Teaching Reason: A Study of Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’ (Part I)
Okay friends, I realize this is my first post, and I’m probably pushing it by making it a two-parter, but I figured I’d better make it a good one, and I didn’t want to shorten it. Hope you enjoy.
“Only the madman is absolutely sure.” - Robert Anton Wilson
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’ - John Stuart Mill
“Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” - Frederick Douglas
“Allegiance is a powerful force in human affairs; it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thralldom is honorable and voluntary.” - Christopher Hitchens
I have read and admired Hitchens for years. I think mainly because he is incredibly tolerant of opposing views and manages to stay relevant regardless of the subject at hand. I realize some who are familiar with Hitchens might disagree with my use of the word “tolerant” as a description of his behavior, and I can understand your reticence to accept it. He is, after all, the man who attempted to intervene against the beatification of Mother Teresa, as well as the individual who demonized the house of Clinton (well, maybe many of you are quite fine with that), and also the same man who labeled Jerry Falwell as a ‘faith-based fraud’…on second thought, perhaps I should have picked some more disagreeable examples. Others may say that his much-touted atheism is, in itself, just cause not to even consider the word “tolerant” as a descriptor of demeanor; with this I must also disagree. Even more would state that his snarkiness, sarcasm, or razor-sharp wit dull his points, even if they are valid ones. This may be true to some extent, and I certainly do not mean to defend his every action or perspective with this essay.
But none of these aforementioned critiques have anything to do with why I choose the word “tolerant”. I choose it because Hitchens is a greatly experienced, well-traveled, and well-spoken man, who I regard at his core to be anything but arrogant (even though he may often seem so on the surface), a man who respects the customs and cherished beliefs of others (when required or requested, and when he is in “Rome’…literally or figuratively), and who has never failed to engage in a debate on nearly any topic, whether he subscribes to it or not, simply because of the steadfastness of his perspective and the value he places on reasoned discussion. But mostly, I choose the word because due to the positions he has taken over the years, he has had little choice but TO be tolerant…as he often rings out as a minority bell jingling against the deafening din of the majority.
I have many friends whose lives are guided by a great number of differing reality tunnels and perspectives. Some steer their course daily by the compass of religion, and the real or imagined blessings and curses with which that choice comes pre-packaged. Others prefer to bounce about like a pinball, possibly counting on that one perfect paddle smack to rocket them toward a high score, but more often than not, they are simply left feeling battered and defeated. Still others choose to withdraw from the masses nearly completely, content to declare themselves not part of the problem, but rarely if ever contributing to solutions…all the while laughing and/or gazing lazily with disdain at the ones they now see themselves divorced from, given their enlightened perspective. Most of the individuals I know fall somewhere in the triangle created by these three vertices, though I would absolutely place some nearer to the points themselves.
Some may be wondering why I picked this particular volume to discuss, especially given the body of work of Hitchens, having authored many more popular (and considerably thicker) titles over the years. Simple: It is because more than ever in our collective history, during this clash of ideals, belief, and doctrine at a level never before seen, it is important to be a tactful and reasoned dissenter. Perhaps I should first explain the purpose of his book:
In 2000, he was presented with a “challenge” of sorts: To offer written help to young “contrarians”…those young, thoughtful minds who are determining the differences between “changing the world” by way of disagreement, and being a constructive self-determinist…so that they might reach their potential without encountering as much disillusionment as he may have along the way. Sort of an owner’s manual to the debater’s brain, so to speak, a way of pointing out the potholes by an experienced driver. The resulting micro-tome is of more value than can be measured. In less than 150 pages, Hitchens manages to create a dialogue in letter form, a fictitious correspondence between himself and “Reader X’: YOU. In this essay I will examine several of what I have interpreted to be the most helpful and poignant passages of this work, and discuss them in the context of my own experiences with others. And, almost most importantly, I would say that even though his writing is (in its original intent) meant to provide reassurance to those who might be considered contrarians, it is also infinitely helpful to those who may be currently entrenched in one part of the establishment or another, and are not yet as self-aware as they could be…and ultimately should be.
Part I - On Contrary Perspectives
“Alain, in Martin du Gard’s ‘Lieutenant Colonel Maumort’ says that the first rule - he calls it the rule of rules - is the art of challenging what is appealing. You will notice that he describes this as an ‘art’: it is not enough simply to set oneself up as a person who distrusts majority taste as a matter of principle or perhaps conceit; that way lies snobbery and frigidity. However, it will very often be found that people are highly attached to illusions or prejudices, and are not just the sullen victims of dogma or orthodoxy. If you have ever argued with a religious devotee, for example, you will have noticed that his self-esteem and pride are involved in the dispute and that you are asking him to give up something more than a point in argument. The same is true of visceral patriots, and admirers of monarchy and aristocracy. Allegiance is a powerful force in human affairs; it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thralldom is honorable and voluntary.” (Hitchens, pgs. 28-29)
Where to begin with this passage. I think it largely speaks for itself. Within many arguments and discussions, you have no doubt realized that those who have laminated themselves firmly against systems such as belief or nationalism (whether through choice or indoctrination) are sometimes much more difficult to reason with…because in essence, you may not simply be challenging a meager idea or point of view which to you seems quite inconsequential, but instead challenging the structural integrity of the very cornerstone upon which they have chosen to build what they know as their reality.
What is faith? It is the application of a system of belief to facts in order to assign meaning to them. It is ingrained in the lives of all believers like carbon is within life forms. It’s simply not possible to separate ideas from faith with a mere talking point. Likewise with patriotism or similar allegiances; those who align themselves with a firm ideology, regardless of its basis in altruism or benevolence, often cannot distance themselves from it enough to allow proper logical deliberation to occur. It’s not always just the sharing of ideas for them, it’s the prospect of bartering parts of their souls. Atheists, to some outsiders, subscribe to interestingly similar, but opposite systems of belief (or lack thereof). For nonbelievers, there is no higher power or higher level of awareness NOT because it has been disproven, but because it cannot be proven. In a way this is admirable, in the same sense that I would never ask someone to disprove the existence of unicorns, but rather to prove that they existed at all. Agnosticism continues to be the least presumptuous perspective; so says the old adage, ‘I do not know, nor do you’. There is no assumption of knowing the unknowable, and it is certainly the least pompous and judgmental of the three.
That said, in my experience, it is equally possible for people of any faith, or an agnostic, or an atheist, to all be able to freely converse about any idea or perspective of reality, as long as the parties allocate a certain level of respect to the viewpoints of others, until said viewpoints have proven to be without merit. As with any logical discussion, personal viewpoints should be able to stand on their own regardless of opinion. Facts are inarguable. Perspective is learned. And when an element does not hold up to tangible scrutiny, and instead requires a willful suspension of disbelief, then it must be conceded that at least the possibility of error exists.
Part II - On Guilt by Association
“Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticizes A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticize: or at least criticize ‘constructively,’ which in practice always means favorably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.” (George Orwell, as quoted by Hitchens, pg. 42)
This is rampant, especially in arenas featuring zealots (religious or otherwise). Hardly can a television be switched on today without providing a catty display of the above paragraph in action. Politics is the easiest example. To elaborate on Orwell’s point a bit, in a modern-day sense: If politician A is against an idea, and politician B supports it, anyone who also opposes said idea (regardless of reason) will be treated by supporters of B…as a supporter of A. Guilt by disassociation, so to speak. How is it that we as a culture have distanced ourselves so far from the ability to simply have a uniquely identifiable thought, arrived at by our own logical conclusions? Why is there so much of a collective need to have our perspectives molded by an unseen blacksmith, rather than doing the hammering ourselves?
Especially recently, I have noticed the vitriol reaching a fever pitch. On politically charged message boards, I have seen the extreme results of this sort of mindset . If you are not a fan of Palin’s rhetoric, you must be a freedom-hating communist fan of Obama. If you oppose state-sponsored healthcare, you must be a tight-wallet selfish conservative wanker. Message boards and current event-related websites I once respected have begun to develop their own stench of partisanship and polarization. Supposed news outlets toe the line of a particular agenda, not that this fact alone is surprising to anyone. There are few remaining sources of information that don’t pre-package it in a way that’s easily digestible, and require one to do as little mental chewing as possible. Simultaneously they are not just telling you how you should feel about a particular issue, but also informing you about the sources and actual research they’ve supposedly done to arrive at this conclusion, so you don’t have to worry yourself with any cumbersome books or facts.
The brilliance of Orwell spoken and expounded on by Hitchens in this section truly dissects (in a very simple way) the logical fallacy of this methodology. It assumes that there are no alternative positions on any issue other than those of A or B, or perhaps that the default position of a person must be plainly obvious if they oppose one or the other. This is important to remember in discussions, debates, and arguments. A difference of perspective on one issue does not by default illustrate automatic support for another. Be wary of individuals who suggest this falsehood is true, and project their false conclusions in the face of reasoned discussion.
Part III - No Good Deed Without Divinity
“You write to remind me that many exemplary people have been sustained by their faith. But let me ask you in turn: Are you saying that their religious belief was a sufficient or a necessary condition for their moral actions? In other words, that without such faith they would NOT have opposed racism or Nazism? I think I have a higher opinion of both men than to say that of them. It may have helped them to employ religious rhetoric, and it certainly aided them in gaining a following. But, as Laplace is supposed to have said when demonstrating his model of the solar system at court, and on being asked where the Prime Mover was: ‘It can work without assumption’”. (Hitchens, pg. 61, two non-essential parentheticals removed)
Now, this is where I differ a bit. For one, it is impossible to know what a person would be capable of if such a historically critical character trait as faith was simply missing entirely. To assume that the events in Montgomery in 1955 and 1956 would have unfolded in exactly the same way had religion and faith NOT been involved is impossible to know, and moreover, unlikely. So I see it as somewhat of a logical fallacy to state so. But I agree with his larger point, which is to say that religion does not have a monopoly on ethics, and that religion is not required to facilitate good in the world.
Recently a friend and I had a discussion about the Civil Rights movement. My question, knowing his views on religion and government, was whether or not the accomplishments of the movement were diluted (in this person’s eyes) by the fact that in some ways MLK bargained with the government and lobbied for legislation that would institute legal equality, and the fact that religion was heavily involved, both as a means of organizing like-minded protesters and influencing the masses with speeches peppered with scriptural references. The end result was an incredibly convoluted discussion, and the assessment of the other party was: Essentially the struggles in the sixties did nothing to truly advance the causes of the powerless, it only strengthened the powers of the establishment by allowing them to enforce additional laws that were designed to ‘protect the powerless.’ Therefore, MLK actually only embraced government in the end through his abuse of religious power and reference, and should not be honored for doing so, because government should not be embraced in the first place. Needless to say, I was floored. What surprised me was that a person was so willing to throw away such a pivotal point in our history as this because of the methodology used to do so. King and company did not kill their opposition. They did not physically beat or maim their ideological opponents. Plenty of others throughout history have done infinitely worse things to people without religion being involved, but I can think of few causes that have embraced faith in which the outcomes have been better for so many. Philosophy is many times only as valid as reality can show. As far as my friend goes, absolutism has no end to its directive, and the absence of any grey in the discussion is the unreachable goal.
Can religion facilitate good things? Absolutely. Is religion required to do so? Absolutely not. Proof resides in countless non-faith based charities and initiatives. Many rely on religion as a rule book or a guide. And in fact, this is not always a bad thing. Faith can be helpful, but faith cannot be defined. The words of Christ are certainly inspiring, and can absolutely viewed as a model by which to live your life. But if you agree, I would ask you to read the Jefferson Bible (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth…yes, THAT Jefferson), and tell me honestly if the absence of references to His divinity changes the overall message. I would say no. And since there’s empirically no way to know what occurs post-dirt nap, I would rather have a world in which we all live ethically because it is beneficial to all involved, not because a book tells us to.
(End of Part I, Part II continues here)
(Edited at 12:59 AM EST - added italics where appropriate)