“The voice of reason is small, but very persistent,” is inscribed on Sigmund Freud’s memorial in Vienna. Perhaps no critic advanced through the cacophony of unreasonable shouting with more eloquence than Christopher Hitchens. In Letters To A Young Contrarian Hitchens offers advice for people drawn to resist the current of foolish mass opinion. “Conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.” Breathing fresh air comes at a price: constant vigilance against illusory beliefs.
In open forums opinions clash with ferocity, until one person invokes immunity by citing a right to their belief, imposing a duty on the critic to withdraw. But dogmatic believers are not limitlessly entitled, and commit crimes against logic according to Jamie Whyte. Likewise, Hitchens disputes the notion that judgments are invulnerable. And the contrarian ought to dismantle precarious convictions, knowing they will encounter resistance.
“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.”
“Remember that saying nothing is also a decision, and that the relativists and the ‘nonjudgmental’ have made up their minds just as much, if not as firmly. This is simply another way of reminding you that, if you decide to pass judgments and make criticisms and take forward positions, you both can and should expect a few hearings to convene on yourself. A welcome prospect, I trust. It certainly helps prevent the art and science of disputation from dying out amongst us.”
No person is unsullied, whether they be philosopher-kings like Marcus Aurelius or writers like Tolstoy. All people are born from dust and return to the Earth; they are as broken as anyone, ripe with dreams, sins, worries. But people idolize, placing heroes on immaculate pedestals to worship, elevating the place of primates scattered on a rock suspended.
“I like the fact that he [Dr. Martin Luther King] had feet of clay and a digestive tract and reproductive organs: all human achievement must also be accomplished by mammals and this realisation (interestingly negated by sexless plaster saints and representations of angels) puts us on a useful spot. It strongly suggests that anyone could do what the heroes have done.”
Recognizing the humanity of heroes elevates each person, opening a path of equal opportunity. But the world cannot be grasped by reading about paragons, as Michel de Montaigne sought in retirement. Hitchens encourages travel. “I want to urge you very strongly to travel as much as you can, and to evolve yourself as an internationalist. It’s as important a part of your education as a radical as the reading of any book.” Exposure to foreign cultures is a buffer against prejudice and exposes people’s commonality.
“In one way travelling has narrowed my mind. What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight. This is of course an encouraging finding; it helps arm you against news programs back home that show seething or abject masses of either fanatical or torpid people. In another way it is a depressing finding; the sorts of things that make people quarrel and make them stupid are the same everywhere.”
It’s a poignant reminder that all people strive for the same but are equally vulnerable. Hitchens closes his letters remarking he is no expert on the radical mindset but can only offer scant advice; advice that proves timeless.
“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
Letters To A Young Contrarian is the perfect introduction to Hitchens’ work, with sound advice for anyone who finds themselves pushing against social tides. For further reading, read Hitchens’ collection of 107 essays titled Arguably.