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.