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Jul 23 2008

Are people in the US too sensitive?

British actor and writer Stephen Fry recently had an interesting take on the difference between arguments in social settings in England and the US.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed a statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

I think Fry is on to something. There does seem to be a hypersensitivity in social settings in the US to not say anything that might be seen as contradictory to what someone else has said or might feel on highly charged topics, or if one does feel compelled to say something, to say it so carefully and genteelly that the listener sometimes does not even realize that she is being disagreed with, or if she does, takes it as a cue to drop the topic entirely and move onto something that is uncontroversial. I am guilty of this too. I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?

I am trying to overcome this tendency and more directly challenge people because being silent is not a good thing since this means that the ideas that people care about most passionately, and which may have important consequences, are never exposed to critical scrutiny. Readers may recall an earlier posting when at a dinner party I created a minor flap when I said to a group of very religious people that I was an atheist. At the end of the evening, I felt obliged to apologize to the hostess if I had caused any discomfort to those guests.

But looking back, why should I have felt bad about saying what I honestly felt and which was not a personal attack on any one? I had not called anyone an idiot or punched them in the face. All I had said to a group of religious people was that I did not believe that god existed.

If someone says something that I think is silly or wrong or bigoted, am I not doing the right thing in challenging that view? Surely social niceties should not trump honest expression of views? It is perhaps time to reject the conventional wisdom that one should not discuss politics and religion in social settings. Instead we should learn how to discuss those things calmly and reasonably.

I have quoted this passage titled Defend the right to be offended by Salman Rushdie before, and it is perhaps appropriate to do so again:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I am more and more inclined to think that we should follow the advice of Rushdie and Fry. One should not be rude or speak in anger or make ad hominem attacks on people. But I think one should express one’s opinions on issues forthrightly, and people should learn to treat direct challenges to their views as the normal give-and-take of conversation.

POST SCRIPT: Synchronized motorcycling

The Italian police sometime in the 1950s.

(Thanks to Progressive Review.)

8 comments

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  1. 1
    mgarelick

    But I think one should express one’s opinions on issues forthrightly, and people should learn to treat direct challenges to their views as the normal give-and-take of conversation.

  2. 2
    dave

    I don’t think its sensitivity. I think its political correctness.

  3. 3
    mgarelick

    Sorry, I guess I hit “post” instead of “preview.”

    Anyway, I agree with both of these, but the problem is that until people start reacting better to challenges, we have to continue to judge the risks and benefits of forthrightly expressing them. We have to consider that we may be simply starting a fight, rather than taking a stand for truth and logic.
    As usual, I find “The Big Lebowski” to be apt: “No you’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

  4. 4
    Brock

    “I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?”

    Oh man, that’s is almost my entire relationship with my parents. They raised me to keep a low profile and to not discuss charged topics like religion or politics. I’m not saying it’s unreasonable; my dad’s family fled WWII Germany and my mom lived with an abusive father, so I’m sure part of it is survival. However, I’ve always felt it’s the wrong attitude for a peaceful and democratic society. It’s hard to fight an ingrained behavior, though.

    For the past few years I’ve been struggling with this decision of whether to keep my head down and worry about my own business, or to stand up for what I think is right. Lately I’ve been pushed in one direction thanks to your blog, plus episodes of “House”, greater knowledge of science (process and community), and many freethinkers I’ve met personally.

    A. I hope I don’t get burned, and B. I almost feel sorry for those whose [poorly informed] opinions I’ll be crushing in the near future.

  5. 5
    mgarelick

    Dave said:

    I don’t think its sensitivity. I think its political correctness.

    Nonsense.

    (grin)

    But seriously — what does that mean? Who is being “politically correct?” If anything, I would say that “political correctness” is a species of “sensitivity,” and really has little to do with any specific political content.

  6. 6
    Bruce Myers

    The idea of sensitivity is right on point; I would argue that it has led to a breed of polite conversation that while argumentative, is rather vapid.

    Number one topic. Sports. Red Sox suck. No Yankee suck. Hopefully the combatants analyze the individual players and team more deeply, but ultimately it is an meaningless, though acceptable form, of dinner conversation. I have often tried to start political discussions with male friends who quickly find a way to turn the topic towards sports.

    Females who wish to not engage in such “rude” topics often make a comment like “Oh Bruce…there he goes again.” and change the topic to their babies or different types of food they like.

    Incidentally, I apologize for the gender stereotyping, but these are pretty consistent anecdotal reactions to my wish for a more rigorous set of topics.

    Long live the politeness of avoiding religion and politics!

  7. 7
    Greg

    Yeah I often end up holding my tongue and regretting it later. Only on religious topics though. Coming from South Africa we seem to thrive on a political arguement. Usually in the form of ridicule. So much to work with for us.

    I used to be extremely outspoken as a kid though. So bad that I had to move to a new school when I was 11 because of the arguements with my christian fundamentalist teacher. Been a kid who knew what period the cool dinosaurs came from and then been told that god placed the bones in the ground just didn’t go down well with me.

    I have no regrets for the arguements and trouble I got myself into during that year of school.

    However, after that incident I tended to keep my mouth shut and thoughts to myself, unless directed attacked for been an athiest.

    Only recently have I started to become more outspoken. Partly due to moving to London and partly thanks to your blog.

  8. 8
    Another Greg

    Mano,
    I read your blog regularly, and this is the first time that I’ve read an entry that I would like to categorically call “arrant nonsense”.
    After living in Britain for two years, and having more than a few disagreements around an English family table, arguments in a pub, and disagreements about everything from religion to footwear with Cambridge professors and students, I can’t disagree with Steven Fry’s assessment more. In my experience, beginning a disagreement with the phrase “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” would be viewed by the English as extremely negative and confrontational – and they do not debate with mixed company like this, in mixed company, they have a great aversion to confrontation of any sort. In fact, I’ve never seen an American storm off or dodge an argument in a pub, and I’ve seen Cambridge Englishmen storm off twice in an offended huff, doing so because they felt the person arguing with them was of insufficient social proximity – or social status, but that’s another point entirely – to have a disagreement. So you could say Rushdie’s experience has been very different from my own.
    The kinds of terms that Fry uses are terms that are used among close friends, usually at the pub, but are not used in mixed company. In mixed company, the English choose not to disagree at all, but to hold their tongues, even with one another – and they are quite critical of Americans (and British northerners) in their seeming inability to understand when to be quiet. It is appropriate to disagree with those close to you, but not to disagree strongly with those who are socially more distal. To explicitly disagree with someone who is socially distal is seen as overly direct, abrasive, and ‘typically American’.
    Additionally, the comment “Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America” is also ‘arrant nonsense’. It ignores the extremely active and argumentative traditions within the Jewish, Jesuit Catholic, Irish, and Italian communities. Not to say that these are the only argumentative traditions in the US, but they are 4 very active traditions and, among the four of them, represent a number of Americans greater than the population of Great Britain. Ironically, Fry’s statement much more accurately describes Americans directly descended from the English tradition, but I think he, and by extension you, should leave us Irish kids out of this.
    Another tradition that Fry ignores is the very different argument style of the American south – they too have an argumentative tradition, its just a very different style than what Fry is used to, and the southern style interacts badly with what Fry considers ‘civil disagreement’. For example, the quick witted double entendre’ is a staple of English argument. England born Christopher Hitchens loves doing this in debates and in writing – note the title of his book about Mother Theresa: “The Missionary Position”. This semantic flair is offensive to American southerners, and I’ve watched it cause pub arguments between English and American Southerners go, well, south; leading the Englishman to say that southerner didn’t know how to debate; while the southerner says the Englishman can’t stay on topic and preferred to bring in jokes about bodily functions
    So, in conclusion, Fry’s statement paints 300 million people with one brush, an artificially ‘English’ brush, being willfully ignorant of strong argumentative traditions within the US. His argument is very eloquent, but without merit.
    As an entertaining anecdote, I’ve heard several Englishmen say that they find dealing with American Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, unpleasant. The stated reason: “They are just so argumentative”.

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