Why Sycophants Don’t Help You Grow

I shot the video you see above, of Dame Vivienne Westwood, riding a tank to Prime Minister David Cameron’s house. It’s found its way onto almost every mainstream news outlet, including the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, and Buzzed, to name but a handful.

The purpose of riding in this armoured personnel carrier (to use its proper name) through the quaint streets of Oxfordshire, was to demonstrate against fracking. Westwood is unhappy about the use of fracking because, in part, of the CO2 emissions that are released by burning the gas that’s released. So she’s riding a vehicle that does gallons-per-mile rather than miles-per-gallon, to protest about, well, polluting the atmosphere.

It’s easy to write off Westwood as an anti-science, out-of-touch, slightly batty whack job. And yes, I think, having interviewed her, that’s fair. I’m not going to go into a diatribe about how dramatically low-carbon fracking is (though it’s really, really low carbon compared to most energy extraction sources we have currently), and the myriad of other benefits. You know how to use Google, you can find the reports from the EPA and other geologists, who, despite trying over and over, can’t find any major indictment on hydraulic fracturing. And I’m certainly no expert.

But I am a journalist, and despite the sensationalism of movies like Gasland, it seems that, when looking at the figures, this isn’t really as big and dangerous a thing as it’s been made out to be. But I could be wrong. And when serious overwhelming evidence presents itself that fracking will basically kill us all, etc. I’ll be the first to spin on a dime.

The thing is, spending a morning with Dame Vivienne Westwood actually convinced me beyond any EPA report that we’ve got nothing to worry about. She’s surrounded by sycophants, who worship her every word. I started by interview with her ‘softly’, asking why she’s there, what message she wanted to get out to wider world, etc. That way, I definitely have something in the can. As soon as I asked a tougher question about the EPA’s reports and the general conclusion from the geological community that for the most part fracking is safe and an ideal low-carbon way that could help us hit or exceed our Kyoto targets and move us towards a greener future, the interview was ended. We ran out of time, and as her handlers explained, the Dame had to get on a tank. Just a coincidence it was as I asked a slightly more challenging question. Bad luck for me.

The look on her face when I asked a question that was in no way confrontational, but just looked at things from an alternative perspective was quite fascinating. I wasn’t trying to push her into an angry response or anything, just illicit a more developed answer. That didn’t happen. She looked, well, surprised. I don’t want to say this is how she felt, but it was a bit like “How could anyone ask me such a thing?”

And this is the point. I’m not smart enough to know much about fracking. I’ll bow to her better knowledge if I must. I definitely bow to the generally opinion held by most geologists in this field. The point is, she appeared like she had not had an alternative position on the issue ever placed in front of her before, to counter her opinion. I know this is naive of me, but I expected her to be used to the cut-and-thrust found in battling alternative points of view. I expected a bit of intellectual discourse.

Then I looked around. Her ‘people’ (for want of a better word) surround her, nodding intently with every batty thing she says. She was accusing the Prime Minister of deliberately poisoning people who were going to see fracking in their area. “So we’re going to poison the poisoner” she told me, alluding to the fake colourful gas she wanted to pump out towards Cameron’s house as part of a protest.

Now it’s obvious that she has a different opinion than David Cameron on the merits or disadvantages of this gas extraction technique, but how has she convinced herself that he’s sitting in a lair somewhere laughing evilly about all the lives he’s going to destroy through fracking? Seriously, how does a grown-up think like that? The answer appears to be, your views – no matter how nuts – can grow when you’ve got a bunch of people surrounding you, encouraging every word you say.

Dissent is important. It allows you to think. It helps you redefine your views, sharpen them, improve them, and yes, change them.

I learnt a valuable lesson from Dame Vivienne Westwood: don’t surround yourself with sycophants. It might feel good to be told how wonderful and smart you are all the time, but having seen that extreme sycophancy up-close and personal, I think it weakens you as a person.

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