What Hitchens said

I find myself having to disagree with something Richard Dawkins said on Twitter, again.


In reverse order, so in chronological order:

Richard Dawkins @RichardDawkins · 6h
‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’ Christopher Hitchens.

‘I’m very depressed how in this country you can be told “That’s offensive” as though those two words constitute an argument.’ C. Hitchens.

@mharrelson79 I have no wish, nor did he have, to hurt people’s feelings. He simply meant feelings don’t constitute a logical argument.

The last tweet, which was in reply to the question “do you, personally, respond with such a disregard of someone’s feelings? Or are you making an intellectual point?”, shows what’s wrong with those tweets. They don’t work as stand-alone tweets with no context; in that form they just look like saying “be shitty to everyone.” That’s not good advice.

And it doesn’t come across any better when Hitchens says it. A kind Facebook friend found the source for me; it’s this video, starting at 6:20 with an audience question asking how do you separate attacking ideas and attacking people. Hitchens’s response comes across as brutal, frankly.

I hope that wasn’t true of him in real life. I hope if his daughter told him that, for example, he didn’t reply with “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.”

Now it’s possible that he meant “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings when I’ve been talking about a large institution or custom that is not personal to them” – then it at least makes sense. But that isn’t what he said, and it’s not what the tweet said.

I think we have every right to say harsh things about religion, clerics, sects. But I do not think we should be defending unapologetic verbal brutality across the board.



  1. doublereed says

    If you call Rick Santorum a bigot, and that hurts his feelings, would you particularly care? The principle still remains that if somebody says that you hurt their feelings, you don’t consider that an argument.

    The fact is that Dawkins is doing the strawman argument. It’s been explained why his statements are problematic far beyond “that’s offensive” and he’s pretending that’s all he’s heard. I mean he’s doing flagrantly irresponsible bullshit. Being ‘offensive’ is the least of the issue.

    If you’re dealing with your daughter or something, then someone’s feelings are of more import, and are actually like the primary goal of conversations or something. It’s not an argument in the same way. That seems like a significantly different context.

  2. doublereed says

    If you’re trying to relate these statements to the Vulcan arguments then I would say what Hitchens and Dawkins are saying is not the same kind of thing.

    I mean if somebody says they’re offended by the length of your skirt you’d just tell them to fuck off, right?

  3. says

    If you call Rick Santorum a bigot, and that hurts his feelings, would you particularly care? The principle still remains that if somebody says that you hurt their feelings, you don’t consider that an argument.

    But the fact that I don’t consider that an argument is – in certain conditions – entirely beside the point.

    It’s not beside the point if the claim is a derail or a deflection, or if it’s just plain without merit. But in other circumstances it is. If I say something mean in a moment of bad temper, then it doesn’t matter that saying “that hurt my feelings” isn’t an argument.

    You’re probably right about why he’s saying it now though. But that’s a separate question.

  4. maddog1129 says

    I understood Hitchens’s remarks to be aimed at religious claims of hurt feelings, a sort of reply to the “tone” argument.

  5. dshetty says

    In this case context is everything I guess. Maybe Hitchens meant it as a response to religious objections questioning their religion , in which case most of us would agree with the spirit of his response.

    But if for e.g. someone was making an argument that number of palestinians killed > number of Israelis and so Israel(Evil) > Palestine(evil) and an Israeli responded with You are hurting my feelings since you are reducing the deaths of my loved ones to a pure statistic to advance your agenda , I would not find Hitchens’ response appropriate (please lets not worry about the specifics of the example)

  6. says

    “You hurt my feelings” IS an argument of sorts, the question becomes in what context the argument is being made. Or maybe the question is whether or not causing hurt feelings is necessary to get your point across, or if some people even care about being decent human beings at all and are only using “logic” as a way to bully other people.

    I can’t speak to what’s going on in Dawkins’s mind, but he absolutely comes off as a bully here and so does Hitchens.

  7. qwints says

    Is it possible to believe both point A) how someone feels about a factual claim is irrelevant to its truth and point B) we ought to be concerned about other people’s feelings?

    I also think that A gets taken way too far in the skeptic and atheist communities because so many people refuse to seriously consider opposing value claims. I’ve seen people speak the same way when opposing claims about vaccines causing autism as they do when denying that women are harassed at conventions.

  8. says

    Oh, Jesus tap-dancing Christ, this is ridiculous. And triggering. Ridiculously triggering, even.

    No, not Ophelia’s post. The deliberate (and insulting) dismissal of emotion in favor of cold, hard “logic”. It’s one of those things my abuser did, in addition to deliberately pushing buttons to make me “emotional” for the express purpose of declaring an “automatic win” because “logic”.

    Mind, I’m not saying Dawkins is an abuser. I’m saying he is using some of the same tactics, and needs to take a step back and re-evaluate, because this kind of cold inflexible logic is just plain harmful.

  9. says

    I really wish these trogs would stop pretending that ’emotional’ is synonymous with ‘irrational’.

    Feelings and emotions are factors that must be weighed in order to reach the right decision.

    Take, for example a common issue here in the US.

    A company makes a product. The product, after distribution, is discovered to have a flaw. This flaw means that there is a chance the product, used correctly, will kill someone. It is estimated that the product will kill 12 people. Each person it kills will result in a lawsuit in which the company must pay out $10,000. By increasing it to $15,000, the company can ensure that those it pays are not allowed to discuss the product or lawsuit. Recalling the product will cost $300,000.

    What is the logical course of action for the company?

    Well, logically, per the math, the best course of action for the company to take is to not do a recall and simply pay out the lawsuits with attached NDAs. This would put the company ahead $120,000 with no publicity damage.

    Now, what is the RIGHT decision?

    Of course, it’s to recall the damn thing, because there is an emotional cost as well.

  10. says

    It comes back so often to the difference between whether or not you can do a thing, and whether or not you should do that thing. Intentional or not, there seem to be a lot of people in the atheist/skeptic movements who don’t understand that there’s a distinction. It’s why every call for standards of behavior receives cries of “fascist” and “censorship” in reply. It’s why we get called “dogmatic” when we say that, no, we’re not going to put people’s equality and humanity up for debate. And it’s why Dawkins can react with this bewildered “but I’m logically right” nonsense when people point out that his rhetoric is causing harm. Sure, you can blithely rank all manner of terrible tragedies, but that doesn’t mean you should.

  11. says


    Is it possible to believe both point A) how someone feels about a factual claim is irrelevant to its truth and point B) we ought to be concerned about other people’s feelings?

    Sure. But it’s not even clear that this was about factual claims at all, let alone exclusively.

    Mind you, it’s not really clear what it was about, other than continuing the “go away and learn to think” conversation.

  12. John Morales says

    And, in the real world: Victorian election: Liberal candidate Jack Lyons quits over ‘offensive’ comments posted on Facebook.

    Victorian Liberal candidate for the seat of Bendigo West Jack Lyons has quit over a series of “offensive” comments he posted on Facebook.
    In a statement, the Liberal Party’s Victorian director Damien Mantach last night said Mr Lyons’ comments were made in a closed Facebook group and were meant as a joke.

    “Jack Lyons has tonight withdrawn his candidacy as the Liberal Party candidate for Bendigo West,” Mr Mantach said.

    “The majority of the comments were written as jokes and posted in a closed Facebook page some years before he became a member of the Liberal Party.

    “However, Mr Lyons acknowledges the comments are juvenile and offensive. He has apologised unreservedly.”

  13. says

    Oh, and the “go away and learn to think” thing?

    HA HA HA HA… NO.

    It’s not my thinking that’s broken, here. My thinking is fine.

    Dawkins’ empathy is broken. Badly.

  14. says

    I couldn’t get past the beginning, where he appeared to be offering his smug suggestions for what to do with the internees in Gitmo. Gah! To think I liked the guy.

  15. number 9 says

    “It doesn’t matter that I’m causing harm if I’m being logical” countless terrible things have happened because of the sacred cow logic. Animal/human sacrifice? Corrective rape? Genocide?

    Dawkins is a [deleted] and a mediocre communicator,

  16. says

    The context in which I very much sympathize with Hitchens is where “I’m offended” is used to avoid engagement. If a person has constructed a genuine and honest argument then it’s rude and lazy to dismiss it because it dares question ones cherished beliefs. I’m guessing that’s not controversial.

    I agree that Hitchens did not make a good job of specifying the scope of his comment. Something similar is said in a discussion between Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens here. The debate was about blasphemy and religious hatred laws, but any context there is regrettably missing from the clip and that lack of context has, ironically, resulted in Fry’s quote being used to shut down debate of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. I largely agree with these criticisms.

    It’s disappointing if his quote means that Richard Dawkins still doesn’t see that there might be a problem with his lessons on logic. I’m not sure what would convince him. Perhaps if we run with his logic and take it further. ‘X is worse than Y’ is equivalent to ‘Y is better than X’. Would that still be acceptable? What if we had three options – then we could use the superlative – ‘best’ as well? Logically it still wouldn’t be saying anything absolute, but surely even he must spot the problem with saying any type of rape or pedophilia is ‘best’.

  17. Jeff Engel says

    Oh, and the “go away and learn to think” thing?
    HA HA HA HA… NO.
    It’s not my thinking that’s broken, here. My thinking is fine.
    Dawkins’ empathy is broken. Badly.

    I’m so tempted to come back, in response to “go away and learn to think”, with “go away and learn to feel”.

  18. doubtthat says

    I actually think this is a legitimate point – as opposed to most of the bullshittery produced by the anti-whatever crowd. It is a sort of hypocrisy to argue for the right to offend when it comes to satirizing religious figures or criticizing the behavior of atheist bigwigs, while demanding that people guard their language to avoid, for example, sexist slurs. I don’t doubt that the sensation of pain and outrage experienced by a devout Muslim upon witnessing a depiction of their prophet is similarly unpleasant to feelings

    I just don’t think the solution is particularly complicated. It’s a confusion born entirely of unjustly diffusing and broadening the argument to a disagreement over principle when it’s really a disagreement over instances and specifics. Or maybe more clearly, the principle isn’t “Never offend,” it’s, “Never offend without good reason.”

    Where Hitchens is wrong is that the next move after someone says, “I’m insulted,” does not belong to the person voicing their offense – it’s jackassery to stare at them and demand more – the next move belongs to the offender. It’s not just other person that needs to “go away and think.” This is how I evaluate my statements and language when someone has informed me that they caused offense:

    1) Is the offense real?
    -This is necessary because of the ad hoc, pissy internet style of just repeating back someone’s point and thinking it’s clever. For example, “Well, I’m offended that you used a gendered insult when you called me a ‘dick.'” Setting aside the issue of gendered insults, I would venture that 99% of the time that statement is made, it’s glib, disingenuous, and born of pettiness. It’s just a waste of time to honor that nonsense.

    2) Do I have a legitimate reason for saying what I did? Can I defend my remarks?
    -When I say, “Jesus isn’t real,” that causes offense. I believe that offense is legitimate; people feel bad. But I can produce a lot of argument to explain why that statement needs to be made despite the offense it causes. I cannot do so with use of the word “cunt,” for example.

    3) Can I live with the offended party continuing to be upset with me?
    -Right wingers, glibertarians, atheist bros…I’m fine with them being upset with me. People whose opinions I value…I may need to say things differently.

    This issue comes up quite a bit. The usual suspects think it’s a powerful trump card: “How dare you, Ophelia, How Dare You question our use of language when you offended ________ with that post…” It’s fairly easy to simultaneously argue for general civility while still understanding that some offense is unavoidable. You just have to be prepared to defend and live with the offense you cause.

    Sorry for the length.

  19. says

    number 9 – I deleted a couple of words from your comment before allowing it to appear, because they violate the terms of the statement I just co-signed ten days ago.

  20. jesse says

    What gets me is that Hitchen’s argument seems to be “I have the right to be a jerk because I am making a good argument.” No, you don’t.

    But more often Dawkins — and Hitchens, as time passed– seem to be falling into this thing that I call (largely privileged and white) adolescent atheism. That is, the kind of atheism you see in smart junior high students to whom you always have to say the following:

    No, it isn’t cool and edgy to listen to that Depeche Mode album and talk about how awful Christianity is and religion more generally. No, that doesn’t make you smarter than everyone else, Yes, there’s a big bloody difference between religions power positions when talking about marginalized populations and dominant ones. And no, there isn’t one fits-all set of rules for that. And pretending that there’s no difference between “punching up” and “punching down” is stupid beyond belief. No, people –especially PoC — who follow whatever religion aren’t just waiting for you to tell them where they are going wrong and how ignorant they are. And no, human emotions are not the same as being irrational.

    Many of us have fallen into this trap, but after you’re 18 it isn’t so charming. You’re supposed to learn that you share the planet with other people.

    The fact that I feel like Dawkins of all people doesn’t get any of this is utterly baffling to me. Hitchens didn’t get it either, not towards the end. It was like he was just itching for some crusade where he could be on the side of right and the side of the powerful as well.

    Dawkins seems similar in some ways. He just does not seem to get the idea that not everyone is a tenured oxford don, that not everyone got to go to nice public schools (UK public, I mean). For a scientist he seems to have such a narrow view of human possibility. (Hitchens could betray that too, and in his case I found it more unforgivable, but the man is gone and the good and bad he did will just have to be what it is).

    (BTW not loving the loss of the old FTB login.. oh well)

  21. Jeff Engel says

    Yes, there’s a big bloody difference between religions power positions when talking about marginalized populations and dominant ones.

    Could you restate this point? I don’t know what you mean here and I’d like to. Thank you.

  22. jesse says

    @Jeff Engel:

    When you are talking about Christians in the US, you are talking about a privileged majority. That’s why when they complain about persecution by evil atheists who force them to do things like cove contraception in insurance plans we know it’s a dumb argument. Similarly, the power that Christian churches have in Europe and the US (or cultures in which Europeans have had a heavy stamp) is quite large. That’s why the Catholic Church was able to cover stuff up in the US for so long and why the Church can exercise a lot of power in Nicaragua, Chile, the Philippines and El Salvador, to name two, where abortions are illegal and contraception really hard to get at all. (El Salvador is particularly egregious).

    If you are speaking of Muslims, Jews or Sikhs, in the United States or say, Norway, then the situation is different. Each of these is a minority religion and in two of those cases explicitly racialized. I hope I don’t need to explain to you what that means.

    Now, let’s go to say, Saudi Arabia. It’s an Islamic theocracy in which other religions are basically banned or severely circumscribed. Or places like Iraq or the old USSR. In all these cases certain minorities were persecuted — Christians, for instance, face problems in many nations where Islam is dominant (or Buddhism, if you’re in China or Sri Lanka). The Russians really went after the indigenous religions of the Siberian peoples, and the mosques in Central Asia.

    Criticizing the actions of an imam in Saudi Arabia — or Islam in Saudi Arabia generally — means something rather different than when you talk about Islam in the US or UK. The same is true of criticism of the religious leaders in Iran, or Iraq, or other places where they have not only authority but the backing of the larger culture.

    So when you criticize the role of religion in society you have to keep in mind where you’re talking about and who. I’d say Christianity is a much bigger threat to people in the US (think the Hobby Lobby decision) than Islam is, since the latter is only ~5% of the populace and the Christians get people elected to office (there is only one national elected official of the Muslim faith that I know of, out of 538 of them). There’s also simply no realistic way that Islamic radicals are going to take power anywhere in the US, not in a meaningful way. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or can’t make trouble for local communities, but it’s a bit like the FLDS. Yes Warren Jeffs exists but for most people he’s jut not a factor and politically he is nothing outside of small communities scattered in the West. But Michele Bachmann is on the Intelligence Committee, Sarah Palin ran for VP, Todd Akin ran for Senate, so the churches they represent are more important to that discussion. Being some kind of Christian and preferably a protestant (and married) is still almost a sine qua non for a president of the US.

    Then there’s the issue of where religions are a path to survival. In many cases– especially indigenous people that we often class as “primitive” — the religions they have aren’t just random bits of weird beliefs. Often they are an expression of a painstaking and well-thought-out survival strategy. The Diné don’t just practice their religion because they are stupid and ignorant. There’s a whole system of behaviors and beliefs they have that is essential for surviving in the desert. They might not express themselves in scientific terms but you can bet your booty that they know what they are doing. They have a whole culture built around it, and it isn’t just a case of them waiting for you (white guy, usually) to lead them to modernity. They had quite enough of that, thank you.

    To make it clear: if you go to an Indian reservation and yell about how religion poisons everything, don’t be surprised if people don’t see you as a liberator. Be ready for people to tell you that you are an insensitive jackass at least.

    (And no, this isn’t some primitivist thing either, there is a difference between modernity as an idea and use of modern technology, A native talking about the importance of their religion does not equate to wanting to go back to life exactly as it was in 1700. The Amish are a Christian sect, and such prmitivism is actually a very European thing).

    So when people who are atheists, but specifically the kind of atheist I am talking about there, talk about religion, and it’s problems, it’s important to be specific, it’s important to understand who you are taking to, and vital to think about the position you are speaking from. Remember the line about “punching up” and “punching down.” Who occupies which place is not the same all the time and everywhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *