Laughing at the Misfortunes of Others

Carlin Romano starts an editorial about Chrisopher Hitchens's cancer in scandalous fashion--
If God occasionally intervenes in the world to shoot down an atheist—to show who's boss, or simply to vent—it makes sense for Him to target the esophagus.
As organs go, it's long and conveniently placed, stretching from throat to stomach, making a good target for an elderly yet determined deity with possibly shaky hands. Its importance to speech heightens the symbolic force intended. And its connection to swallowing suggests the irony some believers think God enjoys too much: You can't swallow me? You won't swallow anything!
What a terrible thing to say!  For shame!  But never fear, he says this stuff to raise...
...the peculiar issue of parallelism that comes up when curmudgeons, contrarians, and provocateurs find themselves on the ropes, as with all violators of society's norms. Just as we can debate whether it's acceptable to use terrorism or torture against terrorists and torturers—those who don't sign on to the social contract by which everyone else lives—we can ask whether it's OK to be scabrously unsympathetic to a stinging gadfly who is possibly in his ninth inning.
Hitchens has said wicked, wicked things about other people.  Is turn-around fair play?   Yeah, yeah, two wrongs don't make a right.  On the other hand, a "stinging gadfly" is in no position to complain.  And if he can't complain, how can anyone complain on his behalf?   This is what Saul Smilansky calls "the paradox of moral complaint" --for more on that, see here.

To make the puzzle about Hitchens even more puzzling, consider an interview (will provide link when I find it) where he's asked how he would define the good life. He lists several ingredients, but focuses on one in particular, mentioning it twice.  What would that be? Laughing at the misfortunes of others.


Brett Hetherington said...

That certainly is a nasty start to the article from Romano because it does not take the form of disagreeing with Hitchens but instead it hints at the idea that he deserves cancer.

I'm no automatic fan of Hitchens though I respect his independence of mind and brave advocacy of atheism, while he points out the wrongdoings of the religious.

I am wondering what he has said that qualifies as wicked...(if we accept that his support for the Iraq war is mistaken rather than somehow evil.)

Your link raises the classic biblical "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" dilemma.

I, like most people believe in a punishment that fits the crime but also think that a violent act in reply to a violent act is generally morally wrong because there are so few situations where violence is the only ethical option to take.

Geoff Coupe said...

Jean, I think you're thinking about this interview with Hitchens:

And I, for one, think that schadenfreude has a valid place, alongside the other things that Hitchens calls out as making a good life: irony, literature, love, children and: being vindicated.

Jean Kazez said...

Geoff, Oh good--thanks. I couldn't find it again.

Truth is, I did rather like what he said there. If Carlin Romano is doing the same thing --laughing at the misfortunes of others--well then what? We get this interesting "paradox of complaint" (Smilansky). You can say Romano is wrong by some standard, but you also have to admit that Hitchens can't complain...and it's odd to think anyone else can complain either, on his behalf.

Faust said...

Has Hitchens made fun of, or enjoyed the dim prospects of those diagnosed with terminal illnesses?

Jean Kazez said...

You might enjoy watching this--


Faust said...

That was pretty good. If Hitchens believed in God, he would've made a great preacher.

He did wish for a hell that he could send Falwell to. The moralist in high dudgeon.