April 13, 2014

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens


In the matter of civil rights, it seems to me that my right to breathe air uncontaminated by cigarette smoke trumps any number of smokers”€™ rights (the same goes for my desire for silence over pop music), except for avoidable places where smokers should be allowed to foregather. I was sometimes faced with this problem in the prison in which I worked as a doctor. Smoking is obviously the principal cause of crime because virtually all criminals smoke; but very, very occasionally a prisoner who did not smoke would be received into the prison and request a smoke-free cell (there were usually two prisoners to a cell). Though I am not much of a fan of the concept of rights, beyond a very few elementary ones, I sympathized with him and thought this was his right, and therefore our duty to provide.

I hasten to add that my objection to smoke is purely aesthetic and has nothing to do with its health effects, not even planetary. 

Some years ago I reviewed a book of essays by the late Christopher Hitchens. He detested the then mayor of New York’s crusade against smoking in public places, which he considered tyrannically puritan, and decided to break the law in protest. Smoking had been banned in all restaurants in the city (the single greatest improvement in gastronomy, in my opinion, though I still think there should be restaurants where smoking is allowed), and Hitchens decided to risk martyrdom by lighting up, first asking the people at the next table whether they minded. They said they did not. 

What was interesting to me about Hitchens”€™ account of this episode was that he showed absolutely no awareness that his question was not a neutral one, that it was not a question to which everyone would give a true answer. It seems that he was insufficiently tuned, as it were, to the complexities of human social intercourse to realize that for most people the desire not to offend, not to disoblige or to cause a scene, would far outweigh their desire not to be inconvenienced by smoke, much as they might not like smoke. In nine cases out of ten, Hitchens”€™ question would be a bullying one. 

And this is what political correctness is”€”a form of bullying. Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Answer me yes or no.        



Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!