “The Argument Culture” in 1998.
Yet, it seems that given what goes on in Washington and the world, her insights are more pertinent now than ever before.
As the last millennium was ending and the 21st century was beginning, Tannen noted that our society was slipping deeper and deeper into what she called an “argument culture.” In this culture, people tend to distort the facts to serve their purposes, to promote polarization and to demonize those with whom they disagree. Tannen certainly couldn’t have known of the rise of the alt-right, right-wing radio, the Tea Party, or the Trump Administration, but in hindsight she looks like a prophet.
In 1998, Tannen also described our society as one becoming a “debate culture.” As the name suggests, in a debate culture, people feel a need in their communications with others to be right, to win, to looking strong, to persuade and to defend their point of view.
Tannen’s thesis fits well with the earlier insights of the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, who wisely noted that what passes for dialogue is often people engaging in mutual monologues. In an argument and debate culture, people don’t truly listen with open hearts and minds to one another.
Rather, persons locked in these mindsets listen with half an ear and with impatience for the other person to stop speaking so they can launch into their spiel. What looks like two people communicating is really two people taking turns trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong.
Martin Buber’s contribution to our current situation was to promote a “dialogue culture.” Living through both World War I and World War II in Europe, Buber saw how argument and debate cultures create scapegoats and destroy community. He dedicated his entire life to recovering a different way of communicating.
In true dialogue, both parties put aside the desire to control the outcome of the conversation and willingly agree to be vulnerable and spontaneous as they listen from the heart to the other. The other in the dialogue is not viewed as an adversary or a competitor, not someone defined by a label, but rather as a person, a mystery to be encountered.
There is ample evidence that our society is increasingly becoming an argument and debate culture, with true dialogue becoming rarer. Politicians such as Richard Lugar, Birch Bayh and Lee Hamilton came into office when dialogue and compromise with those on the other side of the political aisle were valued as the skills most necessary for an effective democracy.
But oh, how the situation has changed. Lugar was defeated in the primary by a Tea Party candidate who vilified one of our state’s most honorable statesmen for his willingness to work with Democrats. If Birch Bayh or Lee Hamilton were able to run for office today, they would likely be soundly defeated. Both parties seem intent on putting forth candidates whose core value is to never compromise, never work with the opposition.
We hear a lot at election time about Washington being broken. False prophets tell us that for Washington to work again, we need to elect more candidates who refuse to play nice with others.
The truth is just the opposite. What we have in Washington is what Buber called monologue disguised as dialogue, each side talking but neither side listening.
We need to choose candidates who could pass Introduction to Political Science 101, where we learn the genius of a democracy is the ability of leaders to compromise and, yes, dialogue with others.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.