Linguistics Professor and Best-selling Author Deborah Tannen to Speak Feb. 16 on 'Stopping America’s War of Words'

Georgetown University linguistics professor and best-selling author Dr. Deborah Tannen will discuss “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, in the auditorium of O'Shaughnessy Educational Center on the University of St. Thomas' St. Paul campus.

The lecture is sponsored by St. Thomas’ College of Arts and Sciences and is free and open to the public.

Dr. Deborah Tannen

Tannen’s talk is the third in the university’s annual Public Discourse Lecture Series and one of several St. Thomas initiatives to address the widespread lack of civility in discourse in U.S. society.

Called “the world’s most famous linguist” by The Washingtonian, Tannen is a frequent guest on national television and radio programs and has written extensively about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships. She is the author of four New York –Times best-sellers, including You Were Always Mom’s Favorite and You Just Don’t Understand, which spent four years on the Times’ best-seller list, including eight months as number one.

Her 1999 The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words won a Common Ground Book Award and is unique among her books because it focuses on public discourse – in the press, politics, the law and education.

“Our society has become overwhelmingly adversarial, with consequences not only in our ability to solve problems but also in our personal relationships,” Tannen writes on her website.  “The war on drugs, the battle of the sexes, politicians' turf battles – war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking, urging us to approach anything we need to accomplish as a fight between two opposing sides.

“It's all part of what I call the argument culture, which rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done. … What I'm questioning is the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature of approaching almost any issue, problem or public person in an adversarial way.”

The author of 22 books, Tannen holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, and has received five honorary doctorates. She also taught at Princeton University and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, Calif.

St. Thomas’ lecture series and other initiatives, explained Dr. Terence Langan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, strives to promote discussion of important ideas without the aggression, anger and obstinacy that often cloud such matters in today's world.

“From its beginning, a guiding principle of the series has been to promote the concept of civil discourse,” Langan said. “From negative newspaper ads, to disrupted city council meetings, to disrespectful treatment of invited speakers, our society has witnessed locally and nationally a breakdown of civility surrounding contentious moral and political issues."

The idea for the lecture series was developed by the College of Arts and Sciences Board of Advisers and, in part, grew out of St. Thomas' experiences in recent years with controversies that have involved speakers, films, books and policies.

In addition to the lecture series, St. Thomas is raising funds to establish an Endowed Chair in Civil Discourse, and College and Arts and Sciences faculty continue to look for opportunities to incorporate principles of civil discourse in their curriculum.