Sunday, 4 October 2015

An evening with Peter Hitchens

I had a Twitter ruck with Peter Hitchens on Friday night. Very small ruck. Nobody hurt. Quite peaceful for a Friday night.

He's a boorish guy, Hitchens, which is what surprised me, since he has a reputation for courtesy when expressing differences of opinion. Perhaps he's a nicer guy in a person than he is on the internet: most guys probably are. I'm certainly not.

It was his style of boorishness that interested me. Not abusive, but not quite condescending: just calling me stupid, without actually using the word. A very middle-class way of being obnoxious, quite suitably so for somebody who vests his hopes in the middle classes. Can't you read? says the highly-educated man to the shop assistant who has made a simple error, knowing very well that the shop assistant reads just as well as he does, but taking the opportunity to call him stupid and put him in his place.

There's something substantial to be written about sneering as a habit, about the sneer as a mode of address, though I don't suppose I'll ever be the one who writes it. The sneer's the way in which the educated speak of the uneducated, the insiders of the outsiders, the middle class of the lower ranks, the successful of the unsuccessful. Both of and to, in truth, though only to when the victim is in no position to retaliate. But that's the idea: to stress position. Speaking down to people affirms their status and your own. It expresses and insists on it. Why do I speak to you like this? I speak to you like this to show that you are not my equal.

The sneer loses its effect online. Online abuse is different: it seems to magnify itself in the absence of the physical person. But call somebody stupid online and you just look like you're playing in the playground - which is where the habit originates, in making the other kid feel small for not being one of your gang. (Or, perhaps, in having been made to feel small: the boy who was kicked is father to the man who does the kicking.). But that's not entirely fair, since it's as much an adult absurdity as a childish one: the pompous man losing his dignity, and losing it the more, the more he thinks he's keeping it. The customer calls the shop assistant stupid - but what if then, the shop assistant laughs and shrugs his shoulders?

It's a shame, since I'd have liked to see the conversation go where it was headed, before Peter started getting pinned down by his argument and lashing out to try and free himself. It would have been intriguing, at the very least, to see his argument develop, that gun rampages are best addressed by the death penalty (which the US has, and the UK does not) and can be linked to drug use (which is as common outside the US as it is within it). A hard position, in principle, to defend against reality.

But that's the nature of contrarianism, a combination of genuine insight and wild exaggerations-for-effect, and woe betide you if you point out that the contrarian is exaggerating for effect, since it's then that the screaming teenager reveals itself within. It's an immaturity that goes with the approach, since it's a sixth-form-debating style, getting away with what you can get away with rather than trying to tease out what is true. But if you do it right, and do it for the right people, you never need to change it. Nor do you ever need to change the person underneath.

It's half a farce to cast myself as the shop assistant in that story, though only half, since I have been a shop assistant, which I don't suppose that Peter Hitchens has. But I also have an education, academic and political, a lot like the one the young Peter Hitchens had. And I recognise this habit, the one of trying to look down on other people, of making other people feel small, not just in Peter Hitchens but also in myself. You have to be yourself, we say to one another, but you don't have to like it, and it's when we see ourselves in others that we like ourselves the least.

Well, education is no substitute for knowledge of yourself, and formal education doesn't help you get there. Perhaps the opposite: nothing is less likely to make you look at your own flaws than the knowledge of being successful, of having scored more highly in exams than other people, of having reached a higher status, of having achieved more success. These are things which lead you to compare yourself to other people, to their discredit and your own advantage, not to look within. Not to ask yourself the question - how do I treat other people?

But these are the things we value: not self-knowledge, but exam results, money, success. And money is no mirror to the people who have got it.

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