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The Argument Culture: From the Table

Timothy Muehlhoff

Finding common ground in a polarized culture

Professor of Communication Studies, Biola University
October 8, 2014

Our theme changes every year here at CCT. Last year was Psychology & Spiritual Formation. Next year it’s The Meaning of Love (Scholars and Pastors, apply for fellowships before November 1!).

This year it’s Intellectual Virtue & Civil Discourse. It’s pretty meta for us. That is, we’re spending a year researching issues that strike to the core of our mission and values. Our ethos is to encourage a constructive approach to conversations where disagreements loom large. It’s not hard to find examples of conversations-gone-wrong. And despite a rich example in the life of Jesus and countless sources of wisdom throughout church history, Christians often fail to promote love and civility in discourse. When the conversations get crucial, we have a tendency to put the proverbial foot in the proverbial mouth.

Recently, Biola Comm Studies professor Tim Muehlhoff guided a roundtable conversation about an aspect of this problem.

He called the problem, “The Argument Culture,” borrowing the phrase from Georgetown’s Deborah Tannen. That is, contemporary American discourse is charged with tension and hatred, and a marked inability to find common ground.

Part of the solution, he wonders, is the practice of forming “loose connections” with those who we’d consider adversaries. Think of someone you vehemently disagree with. Imagine them in the same room with you. Now, instead of seeing them across from you, imagine them beside you, working with you toward some shared good, despite each of your deeply held beliefs. That’s a loose connection.

How might loose connections start occuring in your life?

Enjoy. Interview transcript below.

—Evan Rosa, The Table


The Argument Culture

The Table: When it comes to tough conversations, dialogue is often made out to be a battle. We think of the other as opposition. What do you think about this?

We’re talking more than ever before.

If Facebook were its own country it would be the third largest country in the entire world, only lagging behind India and China. Over two hundred million Tweets are issued each day, which roughly comes out to 2,315 tweets per second.

But ironically, we’re losing the ability to talk about things that really matter, things like stem cell research, abortion, same-sex marriage, and immigration. As Americans, we’ve lost the ability to talk to each other.


Life and death are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21)


Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist, describes this as the argument culture; where we approach each other as adversaries. We have these deep arguments where there’s no common ground. There’s no nuance.

The Table: How should we address this problem?

So what I presented today was one attempt to get the conversation on a different foothold.

For example, there’s a concept called “loose-connections,” where I look at another group that I might disagree with deeply on a bunch of issues, but there’s one issue where we actually have common ground. There’s one issue that we agree with each other.

So could I join you, not in signing off on your entire agenda, but could I join you on one event—be it a blood drive, collecting food for the homeless, a Take Back the Night march that would make a campus more safe—could I as a Christian institution or community jump in with you—knowing we have these deep divisions and things that we think differently on—but could we jump in together on this one isolated event?

Now, what would be the benefit of that?

Well, as we’re rubbing shoulders with each other we find out that we do have some commonalities, that there are values that we share. It opens communication and creates what we call a positive communication climate. Of course the negative climate today that’s created by the argument culture needs to be counteracted before we get to the hard issues. Or as the book of Proverbs would say, “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.”

I advocate that we start a conversation by speaking life; and focusing on commonalities, not differences.