Hitchens vs Perry

For editors of TV panel programs, Peter Hitchens is through-and-though good value for money. Whatever the subject is, he is guaranteed to say at least one thing which almost everyone will find objectionable and at least one thing which almost everyone will find absurd. And he’ll do both with wit, eloquence and deep conviction. Let’s face it, righteous indignation sells TV and Hitchens generates bucket-loads of it; presenter, panel, studio audience and home audience are all engaged to the deepest fibre of their being.

I do wonder whether anyone had prepared Matthew Perry for this. Whatever the case, it certainly made entertaining TV and the Guardian reported on it with enthusiasm. Naturally, we find ourselves very much in sympathy with Perry as he openly admits on television that he suffers from alcoholism, only to be pilloried by Hitchens, in whose view there is no such thing as addition to alcohol – just bad choices.

Not only is Hitchens about as sensitive as a lump of lead, but he is also clearly the superior rhetorician. This is grossly unfair to Perry, but, once again, wonderfully entertaining TV. And here’s the nub: these panel discussions with Hitchens are beginning to look just a smidgeon formulaic. Pair him with some other panellists who are a) at least slightly liberal, b) not quite up to Hitchens’s level of repartee and c) likely to have the sympathy of the viewers, and you’ve got automatic good TV.

This is unfortunate because Hitchens, unorthodox thinker that he is, does usually have some perceptive things to say and does usually say them well. All this is lost, however, in the entertainment. What is needed is a thinker of equal clarity and with equal verbal skill to keep him from wandering so far into flights of fancy, to keep him honest. Take the discussion with Perry. What Matthew Perry most needed in at least two moments of the conversation was the phrase, “I do not grant your premise, Mr Hitchens”.

The first time Perry should have said this was when Hitchens based a (logically sound) argument on the premise that the justice system exists solely for the purposes of crime prevention. Hitchens needed to be called on this presupposition: the criminal justice system may exist for crime prevention but it also exists as for the purposes of vindicating victims, protecting the public from offenders and rehabilitating offenders. (This is explicit, for example, in the mission statement of Her Majesty’s Prison Services). Had this point been made, the conversation may well have born much fruit and, particularly, Hitchens’s point about what I would refer to as prospective and retrospective justice¬†might not have been lost.

The second moment for “I do not grant your premise” was when Hitchens demanded a way of clinically diagnosing alcoholism. This flattened Perry, for whom alcoholism is such a blatently obvious fact of life that one would never even consider asking for proof. He was reduced to floundering about with a vague suggestion that his addiction was caused by an allergy, about which he could produce no details whatsoever. Hitchens, finely-honed rhetorical-weakness-antennae vibrating shrilly, spotted the weakness and plunged in for the kill. On points, Hitchens marched to an easy victory in the debate. But he lost every last one of his audience, and with that, the debate.

What Perry should have said was that alcoholism is not diagnosed clinically and that it is a false premise to deny the existence of something just because there is no way of isolating it clinically. He might, very easily, for example have observed that Hitchens’s own personhood is not something which can be diagnosed clinically. This is a point which Hitchens himself might have made in a different debate against, say, his late atheist brother Christopher.

Who knows what interesting kind of conversation might have followed about the experience of an alcoholic. But any possibility of this was headed off when the conversation went into the fantasy territory of attempting to describe a clinical diagnosis where none exists.

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