German “Critical Thinking” vs. American Debate Culture

Here is another interesting German commentary by American Eric T. Hansen in Die Zeit.

I’d like to translate it all, but I can’t, so I won’t (no time). Here are a few highlights, though:

Critical thinking does not allow for self-criticism. Where would we be then?

Critical thinking is not debating, it’s finding concensus, or, as I call it, harmony nagging (Harmonienörgeln): Two people criticize a third person so long until the two become friends.

If I want to hear a new or even a different perspective on something, I have to turn to the Anglo-American press. Regarding certain questions – for instance whether nuclear energy, genetically modified corn or having Mitt Romney as president might also have certain advantages – many of my German friends are not even aware that two sides to these arguments even exist.

I too understand Mitt Romney’s positions quite well and suspect that he would make just as good (or bad) a president as Obama. In America that makes me an intellectual. In Germany that makes me a right-winger.

Everything is so serious for the Germans, and they need to know immediately: “Who is my friend, who is my enemy?” For Americans and their debate clubs, however, there is always an element of playfulness involved.

Auch ich verstehe die Positionen eines Mitt Romney gut und ahne, dass er ein ebenso guter (oder schlechter) Präsident wie Obama wäre. In Amerika macht mich das zu einem Intellektuellen. In Deutschland macht mich das zu einem Rechten.

3 responses

  1. HO, I’ve been reading Hansen for a couple years now. He’s a good cultural ambassador for the the U.S. His articles for Zeit have been really fun to read, especially the attached comments pages, where some Germans seem determined to unwittingly prove the tongue-in-cheek points Hansen is making. You just have to laugh at the Germans who cart out HEGEL to show that they understand dialectic. But there are also some Germans who get his points, like commenter WolfHai, who writes:

    “Kommentar 9: ‘Vielleicht könnte in die amerikanischen Debattierclubs – natürlich umweht vom Hauch der Spielerei – das Thema Todesstrafe eingeführt werden. Interessant wäre bei diesem Thema auf jeden Fall die zweite Seite.’

    Kommentar 9 verkennt, dass natürlich die Todesstrafe in den USA debattiert wird. Öffentlich. Vielfach. Er nimmt offenbar an, dass, sobald man sie diskutiert, automatisch die Antwort herauskommt, die er selbst hat (nämlich das die Todesstrafe abgeschafft gehört). Das ist aber genau der Selbstbezug, gepaart mit ein wenig ironischer/sarastischer Feindseligkeit, den Autor Hansen bei den Deutschen kritisiert.”

    I think the biggest problem for German readers is the mixing of humor and serious discussion that is a major element of Anglo-American discourse. I’m sure that there are German readers of your blog who sometimes wonder, “Hey, is he being serious or is he joking?” The American will answer, of course, “Both.”

  2. Very true! At times I even feel a bit sorry for the Germans who clearly don’t get it, or refuse to (like that comment 9 above), or can’t. They don’t know who/what they’re dealing with (against?). They always have this Hollywood (Hollywood?) Feindbild Amerika at their fingertips but haven’t really the slightest idea how complex this American culture is/these American simpletons are. One thing I have seen time and time again, however, to be fair: Unless they’re real idiots (like a few I’ve seen in the German film industry, for instance), Germans who have spent any substantial amount of time in the US are no longer capable of this ironic/sarcastic animosity WolfHai referred to. They’ve seen the light, or something. Or maybe just finally opened their minds and grown up.

  3. HO, that’s been my experience, too. Germans who have been to America usually realize that the US is just another country — different culture, different people. The problem is with Germans who have never been to the US AND who believe everything that the German media presents to them about the US. Where an American will simply say he doesn’t know that much about Germany, the German will tell you that he knows everything about America. I mean, he’s been reading about and watching programs on the US his whole life, so he must be an expert on the topic or something, right?

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