On Intellectual Conflict and Positive Social Change

Christopher Hitchens is an author I enjoy reading.  Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I get angry at what he says, but he always makes me think and reassess my own assumptions.  In that, he is a true inspiration.  In Letters to a Young Contrarian, I understand him as viewing happiness as suspect if it results in a person (fortunate enough to experience it for lengthy periods), sitting back on his or her haunches and forgetting about the rest of the world’s problems.  He notes: ” . . . in life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation” . . . “the pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable ftom angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair” (the italics are his). 

I think anyone familiar with Hitchens would agree that he is indeed angst-ridden, and that this is one of his gifts to us.  I selectively read him, appropriate him, re-purpose him.  I like to think that it is a good policy to attack the idea, not the person expressing it.  People can be convinced, improved, supported, while ideas are dangerous because they spread with deadly speed and tenacity.  I try to remember this when I challenge the way something was done or I question something that was said.  True courage can be found where and when people act in a principled way because they do not fear being reprimanded and they are not afraid of disappointing people when making a pertinent point.  Injustice demands it.  Hitchens is probably right that “a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony”  would be “a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability.”  Whether for better or for worse, we struggle in this life, and most character-building is contingent upon the most flawed acts, embarrassing emotions, and humiliating moments.  Were it otherwise, we would be awash in smugness and overrun with individuals who are confidently incorrect.

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