Reader John S. called my attention to this addendum to chapter 15 of Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian, which I haven’t read in a long time. It’s fifteen years old now, but rings especially true these days—a time when the Left is divided into mutually carnivorous factions, feasting on the “small differences” Hitchens mentions.
PS: Since this often seems to come up in discussions of the radical style, I’ll mention one other gleaning from my voyages. Beware of identity politics. I’ll re-phrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics. I remember very well the first time I heard the saying “The Personal Is Political.” It began as a sort of reaction to the defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in even less interesting form of the narcissism of the small difference, because each identity group begat its subgroups and “specificities.” This tendency has often been satirised—the overweight caucus of the Cherokee trans-gender disabled lesbian faction demands a hearing on its needs—but never satirised enough. You have to have seen it really happen. From a way of being radical it very swiftly became a way of being reactionary; the Clarence Thomas hearings demonstrated this to all but the most dense and boring and selfish, but then, it was the dense and boring and selfish who had always seen identity politics as their big chance.
Anyway, what you swiftly realise if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighborhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first, that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn’t change anything about the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that “humanity” (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel, in this way.
I’m not sure exactly what Hitchens is saying in that last paragraph, unless he means that people are so wedded to their ethnic, religious, or other personal status that they make it the centerpiece of all discourse, demanding not just the right to feel offended, but to tell others what is offensive, and therefore what should not be said. And maybe he means that such people are unable to transcend their own identity to deal with issues affecting other groups—or humanity as a whole. Perhaps he’s referring to the kind of people who, deeply wedded to being thought of as anti-bigotry liberals, are willing to throw Middle Eastern women under the bus since they’re oppressed by Muslim people of color.
But Hitchen’s coda reminds me of what one Yale student wrote after she was mortally offended by Erika Christakis’s letter to her Silliman House students defending Halloween costumes as a form of free speech, and asking for people to chill out. As the Atlantic reported (my emphasis):
Another Silliman resident declared in a campus publication, “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns.” One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain.
The student next described what she thinks residential life at Yale should be. Her words: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” In fact, students were perfectly free to talk about their pain. Some felt entitled to something more, and that is what prolonged the debate—not a faculty member who’d rather have been anywhere else.
Another example is “Islamophobia,” where the criticism of bad religious doctrine elides into personal offense, shutting down any possibility of a debate (and given that the topic is religion, a constructive debate is unlikely anyway).