Getting Overheated

In casting my mind around for a subject for a blessay I have come up with one that was forced to my attention the other night when I participated in a regrettable and unhappy verbal spat with an American gentleman. I shan’t give details about him, it wouldn’t be fair, so let’s call him Jim and leave his statehood, profession and other details unventilated. I will try and be as fair to him and as scrupulously honest about myself as I can be. It was an upsetting evening and I wish it hadn’t happened, but I suspect evenings like it are taking place everywhere around the planet.

Getting Overheated

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.

Certainly my experience of the other night bears out Jonathan’s experience and I’ve been punching myself very hard on the inside ever since for committing the crime of allowing myself to get too heated. On the other hand the argument was an important one. For another difference we have to face between our cultures is that the average position on global warming in Britain seems to be: ‘It exists, we humans are causing it, we’d better do something about it’, whereas the average position in America might be interpreted as, ‘I’m not convinced and anyway America certainly shouldn’t sign up to do anything about it if China doesn’t.’

It started amicably enough. We had been filming all day with Jim who had been kind and hospitable. He had suggested the restaurant and fine it was too. So there’s Jim, four Britons and one Bosnian in the crew plus our two American driver/fixers. And there’s me. Or I, if you prefer. For some reason the conversation came round to the environment and Jim started laying into Al Gore. He described him as “a piece of shit” and “a hypocrite”. Well, I have no particular reason to worship the man. He has won both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, but that doesn’t necessarily prove him a saint, prophet or hero. Nonetheless, piece of shit and hypocrite struck me (and the rest of the table, but I was the one, as usual, who somehow became the mouthy mouthpiece) as a bit much. It turned out Al Gore should be regarded as a hypocrite on two counts. Firstly because much of his family fortune came from coal and secondly because ‘he goes from place to place in a jet’ which is apparently not consonant with his self-appointed duty of warning the world about the environment.

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This blog was posted in Blessays

207 comments on “Getting Overheated”

  1. Uli says:

    I was very happy to see you talking about the “American” way of discussion, because it’s something I’ve scratched my head at for a while. Without wanting to express or provoke any anti-American sentiments, I too have a very great problem with people who skirt around any productive discussion by saying “let’s agree to disagree” (in the best possible scenario, of course, the worst being the kind of personal offence-taking you describe above). As I myself wrote in a blant [I like these awful neologisms] a while ago, I don’t really understand the concept of creating respect by using phrases that seem artificial and counter-productive.

    If you as a Briton have a problem with it, just imagine how hard it must be for us Germans, who cause consternation whenever we open our mouths in a foreign country…

  2. Steve Howard says:

    Great stuff – I need to go back and read all the comment, but wanted to add mine while it’s fresh.

    On Global Warming, I have a slightly different perspective.

    First – We absolutely should take steps to ensure we ruduce and if at all possible, ultimately stop polluting this planet. Even without any discussion of global warming, we can see with ease the environmental damage we have been doing since the Industrial Revolution. Common sense says stop doing that.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that cleaning up our act necessarily strangles economic vibrancy or industrial/technological progress. We are smart enough to address environmental isssues without introducing technological stagnation or regression!!

    Second – I remain completely unconvinced by the arguments that Global Warming is a phenomenon brought on entirely by our pollution of the planet. I firmly believe that the Earth has natural climate cycles that we have no comprehension of (can you say “ice age” boys and girls?). Any attempt to interfere with that natural cycle is likely to be futile, and certainly expensive. My biggest fear is that we spend the next 100 years and more trying to force the climate to mimic some false “average climate” based arbitrarily on temperature and rainfall averages as measured in 1800, 1950 or whatever.

    Oh – and as a Scot now resident in Mississippi, don’t *start* me on cultural differences!!!

  3. Steve Howard says:

    donquixote Said:

    “One more thing, though. Pascal’s Wager, as silly as it is, is not quite as silly as you say it is. Obviously, God would, as you say, see through a purely pragmatic “belief” in Him. However, belief in God, be it the Judaeo-Christian God, or the Islamic God, or any other kind of God you care to mention, goes hand to hand with a religious and therefore moral framework. If you believe in the Christian God, surely then it’s only logical to love thy neighbour and follow the 10 commandments?”

    Ah – American Christian. Probably from the Bible belt? One of my favourite bullshitisms from this country. The implication, of course, is that if you do not believe in a God you must be immoral.

    What a pile of tripe. Morality does not equate to religion, and religion does not equate to morality – American prisons are full of people who ‘found god’ before, during or after their immoral acts. Morality simply means you understand that hurting others (through theft or the tittilation of your neighbour’s wife, etc.) and/or breaking the law of the land are really not good things to do.

  4. Stephen R says:

    Stephen –

    I’m an American from a family of debaters — argument and debate over the dinner table (or drinks) is practically the air I breathe. This causes no end of consternation to my wife, who, (as you generalize Americans), inevitably feels she is being attacked.

    In short: I highly respect your ability to step back and regard an opposing outlook dispassionately (at least in writing) and logically. You have an ability to break things down into digestible chunks that is unusual, and greatly welcomed when I do find it.

    That being said: I disagree with the bulk of your conclusions in this post RE global warming, but would absolutely _love_ to raise some hell about it with you. :-) I’ve always felt that reasoned debate with one’s opponents is the _only_ way to truly hone one’s own arguments, and you are exactly the type of personality that I get along with even when I disagree.

    I’m not A, B, or C. I am, it seems, part of group “D”. Yes the planet’s climate is changing; and no, it has little, if anything, to do with man; and the attempts to avoid something that we cannot influence would be actively harmful.

    As a guy who lives right next to a giant lake that was carved by a glacier (Lake Michigan), in an area that sees 90 degree (Fahrenheit) days in the summer, I can say _absolutely_ that the Earth’s climate changes, and has been doing so since long before the rise of human Industry. One needs only look at the agricultural villages buried under the ice of Greenland (let me say that again… The _ice_ covering _Green Land_) to know that the planet undergoes large swings in long term climate.

    The flipside of that is that dumping massive regulation on people in efforts to avoid such change will do more damage to human freedom than doing nothing. That is, the futile efforts to prevent something that has as much to do with the output of our sun as the output of volcanoes is going to hurt many, and help nothing.

    Ironically, it is the vast wealth of industrialized nations that has lead to many of the technological innovations that are causing the USA to become _more_ environmentally sound even as we produce more wealth. I myself have invested in a company (Cree) that is working on making LEDs bright enough to use as lighting in businesses and homes. When they do figure it out, it will be an advance that leaves mercury-filled, flickering, heat-producing flourescents in the dust — 20-year bulbs that produce clean light and run for pennies a year.

    Who is creating this? China? No. Russia? No. Germany, perhaps? Nope. The most industrially free society on the planet is inventing most of the technology that will enable _everyone_ to be more environmentally sound in the future, and ironically, the socialistic “environmental” regulations that folks such as you are trying to rationalize with calls of “what could be the harm?” would stifle exactly that innovation.

    You’ve got my email. En garde!

  5. sooshi says:

    I have the debate bug myself, and often have to remind people of the difference between a debate and a row :) Perhaps I’m too aggresive at times, I suspect so, though i don’t mean to be.

    As for the environment, there’s all sorts of evidence, from the hokey to the downright scary – I admit, I’m still on the fence. I find it difficult to fully believe that us human rabble can have such a profound effect on the planet.

    Global warming as they call it may be the result of our hobnail boot stamping all over the place or on the other hand simply a result of the planet’s constant state of flux.

    This planet will keep turning, disinterested in the little human drama we all take so seriously. Coastlines will change, landmasses, types of species, I wager it will go on long before we have moved on or away.

    That said, I try, to keep my carbon foot print down as much as I can. I’m not the best eco warrior out there by a long shot, but I’m not the cavalier litter dropper I might sound like.
    Whether we are responsible for the changes in climate, or not, I think it’s downright shameful how we treat the planet, and to top it off, almost suicidal.

    Stick almost any other animal in an enviroment of some sort, and they’ll pick a corner in which to poo, and keep the rest clean and disease free as best the can. Not us, no. From litter to landfill, we’re destructive, and dangerous, (we’re many other things too mind you, wonderful, sweet and kind, don’t get me wrong).

    Why do we need the environmental sword of damacles to spur us into action? Isn’t it enough we live here in the first place?

  6. Jim says:

    Yes, believe it or not this is the real “Jim” that Stephen mentions in his blog….Can’t believe I stumbled onto this. At least I made some sort of impression on the man (even if it was a very negative one it appears)…….My account of the day’s events and the dinner in particular differ slightly from Stephen’s…..More later if anyone expresses a desire to hear my side of the story….

    “Jim”

  7. Jim says:

    “Jim” again. First off, my real name is Bob (although Jim works just as well). Stephen asserts that he uses the alias to protect my anonymity. Thanks, Stephen…very kind of you. Early in his “blessay” he mentioned that he had visited the following states: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. In the very next paragraph he mentions that he “has gone down a coal mine.” Of the aforementioned states only VA, WV, PA, KY, TN, & MD are currently coal producing states…the latter two with somewhat limited production by comparison. One could deduce from this that the visit to the coal mine was probably located in any of the previously mentioned four states: VA, WV, PA or KY. In the same paragraph he mentions that he “got drunk @ a distillery” (hopefully those blessed souls had more luck w/ an intoxicated Fry than I did!!!)….more than likely that would be in either KY or TN for those of you familiar w/ the US bourbon business…again process of elimination rules one of those out as well…further narrowing the state or commonwealth. With WV being the largest coal producing state in the Eastern US, one could well make the case that the logical deduction would be that Stephen’s visit to a coal mine was in fact a WV coal mine….. West “By God” Virginia…and indeed that would be a correct deduction. Voila!! The coal mine segment was filmed in the great Mountain State!!!

    Later in his “blessay” he mentions that “Jim” has a, “vested interest, a deeply vested interest, in this whole issue.” Furthermore he quotes, “It doesn’t of course make any difference that he is a very senior figure in a company that…..no, I want to protect his anonymity so I’ll just say that he is in the fossil fuels business.” Hell, Helen Keller could see that good ole JimBob was in the coal business in WV!!!

    So much for that. I’m not concerned with anonymity…..everyone in my business knows I’m the only one dumb/naive enough in our industry to allow a visit such as Stephen’s to occur in the first place. I’ll touch on that and the details leading up to his visit in my next post…..

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