Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Two Cultures

Stephen Fry has posted a long description of a debate he had with an American aquaintance about global climate change [Getting Overheated]. You should read the whole thing but there's one part that caught my eye.
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]

5 comments :

  1. If only boring conversation were the most serious consequence of the American aversion to debating ideas. But I think it's actually one of the principal causes for the scary decrepitude into which our democracy has fallen. Just look at the pitiful triviality of our political "reporting".

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  2. I recall the lesson George Galloway gave some hapless American politician a year or so ago. Galloway had been called to give evidence before a congressional committee over claims he had taken money from Saddam Hussein during the oil for food debacle. The said chairman had totally failed to do his homework and had no grasp of the accusations that had been made against Galloway. In addition the chairman clearly was not used to having a witness who was willing to argue back and refuse to bow to his authority.

    I do not normally have much time for Galloway finding him full of hubris and to much in love with himself. But he does do a good line in insults and I could not help but give a little cheer as he demolished the idiot chairman.

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  3. well, if you have nothing good to say, at least say it goodly.

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  4. I certainly go along with what I think Fry is getting at: that there is a distinction between ideas and the cut and thrust of personal encounter. A certain amount of emotional commitment to an idea is required to develop and apply it (particularly when it comes to something like global warming), but there is a balance to be kept and pitfalls to be avoided. Motivations such as group identification, ego, pride, reputation, anger, polarization, no doubt have roles in social contexts, but they can have the effect of locking in ideas in need of cool reassessment. In this connection there is a vital distinction between ‘proving IT wrong or right’ (where IT is an idea) and ‘proving THEM wrong or right’ where THEM refers to people; the latter is likely to usher in a whole gamut of social motivations that could be counter productive in a scientific context where a studied detachment prevents too close a personal identification with one’s ideas.

    I might hail from the same country and county as Fry (I think he lives in the area), but temperamentally we are on different planets and therefore I am unable to appreciate how his combative style squares with a disciplined reserve toward ideas, ideas that are liable to make strong demands on our precious gray matter and emotional energies. Perhaps he regards debate as a kind of ‘sport’ like cricket.

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  5. I think one of the most frustrating phrases in the American culture is "Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree." It usually comes after someone has said something incredibly stupid, you've vociferously rebutted it and the other party can't think of a rejoinder; but wants to end it as a "draw."

    I don't see Dawkins as being nasty in tone, but the things he writes cut deeply and so because of those deep cuts his detractors (on atheism, not adaptationism) call him "rude" and "arrogant."

    He has a right to be arrogant.

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