The 1992 horror film Candyman is based on an urban legend: if you look into a mirror and say ‘Candyman’ five times, the eponymous protagonist will appear from nowhere and slaughter you with the hook on the end of his arm. In 2013 there is a less violent but equally chilling phenomenon on Twitter whereby if you use the words “Peter Hitchens” in a tweet there is a strong possibility that you will get a reply sometime later from the man himself if, as is likely, he’s not happy with the content of your tweet.
He uses the Twitter handle @ClarkeMicah (alluding to the book Micah Clarke by Arthur Conan Doyle) and by all accounts it really does seem to be the man himself.
I experienced this on Friday when I posted a couple of tweets about his pronouncements that addiction does not exist. He had a notorious argument with Russell Brand on the subject on Newsnight and also, more recently, the journalist Damian Thompson in The Spectator (they have both written books on the subject, drawing opposite conclusions).
My tweets were irreverent, but I was trying to make the point that denying the existence of addiction is as absurd as denying the existence of any number of things.
A little while later I received the following response:
Now, for anyone unfamiliar with how Twitter works there is only really one way Mr Hitchens could have become aware of these tweets. They did not specifically mention his username so he would not have received any notification. It is not possible that he would have seen them retweeted by another user as, in keeping with his obvious contempt for the platform, he doesn’t actually follow anybody. No, he clearly uses Twitter for one purpose only: to search for his own name, see what other people are saying about him and reply in kind. His prerogative of course, but this is akin to walking around a pub and eavesdropping on conversations to determine if people are talking about you, then taking them on if they are.
I’ve been aware of this phenomenon for a while as Micah Clarke is renowned for popping up in conversations with the immortal opening line “This is Peter Hitchens”, something for which, along with constantly referring to himself in the third person, he has been frequently lampooned for.
So while I was aware that this does happen, I was still surprised to get a response. And rather an unusual one really. Was he really suggesting that I genuinely do not know the difference? Was he taking me literally? He’s not renowned for his sense of humour or appreciation of irony but surely he doesn’t think anyone could be serious about this?
So I replied.
And in return I received:
“You’re just not as clever or funny as you think you are.” Ouch! A a punch in the kidneys! (But not literally a punch in the kidneys. You see, Mr Hitchens? I really can distinguish between the material and the non-material world.)
I responded again. What the hell, this was more interesting than work and besides, how often do you get to debate with a Hitchens?
And, dispatched from Mr Hitchens, one for one:
Of these responses, the first is the most curious.
“You say it exists. Burden is on you to prove it. Science needs objective description, repeatable experiments, prediction.”
The burden of proof. No objection whatsoever to this claim, and he is right. What makes this particularly interesting is that this would be the line of reasoning taken by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and, yes, Christopher Hitchens when debating the existence of god. As a renowned Christian and frequent debater on the subject I don’t ever recall Peter Hitchens acceding to this point on the issue of his own faith. Religious faith, it seems, is immune to this kind of scientific enquiry. It’s got a special permit. But here, the tables are turned. ‘Addiction’, something experienced by millions of people, must be scientifically proven otherwise he’s not going to believe in it? A staggering logical volte face there.
What Hitchens (how strange it feels to use that name and not mean his brother) means is that what we call ‘addiction’ is nothing more than a lack of self-control on the part of the ‘addict’. That by succumbing to the concept of ‘addiction’ we absolve the ‘addict’ of responsibility. It’s not their fault. They can’t help themselves. Up to a point he is correct. The first step that any addict would need to take to deal with their substance dependence would be to recognise that they have a problem with it and either seek professional help or resolve to give it up. But this overlooks a couple of uncontentious facts. Firstly, many substances do create dependence in an observable, biological sense. To use a mundane example, anyone who has ever been a regular smoker can testify to this. The desire for that first cigarette in the morning is not just habitual, there is a tangible, nagging craving in the body every bit as real as any physical sensation: accelerated heartbeat, salivation, twitchiness until the need for nicotine is satiated. Secondly, and of course this follows on from the first point, if addiction is a fallacy, how then to explain withdrawal? If addiction doesn’t exist then, presumably, it is not possible for anyone to become physically dependent on a substance. I think five minutes in the presence of an alcoholic at the end of a binge or a heroin addict going through cold turkey would rid him of that fantasy. Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t. Perhaps they just need to pull their socks up and keep a stiff upper lip. They are just weak, after all. It’s a bizarre position to take.
Following his logic it would be possible to claim that depression or any number of mental illnesses are not real either. Perhaps he does believe this. After all, he has argued that ADHD and dyslexia are non-existent conditions, like some austere Victorian physician who thinks anything can be overcome by just bucking your bloody ideas up.
I made these points in some subsequent tweets:
I didn’t get a further response. Fair enough, I’m sure he’s a very busy man with better things to do than argue with strangers at great length on the internet. I disagree with him on this and nearly every subject under the sun, but it was still interesting to have the exchange. That said, it’s a bit rich to be told that I’ve been taught what to think but not how to think. What he really means is that my thought process must be substandard as I haven’t come to the same conclusion as him. Presumably my own personal experiences don’t count for anything either. Oh well. And I don’t care if he did think it was ‘feeble’ I liked that Asperger’s analogy and it worked just fine.
I finished with one final remark:
I didn’t want to be rude. Despite everything I can’t really help liking him. Decca Aitkenhead made a similar point in an interview in The Guardian last year. Yes, he’s every liberal’s bogeyman and his opinions sometimes make me foam at the mouth, but he does it so well. It’s an uncomfortable fact, but liberals NEED Peter Hitchens.
Face it, we are addicted to him.