Monday, July 30, 2012

Stephen Fry and the Two Cultures Problem (Brits vs Americans)

I can't believe it was almost five years ago that I posted a quotation from Stephen Fry on the differences between dinner conversations in Britain and America [Two Cultures].

Here it is again because it's relevant to our discussion about IDiots. It's from: Getting Overheated (Nov. 19, 2007).
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.


5 comments:

  1. The Canadians would like to apologize on behalf of the others for any misunderstandings.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In private dinner conversations this may very well be the case. But the reverse is true in the public square and in the media. Britain's sensitive and dangerous libel laws and its public culture stifle public debate and restrict free speech far more than its American cousins.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Britain's sensitive and dangerous libel laws and its public culture stifle public debate and restrict free speech far more than its American cousins.

      I think you forgot the smiley. Either that, or you've never watched the BBC or a debate in the House of Commons.

      Do you seriously maintain that the public culture in Great Britain restricts freedom of expression more than the culture in the USA? Take gun control as just one example. Which country is more likely to have a free and open debate about gun control?

      Delete
  3. "Take gun control as just one example. Which country is more likely to have a free and open debate about gun control?"

    Was this meant to be ironical? I hope so, because there is no gun control debate in the UK. At all.

    But yes, even allowing that Britain puts on a slightly louder useless show in its legislature than the US Congress, Britain has some of the strictest and harshest libel and defamation laws around. These laws and legal precedents have had a real and restricting effect on criticism of people with crazy views (as one example of the externalities produced). One has to be careful in criticizing or exposing even the most idiotic and/or intentionally immoral spouter of vile and untrue propoganda (whatever the bias).

    Not to mention the official net of nearly ubiquitous sophisticated camera and video surveillance in most British urban public areas.

    It's become so bad that recent efforts (Clegg, I think is keen on this issue) have tried to substantially reform Britain's libel/defamation program. I have no idea how those recent efforts are progressing.

    ReplyDelete