Culture of the Yell!@#!
WASHINGTON — See if you can guess the context for this bit of dialogue, and be sure to turn down the volume on your newspaper:
"Tell the truth. Try that for a change.... You tell the truth, and I'll tell the truth, and we'll see who decides who wins it!"
"Scott, you can't handle the truth!"
No, it's not Jack Nicholson's big, bad moment in the film "A Few Good Men." Or even the nose-to-nose, finger-jabbing prelude to a wrestling match (sic) on "Monday Night Raw."
This exchange came to you from Boston's historic Faneuil Hall during the final Massachusetts governor's race debate between Attorney General Scott Harshbarger (D) and Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R). Moderator Charles Ogletree dubbed last month's debate "a brawl."
It's not the first political campaign where snarls stood in for thoughts. (Andrew Jackson's 1828 election or the Hoover-Smith clash a century later set high-water marks for incivility in American politics.) But there is a lot of yelling going on in public life by any standard.
Even before the Washington scandals, political commentary was turning caustic - plenty of shouting, interrupting, and in-your-face, even on mainstream news programs. Then there's rush-hour road rage, abusive talk in the classroom, and e-mail so hostile that there's a name for it, "flame mail."
There are big theories out there to explain all this. Some argue that we're all living faster, more isolated lives, and that a yell is the only way to be noticed; others, that we're still fighting the cultural battles of the 1960s over issues like race, gender, sex, or Vietnam, and may not even know it.
But some of the most interesting ideas on what's behind all the yelling are coming from linguists and others who pay close attention to the quality of words.
Anne Soukhanov, who writes the "Word Watch" column for The Atlantic Monthly, says that she began noticing a "coarsening" of rhetoric in the early to mid-1990s. It's a trend she associates with access to more instant communication, and she says it's getting worse.
"Our culture has lost a lot of the patience that it used to have when things did not happen instantaneously. It shows in the words we use," says Ms. Soukhanov, who was executive editor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.
Flame mail, threatening faxes, or raging voice-mail messages are all forms of "drive-by hatred," or "random acts of loathing directed at a victim not known to the perpetrator" - a phrase she credits to former NBC News chief Michael Gartner. People often say on faxes and in e-mail what they would never say if they put pen to paper, she says.
A former teacher, Soukhanov especially worries about the impact of quick and coarse communication on children. "I've seen how children are being whipsawed by the instancy of electronic communication. We need to help them find a balance," she says.
"If parents would work with them away from the television, the radio, the cell phone, and let them have a little more quiet time so they're brought into reading books - and not just on the [computer] screen - it would be better for them," she adds.
"Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention - an argument culture," says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington.
We often talk in military metaphors without even thinking about it, and our words have consequences - they affect how we think and even what we see, she argues. We "take a shot" at a problem, see issues as "battles," and name our talk shows "Crossfire." In an argument culture, public life is always a fight; the "spirit of attack," a sign of strength; and "opposition," the best way to get anything done.
"The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as 'both sides'; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize," she writes in her recent book, "The Argument Culture" (Random House).
The idea that fights are fun to watch is deeply entrenched in this culture. That's one reason that yesterday's television talking heads are becoming screaming heads or that political attack ads still flourish, despite politicians' pledges to avoid them.
In the long term, losing the volume control could drive away both viewers and voters. "There is a lot of self-scrutiny now going on in many professions, especially journalism and law. Dispute resolution is the fastest growing subfield in the law," Dr. Tannen says.
But some issues have become so polarized that the prospects for a civil conversation have narrowed severely. "On many issues, we can't talk civilly across the breach, because underneath people aren't really talking about the issue," says Robin Lakoff, a professor in the Linguistics Department at University of California, Berkeley.
"Clinton-gate looks like it's about sex and lying, but, like recent debates about abortion, Ebonics, or the O.J. Simpson trial, it's really about where the country is headed culturally. But people can't talk about that, so frustration builds," she says.
In all these cases, verbal flashpoints were reached very quickly. The news media played up the most extreme positions on both sides, and gulfs widened into chasms. But she cautions that not all yelling is bad. "Yelling is unpleasant, and we're in a period of yelling. It can make it impossible to see reason across the divide. But it might in the long run prove to be a healthy thing," she says.
"One of the reasons discourse is more polarized is that very different interests are becoming represented. If we can somehow figure out a way to have all these different groups have a say and be taken seriously, if we can establish some good will and trust, maybe we could find a way to deal with things that now are out of control," she adds.
Getting beyond theories
As a hall monitor at Annapolis Elementary School, fifth-grader Jack Hutchinson is an expert on civility. The kids showing up at this Maryland school come from very different neighborhoods - some from big houses with lawns, some from military housing, and some from housing projects - and his job is to make sure that no one yells or "acts crazy" in the halls. It's an important job, and he's good at it. "I just try to talk to them," he explains.
Talk is seen as so important here that the school now schedules 20 minutes each morning so that kids can "practice communication skills." Students sit in a circle and share something interesting about their lives, ending each story with, "Any questions or comments?" Remarks at a session last week covered shooting hoops with a father, trick-or-treating, playing Old Maid, and deciding whether $150 sneakers were worth it ("No!").
Teachers say that these plain-vanilla conversations have improved life in the school, because they show kids that they are "part of a caring group."
Another expert on civility, the National League of Women Voters of the United States, has come to a similar conclusion on the value of a simple conversation. "The social skills that were part of a simpler society no longer exist," says League President Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins. "I can sit in front of my computer for a whole day and never talk to another person. Families used to have one TV and would sit around it, talking. Now, many people go to their own rooms and watch TV alone."
"Without finding a way to practice conversation, we may not get to the kind of civility in public discourse that would be the ideal," she adds.
As part of a new effort to "make democracy work," the League aims to train its members to help revive conversation within families. "We're trying to work intergenerationally, so that within families, the conversations begin and transcend into the workplace and the rest of society. Through practice and guidance and training, the kind of civil discourse we want will revive," she says.