Saturday, June 25, 2016

`One Cannot Abolish'

Iago muses on the mutability of Othello and, by extension, all men: “The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida.” In his 1826 essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” William Hazlitt weaves this beautiful sentence into his prose. Listen to the slowly building crescendo:

“Does the love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties. This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient of their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. `That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida;’ and love and friendship melt in their own fires. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.”

Hazlitt speaks as an insider, not theoretically, and had much practical experience with hating and inconstancy. Former enthusiasms turn overnight as “bitter as coloquintida.”  In a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon written in 1818, John Keats describes Hazlitt as “your only good damner, and if ever I am damn’d—damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.” Few haters have written so well, but Hazlitt was never merely a hater, and his hating was never ideological or aimed at such groups as Jews, blacks or the Irish. With him it was a matter of temperament and often fueled, as is still the case today, by politics. Like most writers, Hazlitt was a political naïf who generated more heat than light. “On the Pleasure of Hating” might be read as a case of unwitting, unrecognized autobiography.

I thought of Hazlitt’s great essay when reading “The Problem with Hate Speech” by the Canadian poet and polemicist David Solway. I once asked the late David Myers what he thought of Solway’s work, and David described it as “fulsome,” without further elaboration. Solway gets a little overheated but his thinking is usually clear and his prose, when resisting stridency, is forceful and tart. Like Hazlitt, Solway accepts hate as a basic component of our human nature. Hate in the abstract is not essentially evil. Not to hate pedophilia and Nazism is to be morally stunted. Everyone hates on occasion. Solway writes: 

“The feeling of hatred is a human attribute as basic as love; it is an emotion that cannot be vaporized out of existence, and which the human mind can subtly manipulate to pass off as a form of love, in the way that an Inquisitor could burn a human being at the stake into order to cauterize his soul for his own eternal benefit. But neither hate nor love nor their various mutations are reified entities; they are ingrained constituents of the human psyche. One can introspect and adjust, but one cannot abolish.”

The most precious of all freedoms is the freedom to be left alone. The Inquisitors of “hate speech,” moralizing busybodies, live a contradiction they will never recognize. As Solway puts it: “Those who seek to criminalize `hate speech’ obviously hate those whom they wish to fine, imprison or destroy.”

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