Monday, December 19, 2011

"He had the courage to say unpopular things": No praise for courting controversy


This post is not about Christopher Hitchens. It is just that eulogizing of the writer has me pondering the adulation we give people and ideas believed to be outside the bounds of "political correctness."

Hitch was a polarizing figure: He could be a louche wit and raconteur, an exceptional writer, a tireless advocate for the Godless, a moving chronicler of the end of life and also a pompous sexist, racist warmonger and Islamophobe, drunk on privilege (and whatever else). I'll remind that Hitchens was the guy who argued that women are inherently not funny, who attempted to paint Michelle Obama as a black militant on the strength of a college thesis about the alienation black students often feel on majority white campuses, and who said of the war in Iraq: "The death toll is not nearly high enough... too many [jihadists] have escaped."

Now, despite all that, many folks were fond of Hitchens--at least that is the impression I get from comments on Gawker, Salon, Slate and the like. How does one square abhorrent pronouncements by a man whose work can also be admirably challenging and engrossing? Apparently, it is by evoking the rather vague and puzzling commendation: Well, even if I didn't agree with him, he had the courage to say unpopular things. I keep hearing this in relation to Christopher Hitchens and I wonder: Is the will to say detested things praise-worthy, in and of itself?

At the root of the discussion is the myth of "political correctness," which I wrote about a few years ago in this space:
Disdain for "political correctness" is often positioned as a concern that some important truth is not being spoken for fear of offending someone. But that concern is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To invoke "political correctness" is really to be concerned about loss of power and privilege. It is about disappointment that some "ism" that was ingrained in our society, so much that citizens of privilege could express the bias through word and deed without fear of reprisal, has been shaken loose. Charging "political correctness" generally means this: "I am comfortable with my privilege. I don't want to have to question it. I don't want to have to think before I speak or act. I certainly don't wish to inconvenience myself for the comfort of lesser people (whoever those people may be--women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)" Read more...


Since the (conservative-driven) idea that some "Stalinist orthodoxy" prevents good Americans from speaking freely has taken hold, I notice more amorphous applause for people who say controversial things no matter what those controversial things are. Content matters. It is indeed commendable to speak truth to power, or to stand up for right in the face of wrong. But just to say unpopular shit? Why should anyone get cookies for that? Most people would not charge half the human race with a chronic lack of funny, because the statement lacks nuance (As Echidne capably points out here.) and because they have heard of Lucille Ball and Fanny Brice and Moms Mabley and Tina Fey, not because they are cowards in fear of the PC police.

It is not a virtue simply to say controversial things. You know who else says controversial things? Michelle Bachman. Are we to laud the good Representative for her courage to speak against death panels, despite the fact that, you know, none exist, have existed or were planned to exist? The very idea is silly.

Every unaccepted pronouncement isn't hidden wisdom. And every speaker of provocative things isn't a genius. Saying someone has the courage to say the unsayable is meaningless without analysis of what exactly is said.

Photo Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid




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