Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Cult of Clever: Stephen Fry and the Next Generation

Aren't other people just stupid? Not you, though.

I went to see Stephen Fry in what I was hoping was going to be conversation with the stricken muse of articulacy, Christopher Hitchens, at the Royal Festival Hall this week. Alas, the Hitch had selfishly developed pneumonia and begged out of the occasion, which meant that the evening, however charming, would be in deficit of a dialogue by a factor of one, which is often seen as fatal to the enterprise. But like the androgynous protagonists of Battle of the Planets, when Hitch unravels he is replaced by a fighting force of allies and confidantes: in stepped the Archbishops and Cardinals of atheism and reason, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Dawkins, along with satellite contributions from Sean Penn (how odd), Lewis Lapham, Chris Buckley and others.

The loss was transformational; not that the night was a waste- it is never a waste to see such lions of loquacity prowling and strutting, and talking about themselves to a captive crowd- but that it became a homage, almost a video obituary taking place as the dying Socrates drank his carcinocidal cocktail in New York, and I could almost imagine the whole piece finishing with the operatic dénouement of Le Morte d' Hitchens. To witness your own valediction must be a peculiar experience.

Fry was, of course, value-added; replete with anecdotes and morsels of amusement and intelligence so easily expedited from memory to mouth that I imagined they were simply stuck between his teeth from the last time he ate a copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus with truffle oil and the tears of a hippogriff. Amis was the headline act, so commandingly confident about the process of putting one word in front of another that Fry almost looked mute by comparison. He alluded nicely to he and Hitchen's unconsummated buddy love, and we were introduced to a peculiar tour of the private snaps of the world's most hirsute columnist since Robin Williams wrote Dear Deirdre. Rushdie beamed down on the audience from the enormous satellite link screen like a latter-day deity, which must have disappointed any jihadists with long memories who fancied a punt, owned a tyre-iron and could read Twitter.
Dawkins' first ad campaign.

Penn impressed an audience of apparently easily impressed people by lighting a cigarette on screen; Fry commented that he couldn't have shocked people more if he'd dropped his pants instead. Penn, looking bleary and autonomously wealthy, worried me for a minute when I thought he might do just that. A fortunate interruption of the signal spared us all.

Dawkins seemed somewhat underused; but everyone agreed that it was nice he was there; otherwise the whole thing would seem like a very odd documentary of beloved intellectuals punctuated by Fry's sybaritic bon mots. It was a very enjoyable evening; a tribute rather than a conversation, and no matter that no matter was discussed more seriously than the average exchange on the Parkinson show, but it was what it was. Heaven forbid we should criticise something for what it is not: rather, criticise it for what it is. Negatives and non-existents are such frightfully slippery fish to catch, let alone cook.

This, my friends, is all you need.
What concerned me was the mood and fervour of some of the audience members; I noticed this before the show as I prepped my rusty brain with a Rusty Nail, and it was brought into sharp relief by at least one of the vox populi questions at the end. There was a hushed, awed tone of admiration and awe for the participants that was entirely understandable; great men are easy to admire, and men of great intelligence are great men. But the reverence afforded to them was what worried me.

As a teacher of philosophy and religion, I am immersed in the task of driving what I can loosely call structured thinking: the presentation of ideas and opinions as a process of facilitated justification, where mere advocacy and prejudice can be replaced by rhetorical syllogisms that can endure contest. I am also, as you can imagine, immersed in a lot of stupid. For every substantiated opinion, I hear ten knee-jerk outbursts. That's fine: that's what I'm there for- to challenge cant and bullshit, maybe even to have mine challenged once in a while by the rare outlier.

Children and adults both are sensitive to the vice of certainty. It is a weakness peculiar to humanity, that we are convinced intuitively of the following two premises:

P1: There is an objective moral truth
P2: I am the only one truly capable of perceiving it.

Letters to the usual address
Conclusion? Well, there are many. These two contestable, controversial contentions lead many to succumb to the weaknesses of tribalism, bigotry, and other synonyms for the parochial mind. Having an illiberal mentality is similar to public flatulence- it's always someone else, never you. I can say this with the certainty of the chastened because I have had, on several occasions throughout my life, my personal dogma detonated irretrievably. As Descartes, the Patron Saint of even-handedness once opined, 'Many of my previous, dearly held convictions, have proven to be false.' His attempt to find a foundational, unassailable truth led him to destroy the entire edifice of his beliefs, before finding that when the smoke had cleared, only the Cogito was left in the rubble. Some destruction required, contents may alter from description.

Which isn't to say that my own views and values are now somehow inoculated from assumption and self-deceit: merely that I am aware that such deceit exists in profundity. The epistemological Holy Grail of a fact known beyond doubt is such an eternal pilgrimage, that I appreciate how very uncertain most of our certainties are. In school, I feel it somewhat of a holy mission for me to challenge the beliefs of my students: not for the project of cynical assimilation, as if I were trying to sculpt every mind in the image of me, but rather as an attempt to put pressure on their beliefs to see if they buckle, bend or repel. What survives the fire is inevitably stronger; scar tissue may not please our aesthetic, but it is thicker than the untempered tissue from which it develops. And sometime, their ideas push back.

And that's what makes me uneasy whenever I go to one of these Cultish rallies: the assumed righteousness of some of the acolytes, who are more interested in having their certainties stroked and oiled by the Greek Gods of secular humanism, or fundamental Romanism, or any one of a million shades of conviction. In a dialogue between Hitchens and Fry, one could hardly expect gladiatorial discussion; I was more looking forward to an evening of easy, well-expressed companionable wit, like port with a friend by the light of a fireplace. It became, as I say, a tribute, as if the Hitch's Super Friends had joined to lay wreaths before his prehumous tomb.

'Here we are- the next generation!'
But the evening was soured by an unbearable ponce of a man who exemplified everything that was wrong with the Cult of Anyone: he bounded up to the microphone in manner that suggested a foppish mime running on the spot, and did something guaranteed to make me want to jump off something high: instead of asking a question, he launched into a monologue about...well, himself mostly, although he camouflaged it with cringing flattery for the demigods before which he crawled. And, in response to an earlier query, 'Where are the Hitches of the next generation?' he replied, arms akimbo, 'Here I am! We are the next generation, rational and ready for the .....' blah blah. If I paraphrase, I care not a jot. He was lucky I didn't spanner him with my handy spanner I keep for such occasions. If he was possessed of one vertebrae less than a full complement, I do believe he would have happily sucked himself off.

Certainty revolts me; self-congratulatory, infinite self-belief makes my entrails heave. The biggest danger for the New Atheist movement- and I applaud many of its intended aims- is that it becomes a new orthodoxy; that it disguises itself in the beard-and-glasses combo of open-mindedness, and by doing so, convinces itself that the battle for intellectual supremacy had been won. One's own axioms need to be tested constantly; imagine how embarrassed you would feel if you discovered you were wrong, and it was too late to do anything about it?
Cogito ergo Zod.
No ideology or demographic has the copyright on truth; no one is immune to the human vices of self-flattery, egoism, narcissism and the desire to be right. I love reading the Hitch; I am happy to doff my cap and acknowledge a man of superior discrimination and intellectual perspicacity. Such admissions are the natural tribute demanded when one recognises a height greater by far than one's own. But we should always be careful to assume that we are the keepers of the sacred flame; that our way is the only right way; that we and only we possess the revealed wisdom of the ancients. It is a flaw in most faiths, and increasingly it is a flaw in the non-faithful. And that is because it is a human flaw. We-I mean all of us- must be on constant guard against the villainy of congratulating ourselves. Aren't we clever? Aren't we intelligent?

People in every century have thought themselves more enlightened than their predecessors. Who is to say that we have acheived the Omega Brain State? What does their certainty say about ours?

'What the F*CK did you just say?'
The best place for a scared cow is on a plate with a little butter.


  1. You're one of those cool teachers, aren't you?!

  2. I wish you were my teacher when I was younger...I suspect I would have been on the right path (of thinking for myself) sooner. Lucky, lucky students.

  3. Apart from the fact that I really enjoyed reading this post.. that last picture and comment really cracked me up! Thanks.