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.)

Natural and unnatural lifestyles

I recently had a discussion with someone whom I had known well growing up in Sri Lanka and who was visiting the US. She asked me my opinion about the recent highly publicized raid by the Texas Child Protective Services on the compound where polygamous Mormon families lived. All the children were separated from their parents by the Texas CPS on the basis of a single anonymous phone call alleging that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred. The decision by the CPS was first upheld in the lower court but an appeals court overthrew the verdict saying that you could not separate children from their parents without finding specific cause in each individual case. The CPS then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but they lost and were ordered to reunite the children with their parents.
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Knowing when to say uncle

One of the advantages of living in more than one country is that one notices interesting differences. One of the differences with Sri Lanka that struck me is that in the US there is no standard system to deal with the question of how one should address elders in the category that can be described as ‘friends once removed’. By this I mean the people who are the friends of one’s parents or the parents of one’s friends.

Take for example, the question of how young Billy should address John Smith, the good friend of his parents. In some households, Billy’s parents encourage him to call him ‘John’ while in other families he is referred to as ‘Mr. Smith’. Some adults find the familiarity of being called by their first name by a child to be acceptable or even welcome, while others find it uncomfortable and may even resent it. But given that there is no system in place to address this point of social etiquette, one simply has to deal with the idiosyncratic choices people make..

In Sri Lanka, there is a system to deal with this. Any male who is of the same generation as one’s parents is called generically ‘uncle’ while females are called ‘aunty’. The use of this honorary title is meant to signify respect for one’s elders, while at the same time acknowledging that the person is not a stranger. This generic term also overcomes the awkwardness of meeting one’s parents’ friends that one has met before but whose name one has forgotten (which happens to me all the time in highly sociable societies like Sri Lanka). One simply refers to them as uncle or aunty and everything’s fine.

If John and Jane are really close friends of the family, then they may be referred to more specifically as ‘uncle John’ or ‘aunty Jane’. Such titles remain the same throughout one’s life, never becoming more familiar, however old you and your ‘uncle’ gets. Even now, I refer to my friends’ parents or my parents’ friends as uncle and aunty although I have known some of them for nearly a half-century, am really close to them, and converse with them as equals. It would never occur to me to call them by their first name alone. Retaining the title is more than mere habit, it is a sign of the respect that I have for them as elders.

In such a system, how does one distinguish between one’s biological uncles and aunts and the honorary ones? Usually the English terms uncle and aunty are reserved for the honorary relatives while the real ones are called by their vernacular equivalents. In Tamil, the term for uncle is ‘mama’ (rhymes with ‘drama’) while for aunt is ‘mamy’ (the same first syllable but the second pronounced as ‘me’.) So ‘Reggie mama’ was how I referred to my father’s brother while ‘Uncle Amaradasa’ was my friend’s father.

It is also the case that within families in the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, relatives are often referred to not by their names but by a title that specifies their relationship to the speaker. For example, a father’s younger brother would usually not be called merely uncle but the equivalent of ‘small father’ while the father’s older brother would be called ‘big father.’ If your father had two older brothers, the eldest would be called ‘big big father’ while the other would be called ‘small big father.’ If he had two younger brothers, they would be ‘big small father’ and ‘small small father’, and so on. For grandparents, there were different titles for your father’s father that distinguished him from your mother’s father.

Similarly one’s siblings would also be referred to by their titles ‘older brother,’ ‘younger sister’ and so on. If there are a lot of siblings, they would have their names prefaced by these titles. This would extend to cousins as well. Even now, I am called the equivalent of ‘older brother Mano’ by some cousins who are just a few years younger than me. A parallel system exists for female relatives.

Although all this may sound strange and complicated to someone not used to it, it is a very logical system that children easily learn. I am not sure how or why this system arose. It may be the benign byproduct of more class and caste conscious societies where it was important that everyone know their relative position in society.

In more westernized families in Sri Lanka, the awarding of titles to siblings and cousins has disappeared, especially for those younger than you. But the terms uncle and aunty for older adults remain. It is a sign of respect for age and I think it serves a useful role.

POST SCRIPT: Matching product to taste

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s excellent program This American Life, offers some excellent advice to those who do any kind of creative work.

What motivates academics

Some time ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer had an article in the business pages that began by noting that when you visit the faculty parking lot of any college campus, you will find very few expensive cars such as Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, Porsches, Hummers, and BMWs. The writer made the inference that college professors, while perhaps very smart people in their fields of expertise, were not very smart when it came to managing their money.
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Podi Singham, 1925-2008

(My mother Gnaneswari Singham, universally known by her childhood pet name of Podi, died on March 23, 2008 at the age of 83. A thanksgiving service was held for her at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Thimbirigasyaya. Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 19, 2008, 5:30 pm. Below are two photographs of her, one taken in her late teens and the other in her mid-50s, along with my tribute to her given during the service.)

When my sisters Shanti and Rohini asked me to give one of the tributes to my mother, I wondered how I could condense a lifetime’s relationship with someone so special into a few minutes. I decided not to talk about her international championship quality bridge playing, which you all know about. I also decided not to talk about the thousands upon thousands of hours she spent volunteering on behalf of so many organizations, trying to make the world a better place by helping others in need.

I decided that rather than tell you a lot of stories about my mother, stories that can be multiplied many times by all of the people here whose own lives have touched her and been touched by her, I would instead dwell on what I learned from her attitude about the big questions of life and death.
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Food and energy

I am not a picky eater. There are things that I like and things that I don’t like to eat, if given the choice and the opportunity to choose, but ultimately I don’t really care. And of course I have no religious taboos about food. I am also somewhat casual about health factors. I tend to eat what I like without too much concern about what the latest medical research has said is good or bad for you. I figure that if I eat in moderation and have a varied diet, then the occasional heavy dose of transfats, sugar, salt, fat, and cholesterol are unlikely to do serious harm.
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Strolling into geezerhood

I have noticed that slowly and surely I am becoming a geezer. Ok, I have not reached the stage where I go out in my bathrobe and shake a newspaper and yell at the neighborhood children to get off my lawn. In fact, the situation is the opposite. Children living on my block spend a lot of time on my lawn in the summers, since our dog Baxter has been adopted by all of them as their common pet and they come over to play with him.

No, what suggests to me that I am becoming a geezer is that I find myself increasingly unaware of popular culture celebrities. And what is more, I don’t care. The change has been gradual. It used to be that I knew a lot about popular culture which made me a force to be reckoned with when playing Trivial Pursuit. Not any more. Since I stopped watching TV (except for the occasional special program), my knowledge of actors and performers has decreased dramatically.

This was brought home most forcefully by the Hannah Montana phenomenon. The local newspapers suddenly had a major front-page news story about the fight to get tickets for a show to be given by her in Cleveland. The news report seemed to assume that readers knew who she was but I had not even heard of her name until that day.

I used to read the celebrity ‘news’ (gossip, really) section and other items in the newspaper that described TV shows and programs, so I felt that I knew what was going on even if I had never seen the shows or the actors referred to. But now I read about people who are supposed to be ‘stars’ (except that title inflation has set in and now even journeymen performers are routinely referred to as ‘superstars’ or ‘megastars’) and I have never heard of them before, so I have stopped reading those sections of the paper. There was a time when I would be concerned that I was losing touch but now I don’t care. I have no desire whatsoever to learn about celebrities and I am not in the least interested in the troubles they have with their parents, their children, their spouses or special friends, their sex lives, their fights, and their struggles with alcohol and drug addictions. In other words, Britney Spears’ life is of no interest to me. Of course, I feel sorry for her in a general way, just as I would feel sorry for any person whose life seems to be spiraling out of control. But the fact that she is a celebrity does not make her troubles any more important than those of any other person, and I don’t see why I should keep abreast of them.

I have also stopped following sports, except to occasionally take a quick look at the headlines and the standings.

Sherlock Holmes told Watson that the reason he did not spent time learning about whole areas of knowledge was that the brain could only store so much information and the more he filled it up with things that were not necessary for him to practice his detective skills, the less room he had to store the knowledge he needed.

Of course, that is rubbish. There is no reason to think that human brains are operating at anywhere close to capacity. But time is a zero sum entity and I find that the less time I spend on trivial things, the more I have for what is valuable. I must say that deciding these things are not worth reading about has released an enormous amount of time. I now zip though the daily newspaper in less than half the time I used to spend before.

The reason that I associate these things with geezerhood is that I think age plays such an important role in setting priorities about how time is used. When I was younger, I thought nothing of wasting time watching films that I knew would very likely be junk or watching hours and hours of sporting events that might contain at most a few minutes of genuine exciting athleticism. Now that I am older, I tend to be much more choosy about how I spend my time. I only watch films or read books for which there is a high probability that I will enjoy and hence am much more dependent on strong recommendations from people who share my tastes.

I don’t regret the ‘wasted’ time of my youth however. It was fun. But there is no doubt that what gives me enjoyment has changed a lot with time and I have gone with the flow rather than try and preserve the past.

POST SCRIPT: An atheist call to arms

People tend to think of Richard Dawkins as militantly hostile to religion since the recent publication of his book The God Delusion. But in this Ted Talk he gave in 2002, he comes across even stronger. If anything, it seems like he has actually mellowed since then.


I hate staying in hotels.

The worst experiences for me are work-related travel. In addition to this involving the discomfort of flying, one also usually has to stay in hotels. I have to do this to attend conferences and give talks but I hate it and try to minimize the number of occasions. After just one day of staying in hotels and eating out in restaurants, I become fed up and am eager to return home.

I find something vaguely alienating about hotels. The hotels I stay in on my travels are very clean and comfortable, sometimes even luxurious, and have all the amenities one needs. But it is not like staying in one’s own home or the home of one’s family and friends, where one feels freer, even if far less luxurious. I actually prefer to use a sleeping bag on the floor of a good friend or relative than stay in an elegant hotel.

Another problem that I have with staying at conference hotels is that one is stuck most of the time with eating at the hotel restaurants. These tend to be very expensive and limited in their menus. In particular, they have very few items that are suitable for light eaters like me, for whom appetizer-sized portions is sufficient for a meal. Sometimes all I want for a meal is a simple sandwich or some fruit but those things are almost impossible to get.

The hotels know that most people staying there are having their expenses paid by their employer and they try and force you to choose large, expensive entrees. Even though I am not personally paying for the food, I resent the waste that is being imposed on me. I don’t mind paying high prices if I feel that a reasonable portion of it is going towards paying the employees reasonably well. But I know that the high prices being charged are not going towards paying good wages for the low-level employees, who are often working for minimum or even sub-minimum wages.

Part of my dislike of hotels may be due to my growing up in Sri Lanka, which is a small country and where everyone has wide network of friends and extended family. It was rare that one stayed in hotels. People were really hospitable and sociable and one almost always stayed with friends and family when one traveled. If friends or relatives knew that you were coming to their area, they would insist on you staying with them as their guests so that one could have long conversations well into the night. That was how we kept in touch with each other and got to know one another well.

Perhaps that is why even now, I rarely like to just travel for its own sake or to see places. For me, the best reason to travel is to visit friends and relatives.


John Cusack is one of the most interesting actors around and he is the actor-writer-producer of a new film about the Iraq war called War, Inc, which looks like a dark comedy about the unholy alliance of politicians, the military, and war profiteers. Here is the trailer for it.

Bill Maher interviews Cusack, where he has strong words for the present administration and its actions.

Airports and plane travel

I hate traveling by plane. The only thing in its favor (and it is an admittedly big advantage) is that it enables one to travel enormous distances quickly.

There was a time when air travel was fairly pleasant but not anymore. Going to the airport hours early, parking in distant lots, dragging one’s luggage around, standing in long lines to get checked in, the ridiculous process at security where one has to take off one’s shoes and show your toothpaste in little baggies, all these make plane travel a tedious chore. And then one has to hang around in airport terminals where one is surrounded by TVs with their inane chatter, repeated announcements over the speakers, and where everyone around you seem to be constantly using their cell phones as a means of combating their boredom.
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Technology guerilla warfare

One of the interesting things about technology is the way that it creates a kind of arms race between those who quickly adopt new technologies and those who feel that it impinges on their own freedom and want to thwart them. We know, for example, that the radar guns used by traffic police have spawned detectors that can tell drivers who like to speed when such devices are in use, leading to more sophisticated devices being developed for police, and so on. In this case, the radar detectors were being used by people who were trying to break the law for their own benefit and increasing the risk to other users of the road.
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