We’re not here to make friends: American Agonism is Everywhere

You know how sometimes, when what you’re  studying, reading, watching, and just randomly encountering during any given week all connect in strange ways, and it seems that the universe is offering you a theme on which you’re supposed to reflect, meditate, write?

This week my theme from the universe was American agonism and its effects.  Everywhere I went, I literally stumbled upon somebody commenting on the American propensity toward what Walter J. Ong calls “ceremonial combat” – argument, confrontation, contentiousness for the sake of “winning” in our culture (Ong, Fighting for Life ).

First I tried my hand at teaching Rogerian argument to a baffled 111 class who slowly, painstakingly began to acknowledge that maybe an approach to persuasion that “seeks to reduce the reader’s sense of threat” might actually be valuable (Young).  This was my initial stumble into the prevalence of agonism; my students seemed to reject Rogerian understanding outright, calling it “sappy, couples’ therapy stuff”.  Seriously.  I was a bit surprised, but I probably should have seen it coming.  Apparently – as I learned throughout the week – Americans celebrate competition and confrontation, as a rule.

As I was ruminating about my lesson on my drive to Meijer for hand soap and Star Wars action figures – I popped in a pod cast of This American Life and Ira Glass, instrument of the universe’s lesson plan for me, launched into a program dedicated to my theme.  His topic: Frenemies and American attitudes toward camaraderie and collaboration.  Listen if you like, but pay close attention to the segment that caught my attention and plagued my nightly “I can’t sleep – because I can’t stop thinking” sessions this week:  VH1 blogger Rich Juzwiak’s piece on the most essential reality TV phrase – “I’m not here to make friends.”  Juzwiak noticed that this phrase, more than any other is asserted, screamed, whispered, celebrated at least once by a minimum of one contestant of quite nearly every single reality television program.  He even compiled the utterances of “I’m not here to make friends” in 2009 and created a YouTube montage documenting the popularity and, what he argues, essential role of the sentence.

On the heels of my students’ rejection of Roger and his, let’s call it, friendly approach to argumentation, Juzwiak’s observations were informative.  I cannot say with any certainty that I have a student in this particular 111 class who does not watch (if not love) reality TV in excess.  The assigned reading to which these 17 and 18 year-old kids responded most electrically was James Poniewozick’s Time article on the entertainment genre.  Trust me, they know a lot more about Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, and The Real Housewives of several counties than I thought humanly possible.  And why wouldn’t they?  I mean, this is their genre.  They’ve grown up with it – as it has matured, so too have our students.  And so I began to think about the connections between their views on argument – that it must aim not to “make friends” or mend divides – but instead to win.  And though, as Juzwiak points out in his story, the contestants of reality TV shows who utter this famous phrase don’t usually win the money, the bachelor, the Rock, Flavor, or Daisy of love, they do tend to earn notoriety, celebrity, and money – lots of money.  The game is not the show – the game is our culture; and American culture is so committed to its classical Western roots, it refuses to understand success as compromise, collaboration, friendship.  Perhaps this explains my students’ reluctance to engage in collaborative writing, inventing, and the like.  Do the preposterous circumstances and camp characters of reality TV actually reflect our cultural attitudes?

Before we all scream in absolute horror at the thought that reality TV is indeed reality – let me move on to the next moment of my week’s theme.  This moment arrived when I snuck outside for a light reading and cigarette break from research for 736.  What I opened was an article in the nearest magazine on the patio table – randomly I flipped, scanned, landed on the question “Bullied To Death?”  This is the title of a recent Time magazine story by John Cloud that reports and reflects on the four September suicides committed by young gay (or perceived to be gay) American men.  These young men were all bullied – they were harassed in high school hallways, middle school lunch rooms, college dorms, and social networking pages.  Rather than teach our children to dialogue difference and to understand opposing views, ideologies, and (here perceived or real sexual) identities – we clearly as a culture tolerate – and yes celebrate – a refusal to make friends.  The “bullies” who tormented the four victims of Cloud’s story are rhetors, essentially.  They are rhetors and contestants.  They are arguing for control over meanings and outcomes – trying to win at masculinity, dominance, survival.  They, and their victims, are participants in a culture that values, above all other problem-solving tactics, a fight to the finish, a display of “ceremonial combat.”  What other purpose can we find in the rhetoric of bullying?  Cloud postures and ponders the role of parental involvement, abuse, and exposure to violence as possible factors in the making of bullies – but when a majority of student respondents studied categorize themselves as both victims and perpetrators of bullying – perhaps we need to come to terms with the fact that meanness is a part of our national, cultural ethos.  Our children are “not here to make friends” – because neither is America.  We are usually, as a country, wherever “we” are to exploit, control, and influence – to, shock, awe, and – well, win.

And this all brings me to us – I mean you and the rest of 733, our department, our professors. . .”academe” as Deborah Tannen calls our little sub-culture.  Deborah F. Tannen‘s article “Agonism in the Academy” was the theme encounter for today.  I came across this work while researching the topic of doctor-patient relationships for 736.  (Thanks for the tip, Andy:)  Tannen expands here on the ideas outlined in her book Argument Culture in which she discusses the agonism of law, politics, and journalism.  In this Chronicle of Higher Ed article, Tannen illustrates what she calls the “battle metaphors” academics use when teaching and learning.  Tannen claims that graduate training is the ultimate hot bed of agonism – that like reality TV celebrities – it is the students who refuse to make friends, the frenemies who tear down the work of their colleagues – who tend to succeed.  For Tannen, the worst effect of this agonism is that “the potential scholars who are not comfortable with that kind of interaction are likely to drop out. As a result, many talented and creative minds are lost to academe” (Tannen, Agonism in the Academy). I certainly sensed and actively rejected this “kind of interaction” at Cal Poly.

The reason I countered competition with collaboration amongst my M.A. cohort, the reason I am stuck thinking through this theme so passionately here in-blog I think, is because I am a person who is always “here to make friends.”  I am not saying I am nice, or moral, or just a great gal. . .I make this claim – or confession – because this is a quality that I’ve taken a great deal of shit for throughout my thirty years as an American.  I was bullied endlessly in school and yet remained infinitely Anne Frank about humanity.  I just couldn’t help diplomacy, couldn’t resist understanding, wanted to learn with peers, make friends, like people and, of course, win – I didn’t think these things were at all at odds.  I have never bought that it has to be a dog-eat-dog world.  I still don’t.  And so maybe my theme this week is a question.  How can our field – our scholarship and teaching – begin to help shake this faith in fighting?  Help ground argument, persuasion, and debate over difference in some collaborative, collective, other approach?  After all, the academy makes the lawyers, politicians, journalists, and teachers who will shape American culture long after the last “I’m not here to make friends” is screamed out from the final catty Housewife, Jersey Shore twenty-something, or pining Bachelorette . . .

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One Response to We’re not here to make friends: American Agonism is Everywhere

  1. leighgruwell says:

    Morgan,

    Thanks for another really smart, thought-provoking post. You point to a really interesting point: agonism is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, and I think there’s probably a few reasons why. American individualism– the rugged, independent individual (man) who strikes out on his own–is a national archetype, and has been since Day 1. Every man has the right to seek “life, liberty, and the pursuit” of happiness, so if you’re in my way, screw you. Think of the “maverick” politicians, the go-it-alone businessmen– there’s a definite value in making it on your own. Collaboration, as a result, is just not as impressive. Of course, we can think of endless examples of collaboration producing otherwise impossible results, but that just doesn’t fit in to our notion of the romanticized individual.

    I think you’re also right to notice this trend in academia. In fact, I think collaboration in academia is perhaps less valued than in any other realm, be it politics or business or private life. There’s little institutional incentive for scholars to collaborate– many universities don’t recognize collaborative works (or give them the same weight as individually-authored pieces) when considering promotion. Of course, we know what good can come from collaboration. I think the best way to fight this “institutional agonism” is to consider it a feminist project. Collaboration, for me, goes hand-in-hand with other feminist work, and as more and more young feminists enter the academy, it’s up to us to change these structures, to challenge the rugged individualism that has been unequaled in American culture. Wouldn’t it be great to watch “The Real Feminist Academics of Miami University”? No?

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