Teaching Reason: A Study of Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’ (Part II)
(Continued from Part I)
Part IV: Truth or Truthiness
“One must have the nerve to assert that, while people are entitled to their illusions, they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them upon others. Allow a friend to believe in a bogus prospectus or a false promise and you cease, after a short while, to be a friend at all.” (Hitchens, pg. 82)
What a wonderful pair of sentences. This is something I struggle with greatly but have since become more vocal about. The main question being…when is it permissible to simply overlook certain fantasies in order to be polite and keep the peace, and when is it more appropriate to be a good friend and challenge their thoughts with accuracy and reality? My answer more and more these days is ‘always remain a good friend’ and challenge the existing premise.
A perfect example of this is the proposal of enforcing morality by legal means. When a group bases their collective thoughts on how the lives of others should be regulated, and those regulations are rooted in scripture of any sort, that viewpoint should be immediately rendered irrelevant. For example, when a group of people purport to uphold a certain viewpoint due to the ‘sanctity’ of the institution, yet have shown in their own lives that they have no personal regard for the aforementioned sanctity, there is no reason to listen to anything further from them. The enforcement of a religious-based (or ‘traditionalist’, as is the code word these days) law is reason enough to tune out, but the hypocrisy should set off alarm bells in your head (especially since the group in this example claims to want ‘less government’ in the lives of individuals…can any consistency even be found amongst the inconsistency?). Likewise, when another group of people have decreed that individuals should be put to death, be stoned, or lashed for adultery or fornication, and when there is an inconsistency between the sexes for said transgression, and when the root of this law is within a religious text, the viewpoint should be immediately rendered irrelevant.
Some of my friends believe that it is not permissible to ‘agree to disagree,’ meaning that all things either are or aren’t, are moral or immoral, right or wrong, and that this time-honored Wesleyism is offensive and irrelevant to the pursuit of truth. I fully disagree. I have experienced many excellent conversations in my life involving opposing or non-similar views. Few, if any, of these conversations have resulted in one or both of us completely changing our position on the discussed issue, the result being identical thoughts by both parties, or both of us having the exact opposite view with which we started. Equally improbable has been the opposite; that all discussion offsets itself, and the opinions remain exactly the same as before. No, in my experience, both parties would be at least somewhat accepting of insight from the other and slightly shift their views to accommodate the new knowledge, either resulting in further disagreement, or more agreement. If the ultimate goal is truth, and the truth has been conveyed by one or both parties, and the individual, as (hopefully) a self-aware human capable of rational thought and inherent skepticism, has not simply accepted your position at face value, what is there to take issue with? Perhaps the seeds of truth have been planted and the individual in question simply needs time to process this additional information. Perhaps your own ‘truth’ is flawed, and they are quite right to be skeptical. There are hundreds of possibilities. But all in all, to say that ‘any discussion that ends in ‘agree to disagree’ is a cop-out’ is simply a falsehood, and reeks of arrogance.
Part V – Myself or the Mob
‘Don’t let yourself forget it, but try and profit from the hard experience of those who contested the old conditions and, in a word or phrase, don’t allow your thinking to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded. Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about ‘we,’ or speaks in the name of ‘us.’ Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and tyranny and tribalism. Never forget that, even if there are ‘masses’ to be invoked, or ‘the people’ to be praised, they and it must by definition be composed of individuals.’ (Hitchens, pg. 99)
Further along in the text, Hitchens uses this statement to draw a vivid image of aligning yourself with the establishment versus being an objector, with examples ranging from burning draft cards during the Vietnam era to marching in protests during the civil rights movement. Obviously the easiest example these days to put forth is politics. Many of my friends, some very close, are quick to parrot the talking points of policy or party regardless of whether or not any personal thought has been devoted to the specific issue at hand. Sadly, in the political arena, often the choice is seen by most as an ‘either/or’. Either you support the policies of the nationally recognized party whose platform is the closest to representing your preferences, or you run the risk of seeing an individual take a position of power who may not see the world the way you do. And currently, do not be fooled by those who say ‘I am not a Republican, I am a conservative’ or ‘I’m not a Democrat, I’m a progressive independent’. All statements like these do is re-brand an existing product. A simple Google search of existing polls shows clearly the tendency to vote in the supposedly ‘denounced’ category is overwhelming.
Many purported free-thinkers will say that their personal principles outweigh their allegiance to a specific political ideology, and often are the same group who will re-label themselves to prove it. However, upon further examination, their morals and ethics are often built on a separate set of ‘we’ rules, whether they be based on heritage, race, religion, or the environment in which they were raised or educated. For example, a person may attempt to distance themselves from Republicans by claiming to be a conservative, but stand by many of the same political and moral arguments. Then when asked to defend their position on an issue, they may turn to the Bible or the status of a particular institution within American history. Religion and patriotism are often two of the biggest culprits of ‘we-isms’…let’s not forget that religion calculates the age of the earth for many, so we don’t have to waste time thinking about it, and that patriotism allows millions to feel justified in opinions that would otherwise seem barbaric or abhorrent (killing a man is wrong, but killing a man while wearing a uniform is somehow different).
Do the ones who utter ‘we’ or ‘us’ have your permission to do so? Are you in reality being victimized by your allegiance, an allegiance which you may not have even consciously subscribed to, but instead, are now aligned with to a severe point? Has it invaded your daily routine and predetermined how you will read a news story or approach a discussion? Do you even consider the different facets of an issue, or do you find yourself concocting rebuttals in your mind prior to the completion of a statement by persons communicating an alternative view? These are all signs that the ‘we’ has control of ‘you’.
Part VI – Curtain Call
‘The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. ’ – Albert Einstein
There’s no way for me to summarize this book any better than the man does it himself, and I do beg you to read it instead of stopping here. This essay is only meant to be a small summary of very basic ideas included within it that I see as invaluable for those of us who debate, theorize, discuss, and study life. Regardless of your level of open or closed-mindedness, political affiliation, faith, lack thereof, age, or interest in these types of things, I hope I’ve helped to spark something somewhere in that great big beautiful brain of yours.
I mentioned many times that I view Hitchens as ‘tolerant’, and hopefully you now have some more insight as to why I chose to phrase it in that way. He is most decidedly intolerant of many many things…but only after debating, theorizing, discussing, and studying. And…the pursuit of truth is the thing of which he is most tolerant.
And shouldn’t that lofty goal be on all of our lists? What better point could we all work towards than truth?
(Edited at 1:01 AM EST - added italics where appropriate)