We must begin with a few round truths about myself: when I get into a debate I can get very, very hot under the collar, very impassioned, and I dare say, very maddening, for once the light of battle is in my eye I find it almost impossible to let go and calm down. I like to think I’m never vituperative or too ad hominem but I do know that I fall on ideas as hungry wolves fall on strayed lambs and the result isn’t always pretty. This is especially dangerous in America. 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 an 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 understand this difference. Here in Canada we're half way between Europe and America in terms of debate tactics. In some cases you can have lots of fun carrying on in a "British" tradition. But from time-to-time you encounter some people from the "American" cultural tradition and they take great offense at such behavior.
The problem is especially acute when dealing with creationists. They are very good at politely lying and spreading misinformation with a pleasant smile on their faces. They are ever so respectful of the "other side" while, at the same time, implying that all scientists are really stupid.
But when you try and call them on their lies you are immediately dismissed for being rude and uncivilized. The average "Christian" will only tolerate polite discourse and by that they mean non-confrontational. As long as you tells lies in a quiet polite voice it's okay.
We also see the problem when discussing militant atheists. People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins are just behaving normally in the culture in which they were raised. It's Americans who see this as a particularly disrespectful way of behaving. That's why American atheists are so often opposed to the so-called militant atheists and think they're hurting the cause.
[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]
[Photo Credit: stephenfry.com]