Letters To A Young Contrarian – Christopher Hitchens

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My dear X,
It is a strange thing, but it remains true that our language contains no proper word for your aspiration. The noble title of “dissident” must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement, and it has been consecrated by many exemplary men and women. “Radical” is a useful and honourable term, but it comes with various health warnings. Our remaining expressions – “maverick”, “loose cannon”, “rebel”, “angry young man”, “gadfly” – are all slightly affectionate and diminutive and are, perhaps for that reason, somewhat condescending. It can be understood from them that society, like a benign family, tolerates and even admires eccentricity. Even the term “iconoclast” is seldom used negatively, but rather to suggest that the breaking of images is a harmless discharge of energy.

There even exist official phrases of approbation for this tendency, of which the latest is the supposedly praiseworthy ability to “think outside the box”. I myself hope to live long enough to graduate from being a “bad boy” – which I once was – to becoming “a curmudgeon”. Go too far outside “the box”, of course, and you will encounter a vernacular that is much less “tolerant”. Here, the key words are “fanatic”, “troublemaker”, “misfit” or “malcontent”.

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Meanwhile, the ceaseless requirements of the entertainment industry also threaten to deprive us of other forms of critical style, and of the means of appreciating them. To be called “satirical” or “ironic” is now to be patronised in a different way; the satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised up. When such a precious and irreplaceable word as “irony” has become a lazy synonym for anomie, there is scant room for originality.

However, let us not repine. It is too much to expect to live in an age that is propitious for dissent. And most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security. None the less, there are in all periods people who feel themselves in some fashion to be apart. And it is not too much to say that humanity is very much in debt to such people, whether it chooses to acknowledge the debt or not. (Don’t expect to be thanked, by the way. The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult.)

I nearly hit upon the word “dissenter” just now, which might do as a definition if it were not for certain religious and sectarian connotations. The same problem arises with “freethinker”. But the latter term is probably the superior one, since it makes an essential point about thinking for oneself. The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.

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The term “intellectual” was coined by those in France who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. They thought that they were defending an organic, harmonious and ordered society against nihilism, and they deployed this contemptuous word against those they regarded as the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound. The word hasn’t completely lost this association even now, though it is less frequently used as an insult. (One feels something of the same sense of embarrassment in claiming to be an “intellectual” as one does in purporting to be a dissident, but the figure of Emile Zola offers encouragement, and his singular campaign for justice for Dreyfus is one of the imperishable examples of what may be accomplished by an individual.)

There is a saying from Roman antiquity: “Fiat justitia – ruat caelum”; “Do justice, and let the skies fall.” In every epoch, there have been those to argue that “greater” goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over justice. It is supposed to be an axiom of “western” civilisation that the individual, or the truth, may not be sacrificed to hypothetical benefits such as “order”. But such immolations have in fact been common. Zola could be the pattern for any serious and humanistic radical, because he not only asserted the inalienable rights of the individual, but generalised his assault to encompass the vile roles played by clericalism, racial hatred, militarism and the fetishisation of “the nation”. His caustic and brilliant epistolary campaign of 1897-8 may be read as a curtain-raiser for most of the great contests that roiled the coming 20th century . . .

I think often of my late friend Ron Ridenhour, who became briefly famous when, as a service-man in Vietnam, he exposed the evidence of the hideous massacre of the villagers at My Lai in March 1968. One of the hardest things for anyone to face is the conclusion that his or her “own” side is in the wrong when engaged in a war. The pressure to keep silent and be a “team player” is reinforceable by the accusations of cowardice or treachery that will swiftly be made against dissenters. Sinister phrases of coercion, such as “stabbing in the back” or “giving ammunition to the enemy” have their origin in this dilemma and are always available to help compel unanimity.

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I have had the privilege of meeting a number of brave dissidents in many and various societies. Frequently, they can trace their careers to an incident in early life where they felt obliged to take a stand. Sometimes, too, a precept is offered and takes root. Bertrand Russell records in his autobiography that his Puritan grandmother “gave me a Bible with her favourite texts written on the fly-leaf. Among these was ‘Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.’ Her emphasis upon this text led me in later life to be not afraid of belonging to small minorities.” It’s affecting to find the future hammer of the Christians being “confirmed” in this way.

There is good reason to think that such reactions arise from something innate rather than something inculcated: Nickleby doesn’t know until the moment of the crisis that he is going to stick up for poor Smike. Noam Chomsky recalls hearing of the obliteration of Hiroshima as a young man, and experiencing a need for solitude because there was nobody he felt he could talk to. It may be that you, my dear X, recognise something of yourself in these instances; a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence.

Do bear in mind that the cynics have a point, of a sort, when they speak of the “professional nay-sayer”. To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.

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