Back in 1998, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote a book I've always liked. It's called "The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue," and in it, she talks about how our discussions are increasingly "agonistic"-- that is, they display what Tannen calls "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.'' Examples of agonism are all too prevalent in daily life, where even the simplest disagreements can escalate into the verbal equivalent of World War III. We can find plenty of agonistic behavior on cable TV and talk radio, where members from each side shout at their opponent as if the other side is utterly insane and unworthy of being heard. We can also find examples of argument culture when fans debate their favorite rock band, or when partisans debate hot button issues like abortion or immigration. Even online, it doesn't take long for what started as an exchange of viewpoints to spiral out of control and become a series of mean tweets or angry Facebook postings (I assume there are now emojis for varying levels of disgust or contempt).
The other day, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders went to Rome to speak at a conference; while by all accounts, Senator Sanders is a non-religious Jew, he has great admiration for the work of Pope Francis in speaking out about climate change and global poverty. The senator has said he disagrees with the pope on theology, but he sees the good in what the pope is trying to do as an advocate for social justice. After he gave his talk at the conference, the senator and his wife (who was raised Catholic) were able to have a brief meeting with the pope-- an exciting and unexpected event that was a high point in the visit. (While the senator has met many famous people over the years, meeting a pope is undoubtedly a unique experience, no matter what religion you might be.)
The online and cable TV criticisms began almost immediately: he was trying to distract from the fact that he is losing to Hillary Clinton; he was pandering to the Catholic vote; he praised a man who opposes marriage equality and has other controversial moral stands; he shouldn't have gone to the conference in the first place. I took a different view of it all-- and no, I am not speaking as one of Bernie's partisans. Rather, I saw what he did as typical of him-- he took the opportunity to participate in a conference on global economic issues, a subject he cares deeply about. As for his excitement at meeting the pope, I met Ronald Reagan once and while I wasn't a fan and I never voted for him, being in the same room as a sitting US President was pretty exciting, I have to admit.
More importantly, I thought there was a good lesson in what occurred: Senator Sanders has some very real disagreements with the pope, yet he also sees some important areas of agreement. Rather than being an absolutist, he focused on what was good about Pope Francis, instead of dismissing him because he can't agree with everything the man says. And I am not just singling out Senator Sanders. I know a number of good folks, some of whom are friends of mine on social media, who have very strong views on the issues, views that differ from mine; yet they are able to resist the temptation to turn every discussion into an argument. It's a trait that I admire.
Unfortunately, as I've noted in previous blogs, that trait is all too rare. But wouldn't it be a nice change of pace if we could resist the tendency to be part of the argument culture? How difficult would it be to just be happy for someone, even someone we may not always agree with, when something good happens in their life? I may not be a big fan of the pope, but I'm glad that Bernie Sanders got to meet him. I may not be a big fan of Donald Trump, but I know people who have attended an event and told me how excited they were to be there. My point is that life is short, and we seem to occupy so much of it with annoyance and frustration. I wish we could put the agonistic behavior aside even for a few minutes, and just let someone's happy moment be there, without feeling the urge to criticize it. Contrary to the combative way too many ideas are presented in the media, not everything needs to turn into an argument. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to share in the other person's happiness. There will be plenty of time for argument later on.