Jessica's Blog

We Are the Argument Culture

This semester I decided to take an anthropological class called Language and Culture.  This class is all about relating culture to language (and vice-versa).  Just take a moment to really think about this idea, that language and culture are related.  Many people are familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that people see and understand the world through their language.  Deborah Tannen extends this idea in her book The Argument Culture when she states that, “Culture, in a sense, is an environment of narratives that we hear repeatedly until they seem to make self-evident sense in explaining human behavior”.  She makes a note that all languages use metaphors:

“… some metaphoric words and expressions are novel, made up for the occasion, but more are calcified in the language.  They are simple the way we think it is natural to express ideas.  We don’t think of them as metaphors… More often than not, we use expressions without thinking about their metaphoric implications.  But that doesn’t mean those implications are not influencing us”.

Take a moment to consider how we phrase things, how we express an idea to emphasize it.  Tannen has noticed that American culture, in general, has an obsession with war metaphors, which means we are a society that is obsessed with the concept of pitting one side against the other.  She notes that we have a tendency to pick, “more aggressive strategies even if they get less favorable results.  It’s as if we value a fight for its own sake, not for its effectiveness in resolving disputes”.  She gives several examples from newspapers and other forms of print media that emphasize this idea; such metaphorical words as showdown and battle are often used to express the polarity between ideas.

I could go on and on with examples of how Tannen relates metaphors to the ideology behind American culture but the most important point has to be the social implications—in particular, that our society is losing its sense of community due to the Argument Culture—that come with the usage of war metaphors for all aspects of society.  She notes that the media’s attempt at engaging their audience by drawing on their sense of drama is, “Far from encouraging us to feel connected to the subject, it encourages us to feel critical, superior—and, as a result, distanced.  The cumulative effect is that citizens feel more and more cut off from the people in public life they read about.”

I find this fascinating because I feel that the facts that Deborah Tannen presents are directly relatable to how people view the youth of our society in relation to politics.  For generations now, Americans have been exposed to the argument culture and the results can be seen that the war metaphors in politics have distanced us from picking a side.  As Deborah Tannen states: “The argument culture is both a product of and a contributor  to this alienation, separating people, disconnecting them from each other  and from those who are or might have been their leaders”.


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