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.I've long been baffled by the people's lack of willingness to discuss religion openly, but perhaps the problem isn't just religion? I've never noticed the problem in quite the terms given above, though serious debate in social settings is unusual enough that I could make the following joke through the Facebook page of the campus philosophy club:
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.
The first rule of philosophy club is you don't talk about philosophy club.
The second rule of philosophy club is you don't talk about philosophy club...
This week, each one of you has a homework assignment. You're going to go out, and you're going to start an argument with a total stranger. And you're going to lose.
Now this is not as easy as it sounds. Most people, normal people, do just about anything to avoid an argument.