Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Taking things too personally: confusing debate with insult

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Time's, Australian critic Clive James argues that American critics are way too polite to the people they criticize:

In America, consensus is considered normal and controversy is confusing. Zoë Heller’s recent attempt, in The New York Review of Books, to prove that Salman Rushdie’s book “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” was less than magnificent is a very rare example of a critical review in an American publication.
Immediately, as if a switch had been thrown, the review became more famous than the book.
But on the whole Ms. Heller said nothing that might not have shown up, in Britain, in a feature on the same subject carried by almost any serious literary publication.
Ms. Heller, James adds, is actually a British import:
Like the late Christopher Hitchens, she voiced her British acerbity in a polite context, and found, as he did, that the locals were wonderfully easy to stir up.
I've had similar thoughts in comparing us locals to the French. My venture in homeschooling has inspired me to return to my first second language and really try to master it as never before. And so I've been watching a lot of late night TV Monde 5. My favorite show comes on at 11:00 PM on Thursdays: On n'est pas couché. Watching it has me not only focusing on the conversational idioms and faux amis that make the end stages of learning French so forbidding to native English speakers, but also comparing its format to its American talk show counterparts.

Lasting several hours past my bed time, it opens with a pan of its stage: some dozen two-seater tables each arranged in a circle on the stage (a televisual theater in the round). To the dorky throb of The Rasmus' In the Shadow, the host descends into the circle and introduces everyone else as, one by one, they, too, descend and take their seats: the 2-3 other regular interviewers, and the 4-5 guests of the evening. One by one, for 20-30 minute segments (uninterrupted by commercials, of course), the guests each take turns. Everyone interviews them: both the regulars and the other guests. Questions are pointed; interruptions frequent; voices are raised; the cameras cut back and forth around the circle. At times the criticisms are fierce and even mocking, one gets mad.

One of the biggest cultural differences between us and the French, I've decided, is that we Americans take everything personally. Outside the formal debates of student debate teams and professional politicians, we studiously avoid face-to-face debate with friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Bluntly critique someone's words to their face, and you're instantly seen as rudely attacking their person.

The French are different. As I recall from my time in French classrooms, and now am regularly reminded on Thursday nights, opinions, even in face to face conversations, are decoupled from persons. You can say whatever you want to a French person in response to what they say without being heard as hurtful.

You still have to watch your words--but not because of the risk of losing friends and alienating people. The risk, instead, is that you won't be able to defend your criticisms when your interlocutor criticizes you back.

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