Dinner table debate

Oh and how I love Stephen Fry. He's been blogging lately, which is a treat. Blessays, he calls them; you can access them from this site: http://stephenfry.com/blog/

In a recent blessay, "Getting Overheated," Fry writes of a dinner party at which he got into a debate with an American about global warming. It's well worth reading, mainly for some very good points he makes about intelligent argument and his reasons for taking action even in the absence of utter certainty. And he says some amusing things about Terry Pratchett fans that I managed not to take personally. Read it, do.

What struck me first in this article, though, is an observation Fry makes about the difference between the average Brit and the average American 'round the average dinner table (and this has nothing to do with whether the milk or the tea goes in first*):

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.... 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. ... 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.... 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.

Is this so? Americans unused to debate? Adversarial ferocity? Verbal scraps? This is not my experience, but I experience Americans as a Canadian, not as a Brit. Anyone else care to weigh in?

* Milk first is, my dear, non-U. And I can even tell you why: Poor quality tea cups could crack when filled with boiling water straight from the kettle as Orwell recommends. If it's, "Milk in first, Dinah, and save the crockery," then we know a thing or two about the quality of your tea service. The finest bone china requires no such manoeuvrings.


richard said...

I don't know about Americans either - but I've been to dinner parties with Brits who were cautious, Canadians who were aggressive, and vice versa. Maybe Stephen Fry just gets invited to better parties in the UK!

richard said...

"Milk first is, my dear, non-U" -- not universal, I assume you mean?

Stephen Fry is a hoot, but I have to admit that I have trouble with his blessays. In his polished prose I enjoy the way he suspends meaning through ornate sentence structures, but in the blessays, well, I kind of lose patience sometimes!

richard said...

I forgot to mention the debate thing!

American TV is of course full of multi-voiced commentary shows that pretend to be debates, but mostly the speakers are token representatives of opposing perspectives unwilling to engage directly with each other. There's a proud tradition of public debate in the US, but it's been dragged down awfully.

Jon Stewart went on CNN's now-deceased Crossfire to rip Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for precisely this non-engagement, among other things. His words: "you're doing theater, when you should be doing debate.... What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery."Crossfire was one of the clearest examples of this, but the 22-year-old show lasted less than two months after Stewart's appearance, and CN"S president said in announcing it that he agreed with Stewart's objections. (Comments and transcript available here, and the video is here.)

All of which is a sorry substitute for, and a tearful admission of, the fact that I don't get to have dinner parties with Americans....

fiona-h said...

Ri-CHARD, are you telling me you don't know what non-U means!!??

Wow - a rare moment. Let me enjoy it! (savour...)

The terms "U" and "non-U," where the "U" stands for "Upper Class," were made famous by Nancy Mitford (one of the fascinating Mitford sisters) in the 50s.

fiona-h said...

wikipedia has a reasonable piece on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U_and_non-U_English

richard said...

I suck.

I do have a hazy recollection of having looked this up at some time in the past, though: and my mother-in-law is a big Mitford fan, so it makes sense that I'd have looked at it before.

And yet - I suck.

fiona-h said...

of course you don't :-)

Zootenany Hoodlum said...

just an fyi - generally when people in Europe talk about Americans, they're lumping Canadians in there, too. Many a long afternoon was spent trying to explain that I wasn't, you know, from the States, I was from Canada, a detail that was met with a dismissive wave of the hand. For the point of debate, they're the same. When engaged in conversation about "americans and canadian" then, of course, they're not, and these general Europeans of which I speak with trot out all the "cleanly" and "polite" descriptives of Canadians that we so expect.

I'm just sayin'.

Molly said...

Stephen Fry is more than welcome to come dine at my house and mix it up with my family and friends. So are you, m'dear.

Darren said...

Hey, I left a comment before! Didn't it pass muster?

fiona-h said...

I didn't see it! You're not the first one to report missing comments... not sure why that happens