Rescuing Ourselves from the Argument Culture

Although many hoped Trump’s use of social media to wage ad hominem attacks would cease once he took office, now even former Republican supporters, like Senator Bob Corker, conclude that Trump has “proven himself unable to rise to the occasion.” Instead of the presidency changing the man, the man has changed the presidency. “I think the debasement of our nation will be what he’ll be remembered most for,” Corker reasoned.

Corker’s Republican colleague, Senator Jeff Flake, took to the senate floor to give his own impassioned speech in which he denounced “the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top.” Flake pointed to Trump’s “reckless provocations” and “degradation of our politics,” calling on his colleagues to “never regard as normal” the “personal attacks” and “flagrant disregard for truth and decency” that has come to mark “our current politics.” Flake adjured, “We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that that is just the way things are now.”

But to extricate ourselves from the current situation, we must recognize that Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of our current politics.

Sure, the bully in the presidential bully pulpit has set the tone from the top with devastating consequences to both our politics and civil discourse. A poll conducted by the Washington Post and University of Maryland nine months into Trump’s presidency found a disturbing erosion of pride in the workings of American democracy. “By and large, Americans are feeling frustrated not only with the country’s politics but also their ability to talk about politics in a civil way.” And a recent survey of teachers conducted by UCLA and reported by NPR, indicated a perceived rise of incivility in classrooms as students feel “emboldened” to engage in offensive behavior. As Flake summarized on the senate floor, “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

But Trump is not just an agent shaping our times, he is very much a product of our times. We have long lived in a society steeped in what Deborah Tannen has called the argument culture—that is, argument in the negative sense of a heated or angry fight. Tannen said she wrote her book, The Argument Culture, in the late 1990s with “a sense of urgency because I believed that the moment for its message—that our public discourse had become destructively adversarial—might have peaked.” But, in a follow-up piece in 2013, she remarked, “How ironic that concern now seems.” Her message is even more relevant today, nearly a year into a presidency built upon divisions, racial and otherwise.

Politics as combat
Politics as combat. Maitree Laipitaksin / 123rf.com

As Tannen (2013) contends, the root problem stems from the way we base our politics on the precept of agonism, a concept she borrows from Walter Ong to describe “taking a warlike stance to accomplish something that is not literally a war.” Whether one looks to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means or Michel Foucault’s inverse proposition “that politics is the continuation of war,” we undoubtedly conceptualize politics in an agonistic manner rather than viewing war and politics as orthogonally distinct human undertakings. Consider the pervasive military metaphors that litter our political discourse, from the war on the middle class to the war on Christmas. How many headlines have you read recently that mention political “battles” or policies “under attack”? As Tannen suggests, these “metaphors seep into our thinking and shape our responses.”

Media coverage of politics, as Tannen points out, helps to create and reinforce “an ethic of aggression that places the highest value on attack.” Trump did not create this ethic, he has merely exploited it. His mastery of ad hominem attacks in 140 (or now 280) characters or less—394 people, places, and things insulted on Twitter and counting—thrives off the entertainment value of negative heat: No coverage is bad coverage if it increases his Twitter following and keeps him in the spotlight. Bucking conventional trends, Trump spent far less than Clinton during the 2016 presidential election cycle but “received 15% more press coverage.” In large part, this can be traced to the play given to attack-driven sound bites (e.g., “Lock her up!”), which in turn provided Trump “more opportunities to define Clinton than she had to define him.”

But to extricate ourselves from the current situation, we must recognize that Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of our current politics.

Trump is in the White House because our argument culture helped put him there. To ensure his tenure remains an anomaly, rather than the new normal, we must replace our notion of argument as combat with the notion of argument as dialogue. In other words, we must embrace argumentation in the positive sense of reasoning systematically in support of ideas or actions.

In his advice on how to engage a fanatic, David Brooks draws from Stephen L. Carter  to emphasize the importance of confronting fanatics with love and genuine questions that signal a true interest in listening: “Paraphrase what they say so they know they’ve been heard.” This advice is echoed by Krista Ratcliffe in her discussion of “rhetorical listening,” Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin in their concept of invitational rhetoric, and Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker and Kenneth L. Pike in their work on Rogerian argumentation. “The key,” as Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz summarize, “is a willingness to think about opposing positions and to describe them fairly.” Or, as Trevor Noah urged during his conversation with the New York Times on race and identity, we need to enter debates “from a place of empathy” and “from the point of view that the person you are speaking with is a human being.” This starts with deep listening in a spirit of inquiry, exchanging ideas with an openness to new insights, disagreeing with respect rather than denigration, and offering ideas rather than vitriol.

Partisans may object that the other side started it and the only way to respond is, well, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained, to fight fire with fire, or as Trump warned, “fight back” in a way that “won’t be pretty.” But employing an ethic of aggression against political opponents merely harms and degrades. We need less dogmatic insistence and more openness to genuine exploration. We need arguments that seek to gain understandings, develop ideas, critically assess options, and ultimately arrive at decisions for the common good without severing the connections between us.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011), and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2017. “Rescuing Ourselves from the Argument Culture.” Anthropology News website, December 5, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.712

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