I owe a debt of gratitude to Deborah Tannen. Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and best-selling author of You Just Don’t Understand, showed how men and women’s communication styles can be radically different. For example, until Prof. Tannen set me straight I used to think that when a woman came to me with a problem she wanted advice on how to fix it. Boy, was my face red when I discovered that women just want to rant, and offering a solution will only convince them (if they are not already convinced) that you are an unfeeling, insensitive ass.
Prof. Tannen took a lot of guff from feminists who would have us pretend that men and women are basically the same save one or two anatomical quirks. No, the old-timey, hardcore feminists did not like her at all. And if there is one thing a woman wants, according to Prof. Tannen, it is to be liked. But getting feminists to like you and still holding on to your beliefs can be a difficult line to maneuver, like the one cops make you walk when they pull you over after a night of Jell-O shots at the bowling alley. That may explain why Prof. Tannen, while not abandoning her belief that men and women are dissimilar, is now suggesting that the traditional male approach to problems, particularly in science and journalism, should be abandoned in favor of “the feminine technique.”
The Feminization of America continues apace. First there was the criminalization of unpleasant speech and then the emasculation of American English (he/she for he, firefighter for fireman, etc.). The final snip will be the eradication of all masculine ways of thought. Feminists have been remarkably successful in getting their agenda approved thus far due to the male’s inherent need not to offend the opposite sex. But changing the way men address problems may be beyond the dubious powers of even the most well-compensated sensitivity trainers. A woman may have the occasional minor success getting a man to pick up after himself, bathe, blow his nose on a rag and not his sleeve, but it is doubtful that you can program him to think differently. Hell, you’re lucky if you get him to think at all, particularly after his third Coors.
Prof. Tannen is the latest intellectual to join the controversy over the perceived paucity of female op-ed writers. In a recent L.A. Times op-ed Prof. Tannen claims that the reason women shy away from political commentary is they are put off by the antagonistic nature of the business. Columnist Maureen Dowd likened her gig as a columnist at the New York Times to a scene from The Godfather, or “shooting and getting shot at.” I can almost hear Francis Ford Coppola shouting, “Don’t be so dramatic, Maureen!” I can’t imagine a place less like a scene from The Godfather than the pompous editorial offices of the New York Times with its snooty, bow-tied executive editors, pretentious fact-checkers and haughty theatre critics.
Prof. Tannen’s solution to the female op-ed writer “shortage” is to ask male columnists to play nice. Imagine an H.L. Mencken or Hunter S. Thompson adopting Ms. Tannen’s advice to say something nice or not say anything at all. (I can’t either.) In comparing the way men debate ideas with the way boys knock down each other’s building blocks, Prof. Tannen argues against “arguing ideas as a way to explore them,” which she calls “an adult version of these agonistic rituals.” So it turns out George F. Will and William F. Buckley are just big kids with brickbats.
Prof. Tannen’s main objection is the way men focus on “opposing ideas and fight over them.” Rather than opposing the idea of fascism or Stalinism we should adopt Chinese philosophy, she writes, and explore relations among, say, fascism and liberal democracy. But maybe the Chinese should learn Chinese Philosophy first. Maybe then they won’t grind protesters into the pavement with their not-so-nice little tanks. Adopting Prof. Tannen’s advice would make for some duller-than-usual presidential debates between 2008 White House contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. Rather than arguing issues they might sip tea and “explore relations,” “integrate ideas” and enlighten one another. All I can say is you’d better not have Ann Coulter moderate the event.
Many females, both left and right, excel at the kind of “attack dog” journalism feminists deplore: Florence King, Ann Coulter, Mona Charen, and Molly Ivins are a just a few examples. Most political commentators, however, are characteristically mild, almost to the point of blandness. For every poisoned-pen-wielding Christopher Hitchens there are a dozen David Broders, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammers who seem to compose their prose with long feathered quills. Few pundits are better liked than David Brooks, who seems to go out of his way not to offend anyone.
I am sorry Maureen Dowd doesn’t feel “liked” enough in her chosen profession. But I am reminded of H. L. Mencken, a brilliant free-thinker who always spoke his mind, and who was so delighted by his hate mail from Southern hick preachers and bluenoses and that he had it collected and published in book form. Menckeniana: A schimpflexikon remains a laugh-out-loud read and a profound insight into the narrow-mindedness of Prof. Tannen’s intellectual ancestors.
Yes, men “enjoy verbal dueling,” and thank God for it. Such intellectual sparing was responsible for the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These things weren’t hashed out over tea and crumpets, while some old maid sat in the corner warning the boys to “talk about something pleasant,” but were hammered out in long, arduous debates and disputations. As Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man, “Males are endowed with the requisite qualities of courage and pugnacity.” In other words, going on the attack is a necessary and natural male characteristic. “As a woman,” says Maureen Dowd, “I wanted to be liked — not attacked.” You want a job where you are liked? Good luck. I hear all the fairy godmother positions are taken.