Settle, Petals

Μηνιν αειδε, Θεα, Πηλιαδεω Αχιλος
Sing to me, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles, Pelias’ son.

Menin. Rage. Homer opens the Iliad as I’d like to open this blog entry, but smooth English grammar doesn’t permit it. But rage, anger, wrath, fury, is what I want to talk about here.

I’m American, but I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade. I’ve seen a way of conducting political (or religious, or philisophical) debate that most Americans don’t see, and that makes me worry about my native country.

My mother went to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on her most recent visit over here. The speakers and their audience were all discussing religion, both Islam and Christianity. All of the debaters were passionate about their faiths, and varied widely in their views. But, my mother commented, “It was so good-natured. We could never have something like that in the States. Someone would get lynched.” And she’s right.

I’ve seen it in politcal debates online (witness the furore over entries on The Daily Kos and the thing with Kathryn Cramer, to name but two). I’ve seen it in the intensive partisanship that deadlocks Capitol Hill. I’ve seen it in media coverage, and media coverage of media coverage. I’ve seen it in real life, and I’ve felt it myself. There’s an undercurrent of eye-popping, vein-throbbing, fist-clenching and red-seeing anger in the way my fellow countrymen discuss important issues.

In British politics, I’ve seen Tories and Old Labour politicians, whose positions are further apart than anything you’ll see in the American mainstream, debate with humor and wit. I’ve also seen them sling insults and sarcasm at one another without losing the plot. An entire British political institution, Prime Minister’s Question Time, where the PM has to answer questions put by the opposition, in public, every week, with extra added heckling from the back benches, would not be possible in the US. Everyone would take it all too seriously and someone would burst a blood vessel.

No, not just seriously. Everyone would take it personally. The blogwars differ from the rest of US political debate not in nature but in degree, so an examination of them is useful. A typical blogwar starts with a provocative comment, followed by a reader of the opposite view losing his temper and posting some inflammatory trackback on his own site. Then a reader of the reader gets steamed and goes back to the original blog with an offer to wipe the grin off the writer’s face with a belt sander. Somewhere down the line someone took a political issue personally. US political debate usually takes more steps and ends well short of belt sander threats, but the transition from abstract to personal, from factual to furious, is the same. Read the editorials and letters of the SF Chron for a view of the polarity between the two sides. (Note that I don’t need to indicate a particular date’s opinion pages. It’s the same every day.)

This transatlantic difference leads to transatlantic misunderstandings. There is a perception in the US that the international media are “biased” against America. No doubt some media outlets are. But, at least in the UK, the media are “biased” against, in other words, critical of, pretty much everyone. Some of it’s a feeling that it is the duty of the Fourth Estate to question the powers that be. Some of it’s that conflict and scandal sell papers. Some of it is that the people who work in the media like that sort of conflict – that’s why they work in the media. Whatever the reason, the mainstream news sources over here use a harsher grade of investigative and invective sandpaper than their equivalents in the States. But because these things aren’t automatically personal, and aren’t taken as such, the system works.

Now, there is a valid argument that serious matters require serious discussion. Wars, death, money, politics – these are no laughing matter. Europeans, with a cynical smile for every issue, are preceived as being careless, ineffective, and effete. It’s like that little smile that Alex gets when he’s being really defiant and difficult. Taking things lightly like that is bad. We must be serious. That’s all very well until seriousness leads to over-seriousness and a personal identification with the cause under discussion. Then an attack on a position is an attack on the person holding the position, and we’re back to rage and thoughts of power tools.

What we’re not doing, when we get angry, is listening to the other side. And without listening, there can be no discussion, no cooperation, no compromise, no peace. So please, can we laugh a bit, and let go of the wrath?

7 thoughts on “Settle, Petals”

  1. What follows is an OPINION piece. Not every statement, therefore, is buttressed by facts and some may depend upon unstated assumptions. I’ve made some of the arguments on my blog, where the missing pieces may be found.

    To comment on what you’ve said:

    I think — of course, I’m not always right! — that the problem has gotten much worse since 2000. Many people to whom I speak have ratcheted things up to the level of belt sanders because there is a feeling of helplessness akin to what one feels upon coming home to find that one has been burgled. It’s been nearly four years and there is still a sense that the election was stolen; that there was some sort of a coup.

    Or maybe it’s the fact that George Bush (and, while testifying the other day, Condoleeza Rice) nearly ALWAYS appears to be smirking. All the while, these people are destroying our civil liberties and apparently working towards the abrogation of our Constitution.

    Add to that the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get real news in the United States — our Press is too focused on entertainment — and there’s a lot of frustration.

    Or perhaps it just goes all the way back to the declarations of early feminists and the discussion of the politics of exclusion along with declarations that politics ARE personal. (See, for example, Jennifer Smookler’s [2000] paper entitled, “Feminism, liberal democracy and the politics of inclusion and exclusion.”)

    Or maybe it’s just the opposite. As PEOPLE have become DEpersonalized, we see nothing more in each other than our politics; the attacks become personal because all we are anymore is our politics.

    On the other hand, although there’s truth to what you’ve said, blogs simply amplify the problem. Blogs aren’t always the most accurate at representing either facts or feelings.

    I’ve engaged in some of these debates, most recently over at Fried Man where I’m virtually guaranteed to find people who would not approve of MY point of view. And while some people were grossly out of line in responding to me, I also had some actual conversations with a couple of people. (Two were conducted via email. Both lamented the incivility of the more public discussion.)

    America could use a hearty dose of civility. The difficulty in sticking to that track is that there’s so very much at stake. And when people stop listening to one another, all that’s left is the shouting.

    And now I’m confused about another thing: I thought all that back bench noise was caused by gas.

  2. But Rick, there’s a lot at stake in British politics as well. Everything you’ve mentioned, from fights over electoral systems (Proportional Representation or First Past the Post?), to dumbing down of the media, to an entrenched power elite with smug little smiles – it’s all over here too. You want powerlessness? Try having an unelected second house with veto power over Parliament. We have bitter, bitter debates going on right now about public spending, taxation, the war in Iraq, Europe, immigration, and law enforcement.

    But these causes don’t automatically, inevitably lead to fury, even though there’s so much at stake. Which is my point.

    (The back benches are where the Members of Parliament who aren’t government ministers sit. It’s the peanut gallery.)

  3. Even if things are as bad over there as they are here — and I admit that I had not gotten that impression from things I’d read and conversations I’d had with one of my co-workers who is from there (and will be returning to your area in about a week for 10 days of what he calls “vacation”), there’s still one big difference, which was profoundly demonstrated in the late 1700s. To pervert an old cigarette commercial slogan:

                                    Americans would rather fight than b*tch!

    Seriously, animosity in American politics has been a staple throughout our history. I believe there is even an incident a century or so ago that involved fisticuffs in the House.

    And, while I’ll grant that there is much less civility today than there was even 10 years ago, I don’t know that the picture blogs present is an accurate indication of the levels we’ve reached anywhere *except* in blogs and blog comments.

    I still think blogs amplify the issue, rather than accurately track it.

    For one thing, I *suspect* that the blogging audience is younger. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that some of the more vociferous posters are teens or pre-teens. It’s harder and harder to tell as the non-spelling, grammatically-challenged among us begin to age (so that one can no longer judge based only on those factors), but in my own experience, the majority of threats and off-the-wall comments come from a crowd that has not yet learned to use other tools because of their youth.

    The lack of ability to see one another as human — accentuated by the facelessness of posting via the Internet — no doubt also contributes. I know that people I see IRL (“in real life”) sometimes say things online and in emails that they’d never say to someone in person.

    None of this, of course, goes to excuse such acts when they occur. I’m wholeheartedly with you in calling for more discourse, supported by clearly-laid out (if not unmuddled) reasoning attempts and a great deal more civility.

  4. Hi Abi,
    I came across you website yesterday afternoon while reading my e-mail from the Book_Arts-L Listserv. As I was looking at your lovely books and wandering around the site I came across your log. I’m the librarian at a church elementary school in Palm Springs, CA. Easter break is the time for me to “get stuff done” while the kids are away. Since sometime late yesterday (Friday, April 9) through today, I’ve simply been reading your logs starting from the beginning. I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly. Day after tomorrow school starts again and I’ve got work piled all over my desk but it’s been a pleasant day and a half. I look forward to your entries and I’m encouraged to “get serious” about making some journals. Jill

  5. Hello Abi, as a Brit who has now been resident in America for almost 5 years (oh my, has it been that long already?!) I agree with you.

    It does seem that when you get into a debate with other people, what you say is often taken as a personal attack. I enjoy a good debate because I learn from them. I will often actually defend a point of view that I don’t totally agree with because I find that I learn a lot from doing that.

    Politics in Britain and America hold many of the same issues and bring out just as strong feelings, but in America, it does get personal so fast.

    I often wonder if the difference has to do with dignity and awareness of respect for the other. I had this discussion with a friend here just the other day. In Britain, even when the sarcasm and wit are employed against your debating opponent, there is usually a sense of respect for the other person. I don’t see that happen in America as much, if at all.

    In Britain, you are a person with an opinion and you hold an opinion that I do not agree with, but I will listen to you because you are a person and worthy of my respect. I may argue with you and point out the weaknesses in your opinion to persuade you to change your mind, or I may end up with my mind being changed. At the very least after arguing with you, I will know more about your opinion and even possibly be inclined to compromise for the sake of peace.

    In America, I am my opinion to the point that if you disagree with my opinion then you must also dislike me. People don’t seem to want to change the opinion of the other, and definitely do not want to change their own mind. Instead, they are more likely to want to destroy the other and thereby rid themselves of the contrary opinion.

    I often wonder if this happens because of fear and a lack of feeling of self-worth. I wonder if this is because America is such a consumer-based society (and Britain is headed this way last I saw) so that everything becomes based on convenience and ability to throw it away, such that life becomes objectified too, and with it the possibility that human life is cheapened. When that happens, surely the individual becomes aware of it too even at a subconscious level, and that means people become cheap and of little value, so they too become throwaway items if you do not happen to agree with them. Perhaps this is too harsh, perhaps not.

    A possible way of resisting all the above is, I think, dignity. If you are aware of your own dignity and self-worth, then you become much more aware of that same value in other people and inclined to give dignity to the other. If both parties recognize the inherent worth of the other to exist and to hold a contrary opinion, then it becomes possible to listen to each other even through anger, and dare I even say it, it also opens up the possibility to occasionally compromise.


  6. Hi..
    I’m Jim and I am Karen’s husband (the previous poster), and I am an American. Regrettably, I agree with many of the statements put forth thus far. I thought I would add my particular insight into the reason that American politics are the way they are. Strictly my opinion, not based on much more than that:

    There appears to be a strong competitive nature towards debate and decision making. The primary goal of such debate is not on discovering or learning the best solutiuon to any given problem. Rather, each faction has already predetermined their idea of a correct solution and their energy is entirely focused getting enough support to implement their plans. Debate is not seen as “hashing out an even better idea” or learning anything about the matter- but solely as a rival factions attempt thwart their adverseries and competitors. In short, it’s not about doing what’s right or finding the best course of action- it’s all about winning and losing. Everything else in between is just data to be manipulated.

    The leadership of this country is not focused on Iraq, it’s centered on who is going to be in control at the end of the year.

    The cause for this is perhaps in the profitability of American politics. I believe that American’s have lost the sentiment that F.D.R put forward- loosely paraphrased as: there is no more nobler cause than serving your fellow man through civil service.

    Instead we have a generation of politician’s who have become focused on making the system work for themselves rather than just making it work. I’m sure that has been said of all politician’s but I don’t think it’s ever been more predominant than in this present time.

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