Monday, December 26, 2011

What Hitch Taught Me

Usually when I hear that someone I admire has died, I feel sad but quickly return to usual life. With the news on December 15 of Christopher Hitchen’s death, that return to normal life has taken somewhat longer. It wasn’t unexpected news, Hitch had been ill for some time battling esophageal cancer and consequent illnesses due to both the cancer and his radiation treatment. I think the loss is felt more than usual because the world has lost one of the greats (both in mind and accomplishments); a man whose skill with words and whose passion for reason, logic and rationality, and speaking for such causes is unparalleled.

Many tributes have gone out to Hitch, from Richard Dawkins to countless people making tributes on YouTube. I know I’m far from alone, the world has been left with an intellectual gaping hole, for Hitch touched many in many different ways. So rather than just write about how great he was (Dawkins, Krauss and others have done a much better job than I ever could) I thought I’d share personally just how one man, with his acid tongue and quick wit has changed my life.

1. The 'Hitchslap': Sometimes really wish I could get straight to the point without too much fussing around. I also wish I was much better with my own native language. Well, Hitch was a master of both aspects, especially when debating – his often acidic, but wholly truthful remarks could cut someone’s argument down, often without them realizing for a moment or two. In many cases, he would barely raise his voice. This ladies and gentlemen, is the ‘Hitchslap’. If there is one thing I wish I could do, it’s a Hitchslap – a few carefully crafted words, loaded with facts and reason which will cut idiots down. The Hitchslap also demonstrates that the pen is definitely mightier than the sword. Hitch was true master of the written and spoken word, and I’m sure his comments have resonated with his opponents long after a bruise would’ve healed!

2. Don’t stand for bullshit: This applies to general discourse about history, politics and science, but has equal application in personal relations. Hitch rarely would take bullshit, in fact often he garnered much criticism for standing up against “accepted” lies, and asking questions where questions were generally not asked, such as religion. Hitch argued we should question religion, after all its long tentacles reach far and wide poisoning people’s minds – why can’t people ask for a rational explanation or question the actions taken in the name of religion? He worked to expose the frauds and hypocrisy and would fight tooth and nail to stop the bullshit. As for personal life, taking bullshit just takes up your time – time that can be spent doing better things. It is more than acceptable to question things that don’t add up, or nonsense, and to be skeptical regardless of the topic.

3. Fact, Reason and Logic are your friends: I’ve learnt the way to demonstrate a point is to know what you are talking about. Even better if you can take a statement and apply it to a situation. Again Hitch was passionate about promotion of intelligent discourse and action, not emotive arguments based on bullshit (see point 2). However he was also a master at having the evidence at hand. This is a skill I’m working on, and that if you can justify a point of view with logic and reason rather than emotion or ad hominem arguments, the conversation will be far more worthwhile.

4. Don’t be afraid to show your true feelings: Dan Dennett has written an excellent piece on how Hitch demonstrated that rudeness was sometimes called for (Dennett's essay at the Washington Post). Whilst Hitch was brilliant at using logic, he never hid his true feelings. So whilst one should use logic, reason and fact to make a point, getting passionate about it will make people listen, it will make people sit up and take notice, and furthermore, if you are angry about something (especially something as dangerous as religion) why should one hide it to be polite? Passion and a strong composure means you are serious, you mean business and aren’t going to back down without answers. Hitch was the booming voice in the room who everyone stopped to listen to.

5. Don’t let a category define you: Hitch supported the initial invasion of Iraq. This was an unusual position for someone who had always been associated with the liberal left, and it cost him friends. However he saw the justification for the invasion first hand when he visited Kuwait and saw what Saddam Hussein was doing and was capable of, something many ‘lefties’ didn’t. It didn’t matter that that this was not what the quorum was supporting, a dangerous dictator had to be brought down, and the invasion was the way to do this. Too often people associate themselves with a particular group, category or movement, and let it define them – not the other way around, when it should be defined by the members, as that is how groups evolve. Sometimes being radical and standing aside from the group is what is needed, and sometimes it’s the more reasonable thing to do. Having one’s own views, and an individual way of thinking not a pack mentality is what truly makes us individual.

6. Always make time for discussion and drink: Many of Hitch’s friends have recalled fondly as has he, the days spent taking a long lunch in which both serious discussion and frivolous fun ensued. Always make time to talk; after all we are social creatures. I can say from discussions with all sorts of people about all sorts of things I’ve been shown alternative points of view, been challenged, been inspired and learnt much. Talking to others allows me to exercise concepts, ideas and share a laugh. Drinks usually allow the shy to open up, and of course, often lead to much silliness. Hitch demonstrated that conversation can be a good way to develop one’s worldview and stretch the intellect, as well as build lifelong friendships and rivalries!

7. Don’t stop being curious: In one of the most loved Hitch comments (Check it out here on YouTube) he stated that accepting a certainty is the death for the search for truth. Unfortunately as children turn into adults, we often lose our curiousity about the world around us. This mostly can be put down to modern life, which actively discourages thinking. In some cases, such as religion, thinking is seen as bad and is actively shunned. However we all should be curious, we should all question what is put in front of us as truths. We should all think. We should all critical evaluate, and use knowledge to build our own thoughts and arguments. For me, this is something I’m increasingly doing – whether it’s the common lab “knowledge” at work, to what I read in the news to what an author thinks about a particular topic. We have to work to stay curious, we have to keep searching and never accept the status quo. All that being said however, Occam’s razor should be remembered, that the simplest explanation is usual the most reasonable (and often correct one). Keep an open mind, but don’t let your brain fall out! Hitch was in pursuit of the truth, and all of us should be too.

8. Surround yourself with intelligent people: There’s no point wasting your time with idiocy though pointing it out is important in building the case for rational process. However, in order to build on one’s knowledge, in order to have interesting discussion it’s best to be surrounded by intelligent people. Intelligent people don’t just regurgitate other’s opinions, or spout facts – that’s ROTE learning. Rather intelligent people will have their own opinions, supported by logic and evidence, and it’s from these people you can learn.

Those with irrational belief, idiots and hypocrites will often never change their stance, and often challenging such people is fruitless. At best it can point out that these people are dangerous, their beliefs are irrational and encourage an audience to think for themselves, and Hitch was known for challenging these types for this very reason. Hitch had many friends and colleagues who I see as some of the best thinkers of the 21st century: Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, Martin Amis, Stephen Fry – the list goes on and on. And to revisit point number 2, there’s no point wasting better spent time on bullshit, and furthermore, people who are full of bullshit. If it’s truth, intelligence and knowledge that one wants, you need not to play a superiority game with those who are idiotic, but rather be challenged on a level playing field, it’s the only way one will grow and think more independently.

9. Being quiet won’t get you anywhere: In similar vein to point number 4, sitting down and shutting up will not get you heard.. Hitch never slunk away into the shadows, even when under fire for his contrarian ways (as was the case with the support of the Iraq war). If you want to change the world, sitting and saying nothing will not achieve it – furthermore just complaining about it will do nothing (in fact, it may be worse, as nobody likes a whinger). If you say nothing the falsehoods are able to rage on and continue to poison the minds of more people. As the saying goes “The worst atrocities are often committed when good men stand by and do nothing”. Hitch definitely took action, and continued to until his last days.

10. Stand firm: Lastly, and probably most poignantly, Hitch always stood firm. This was even in his last days, where many and in some cases vicious statements were leveled at him and his likelihood of converting to belief on his deathbed. He continued to stand firm on all issues, to promote rationality, to write, to never quit until he absolutely had to. I’ve been swayed to change my view in the past by others, to be polite, to back down in the name of not rocking the boat. If there is one lesson of all, this is the one which resonates with me the most; if you are justified in your position, then stand up for it – whilst people might disagree with you, they will respect you. When feeling like I need to keep the peace, I’ll just think of Hitch – peace means complacency, peace means acceptance, and peace means the search for truth is over, something I hope never to accept.

So there you have it, the ways in which one man changed my life – not so much an exercise in putting one person on a pedestal, but rather a demonstration of just how one person can do so much for another person. I know many intellectuals have stated they hate the way they are often levitated on a pedestal, and they are just a human like any one of us. If we all followed how Hitch lived, we could all do great things for the world, and help stop the spread of intellectual poison. We’d be more creative individuals, we’d stand up for ourselves, we’d see thinking for ourselves and being curious as a way of living, not to be shunned. And of course it would mean promotion the good things in life – intelligence, reasoning, the search for truth and the odd glass of Johnny Walker Black Label.

I was an atheist (also rather curious, and just about always questioning) before I discovered Christopher Hitchens, but he has helped me rediscover old passions, learn new things and improve the way I think about the world. He wasn’t a scientist, in fact he was the only one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” who wasn’t, but he would rival many scientists in his ability to apply logic and reason. The world is a lesser place without Hitch, but is a greater place due to his writing, his speeches, and his fight against the irrational, hypocritical and stupid. I hope that like Shakespeare, Hitch will have many come to know him through his works, for despite no longer being here in the flesh, his words are immortal.

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