Once I lived in an apartment above a Swiss German couple. Sometimes I would hear their raised voices and I thought that they were having very heated discussions. When a friend of mine, also Swiss German, paid me a visit, I mentioned that there could be volume issues because perhaps the people below us were arguing. “Mais pas du tout !” my friend reassured me, “C’est comme ça, le suisse allemand.”

Volume is not Necessarily an Indicator of Levels of Disagreement

I’m not sure if it’s my French-speaking side or my Taiwanese origins, but I normally don’t expect communication between two people, or even several people, to be that loud. My friend was right, though. Volume is not necessarily an indicator of levels of disagreement. The French volume tends to be on the lower side, yet the French are quite well known for their affinity for debate and arguing, whether this be about different political events, various social developments, or the colors used for painting a canvas that hangs in a gallery.

Yasmina Reza's Play, titled "Art"

The Larousse gives the following definition for the word dispute: “discussion vive ; querelle, altercation, heurte.” This, of course, includes the idea of having extremely heated discussions that could very well consist of angry words thrown around, as we see in the 1994 play Art by Yasmina Reza, when three friends have huge ongoing arguments over what is, in fact, a white canvas that has been purchased by one of the trio from a trendy gallery. Its optical merits are even disputed when one friend asks how white lines can be perceived on a white canvas, to which another friend exclaims in exasperation: “... il y a des nuances dans le blanc ! Le blanc est plus ou moins blanc !”

Even when there are no disputes over white canvasses, conflict may escalate, which can scare off some people who do not speak French, do not understand what is being said, or do not understand the culture. In Northern California, for instance, where people are excessively afraid of conflict, people become very uncomfortable at the slightest suggestion of an impending argument. In fact, I can think of multiple times in Berkeley when people turned away from me or even walked away when I was disagreeing with them, or simply questioning them, which I consider much more insulting than arguing, as this was tantamount to silencing – in the cradle of the free speech movement, no less.

My French acceptance of conflicting views and opinions as a byproduct of living in society could explain my interest in the contentious discussions included in programming for French media, as with a radio show on France Culture called, simply, La Dispute. If you can get past that awful fifty-five second introduction, which the producers haven’t changed in at least five years, you will be able to hear lively debates over current cultural events such as exhibitions, white canvasses, plays about white canvasses, and prizes awarded for writing such plays, such as the prix Molière, won by Yasmina Reza for Art. Admittedly, the moments when four people, including the moderator, spend over thirty seconds talking over one another do sound cacophonous at times. But the convictions of those involved in the debate, their knowledge of a certain topic, and the sincerity of their expression can be very insightful.

Le Temps du débat, a popular debate show now available as online podcasts

Indeed, offering different arguments on an issue is considered a good way of seeing its nuances. Arguments can be so nuanced that it is difficult to pick teams, but finding yourself agreeing and disagreeing with things that each participant in a debate has to say can make the neurons in your head spin, giving you a slight buzz as you go about washing dishes, watering plants, or doing whatever it is that you do as you listen to the radio. In a 6 November 2019 broadcast of another France Culture radio show called Le Temps du débat, views took different twists and turns as guests on the show discussed the role of universities in public debate. Their discussion covered free speech, including the origins of the free speech movement on UC Berkeley’s campus, the Americanization of French universities, the controls placed over discourse, and the role of general apathy in the ascension of extremist views.

Offering different arguments on an issue is considered a good way of seeing its nuances.

Arguing Does Not Mean that Those Who Disagree are Mortal Enemies

It is important to keep in mind that arguing over such issues does not mean that those who disagree are mortal enemies. Although discussions may get heated, this is more an indicator of l’esprit critique, which is the title of yet another show, this time on the Radio Canada-owned specialty arts channel ICI ARTV and ICI Radio Canada Télé. Moderated by hosts who participated in the cultural television show Six dans la cité, which aired from 2007 to 2011, this show also presents critical views on current cultural events. While clashes between participants have carried over from the show that preceded it, L’Esprit critique may have less of its confrontational journalism, which featured tearing apart artists’ work while they watched live on television.

As “une émission où il était bien vu de se couper la parole”, according to a 5 July 2008 description on Radio Canada’s website, the style of Six dans la cité may be a bit too confrontational for today’s audiences, as one of the hosts notes: “You’d be able to book guests for two weeks and then no one else would come on the show. We don’t want to create a malaise.” While the question remains of whether audiences, even French-speaking ones, are becoming less and less able to deal with opposing views, this does seem to be a cross between cultural debates broadcast on radio and Simon Fuller’s scathing remarks on the television show American Idol. One wonders if it is indeed possible to “couper la parole” of a musical interpretation by a vocalist or of white transverse lines painted on a white canvas, although the audiences for such works of art could have quite a lot to say about them.

It is true that, unlike the artists on Six dans la cité or the singers on American Idol, the painter of the white canvas depicted in Reza’s play Art is not present as his piece is dissected, put on a pedestal, defaced, and then reconstructed. Instead, his work continues to stand in the middle of the stage, unhung and propped up against a wall, revealing, scene by scene, the dynamics of a friendship. Topics of argument indeed reveal many things about interlocutors, their relationships to one another, and their different cultures, whether these be linguistic, social, or regional. I remember disagreeing with someone from the state of Virginia on well over 50% of the social and political issues we discussed which, oddly, resulted in a dinner invitation. While we continued to disagree on topics such as the environment and education (although I did eventually bring my dinner companion around on this one), we did agree on the superb quality of the Kobe steak that was served at the restaurant. Any French-style arguing evaporated into silence in our French appreciation for our Japanese-style meal.


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