The Right Tone

Third Ring Road, Beijing
The city is beginning to empty
1033 hrs.

I enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens’ work, even though he and I disagree rather frequently. Reading some of his high-handed dismissals of people who do not share his views or his tastes, however, makes me wonder: does he see himself more as a straight writer, or a provocateur?

Take this recent example from his paean to the late J.G. Ballard in the January/February issue of The Atlantic:

“As one who has always disliked and distrusted so-called science fiction (the votaries of this cult disagreeing pointlessly about whether to refer to it as “SF” or “sci-fi”), I was prepared to be unimpressed even after Kingsley Amis praised Ballard as “the most imaginative of H. G. Wells’s successors.” The natural universe is far too complex and frightening and impressive on its own to require the puerile add-ons of space aliens and super-weapons: the interplanetary genre made even C. S. Lewis write more falsely than he normally did.”

Clearly the paragraph is designed to do two things: first, to have a nudge and a guffaw with like minded readers who similarly don’t “get” science fiction; second, to belittle regular readers of science fiction as adolescent zombies.

(Full disclosure: about half of the fiction I read is science fiction, but this post is not a defense of a genre that requires no defense. For the sake of this argument, I will cop to being both puerile and a zombie.)

You could argue (as Hitchens and his editors likely would) that ol’ Chris is just trying to get a rise out of the reader in order to bring more attention to himself and his publication. I’ve got no problem with that. I am a big fan of The Atlantic, and anything that keeps it out of the growing media slag heap is fine by me. But I suspect there is something deeper going on here. I wonder if Hitchens’ comments do not mask some deeper intellectual elitism?

Hitchens appears to be of that vocal fraternity who think that those who hold views antithetical to their own are by definition cretins or ninnys. Those who like the things they do not or who hold contradictory viewpoints are not only wrong, they are feeble-minded.

This sort of intellectual intolerance and the implicit ad hominem attack it implies is understandable when encountered at a high school lunchroom. It is barely tolerable among adults of limited education. It is an inexcusable mistake when it comes from an educated liberal (note the small “l”) who tries to influence public debate.

An wise man does not begrudge another his beliefs: he takes to heart that reasonable, intelligent men can hold different views or values and still be worthy of mutual respect. This is not just a page from some literary ethical treatise, but a core premise underlying the Constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Christopher Hitchens is an intelligent man, but by belittling his readers for their beliefs and predilections he does himself, his viewpoints, and his publication a great disservice. All three deserve better.

If, on the other hand, Hitchens is beginning to see in himself some 21st century incarnation of Samuel Clemens, please let him say so. I can then take what he writes as caustic, New Journalistic humor and forever cease to take seriously anything he sets to paper.

In the meantime, I am taking a lesson from Hitchens and this post about my own tone. I beg an indulgence of my readers: If, after this post, I start taking on an intolerant tone myself, please call me on it. Don’t let me go down that route.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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