A warning from the grave: Christopher Hitchens on choosing values over fear

In his 2010 talk given to PEN in New York, Christopher Hitchens talks about “the contagion of fear”. What he means is, the way terror subverts our values.

Values are things attached to higher reasoning. They are akin to goals or dreams, they are cerebral rather than instincts. That’s not to say our passion for them cannot emerge from instinct, or the drive of the limbic system.

They are simply top down, ideas we inherit from culture that we try to live up to, rather than behaviours that we are forced to comply with like we are with eating, sexual drive, or fight or flight.


Christopher Hitchens gave a talk to PEN 2010 in which we warned that fear is used to subvert basic social values like free speech

The contagion of fear is something created by small localised acts, such as the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, which are enough to make people abandon their values for fear of reprisal.

Hitchens details how effective this is, with specific reference to the Danish cartoon scandal of 2005 and the Salman Rushdie fatwa of 1989.

In both cases, popular opinion, driven by fear and panic, condemned the parties under attack as much, if not more so, than those doing the attacking.

This is fear at work. In both cases, the right to offend (part of the right to free speech), was being exercised.

However, the fall out of attacks and reprisals caused a number of people to voluntarily choose safety and compliance by not publishing the Danish cartoons in newspapers.

Hitchens equates this decision with collaboration with fascism. We all like to think that when the jackboot comes calling, we’ll stand up for our neighbour, we’ll fightback.

But how many of us really do? How important are our values?

Now some, if not most, simply deny today that this is a question of values. They try to spin inaction in the face of religious fascism, as living by our values, not contravening them.

In the name of tolerance, we don’t print cartoons of the Mohammad. The large number of people who accused Charlie Hebdo of “throwing oil on the fire”, and therefore somehow being complicit in the 2015 massacre at the magazine’s office, is a case in point.

This is worrying. And it is one part of the battle. We must always be ready to convince people of the importance of free speech – absolute free speech.

You don’t have the right not to be offended. And additionally, you don’t have the right to be protected from denigrating speech.

As Hitchens says here, “incitement” is an overused term. In it’s true meaning, you must show both causal culpability for a violent act, and it must be shown that the cause was deliberate.

If we test it according to these demands Charlie Hebdo can never be accused of incitement. It is just a linguistic error to make that assertion.

The other way this contagion of fear works is on the personal conscience.

As with Hitch’s example of Arthur Miller, even if we hold free speech dear, we find ourselves collaborating through silence and inaction.

I myself have experienced this recently. Last year, a good friend invited me to a lecture on the Danish cartoons in Copenhagen.

It was not particularly convenient for me, and I wasn’t inspired to go. That being said, I should have gone.

The final decision not to go was because of fear.

I write songs, shout at people on social media, cause rifts in my personal relationships because of my hardline on free speech.

But when the moment came, as Hitchens says it now has for most of us, I didn’t stand up. In fact, through the silence of my fear, the selfish desire to continue on with my comfortable life in London, I made a mockery of my professed values.

The threat now is real. We don’t know how safe it is to go to a simple lecture on Islam or religious politics or free speech.

Has the contagion of fear succeeded in summoning compliance, and even complicity?

Our values can only survive if we are willing to stand up to violence. We can’t give thuggery the last word.

But Hitchens is talking about being ready to die for your values. It is that simple.

The only thing that makes a fascist think twice is when people are willing to fight them, stand up to them and show them that personal safety and selfish gain mean nothing compared to our values.

The fascists like ISIS depend on a vision of human nature which is self-congratulatory reductive, a simplification of the idea we are basically animals.

How we fight them is in our subversion of immediate reward, for the sake of our values.


Christopher Hitchens before his death in 2011. Hitchens was a first amendment fundamentalist. His commitment to free speech meant he hounded by death threats for year in his later life. An irony he was fond of bringing to public attention

Shelley would say that this is our job as writers and artists. We create this subversion through inspiration, we remind people of the greatness of these values.

Rather than get bogged down in quibbles of tolerance versus free speech (an entirely false antithesis), I intend to remind people of the greatness of this core tenet of civilisation.

Only inspiration can cause human beings to choose higher order values over instinctual behaviours.

And to those who scoff at this project I say this: If the propagandist can do it, so can the poet.


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