Everything is a War. The Culture of Agonism.

Yesterday I came across an article in the New York Times called “Wounded by the Language of War” by Paula Span. Span wanted to know why the language we use to talk about dealing with illness seems to “resemble a Pentagon briefing.” People who die are described as “losing a valiant battle against cancer.”

Span quotes Patrice Villars, a gerontological and palliative-care nurse-practitioner, “I worry about the implication that somehow, someone was deficient or a loser or didn’t do something right if they died…People die.”

Do you ever have one of those days when an idea seems to be following you around?  A couple of hours after I read this article, I decided to look at some of my old books and I noticed The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen.  The book was written in 1998, and it describes a situation that seems to have only gotten worse. We have, Tannen writes, a tendency to frame all discourse in the form of an argument or debate, allowing for only two sides and focusing on winning over the other.

“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. Thinking of human interactions as battles is a metaphorical frame through which we learn to regard the world and the people in it… In a society that includes people that express their anger by shooting, the result of demonizing those with whom we disagree can be truly tragic.”

She refers to this habitual posture as “agonism” based on the Greek word for contest. It is a programmed contentiousness “a prepatterend, unthinking use of fighting to accomplish goals that do not necessarily require it.”

Some of the causes or factors she points to (indeed, when it comes to culture it is hard to say what is the cause and what is the effect they work together in a reinforcing loop) is a taste for entertainment, which she traces to World War II, in which victory comes when the pacifist takes up his weapon and kills the bad guy.  She also discusses our polarized political discourse, a presumed need on the part of journalists for news to be about confrontation and conflict. She cites one study about the coverage of the Clinton era health plan– and found that the politics of the battle were reported twice as often as the impact of the plan on consumers.  I have a feeling the gap between coverage of the politics of Obama’s health care plan and the content of the plan would be even more dramatic.

Tannen also has a chapter devoted to the adversarial legal system. Another author, Thane Rosenbaum, in his book The Myth of Moral Justice, makes a similar point. The system actively discourages apologizing. “In the American legal system,” Rosenbaum writes, “moral behavior automatically triggers exposure to liability. You do the right thing, in the eyes of the law, you get punished…One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work.”

What struck me while re-reading The Argument Culture was how current it sounds and how dramatically the trends she presented have been amplified. Tannen was writing the Fox News Channel was only two years old. Rachel Maddow was still working on a philosophy degree at Oxford. The Tea Party was an event that happened in Boston. No one was blogging or posting angry comments about “you liberals” and “you conservatives” on on-line articles.

The Columbine High School shooting happened a year after the book’s release.

If it is true that people express mental illness in culturally recognized ways, it is worth asking whether framing every disagreement or challenge, big or small, using the language of war is one of the social forces that acts on the mass killer.

Culture does change over time. It doesn’t change through acts of congress. It doesn’t usually change with one artistic work– to be accepted in one’s time a book or film has to speak the language of that time enough to be accepted. Culture changes with little nudges. Perhaps we can try to nudge our discourse out of its war footing.

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