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.
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.