Earlier this month, I published a brief excerpt from Richard Seymour’s Unhitched. It was about how one of Christopher Hitchens’ primary complaints against religion was how it was used to oppress women. But Hitchens himself was a complete sexist who wasn’t keen on women’s rights. It didn’t seem controversial. Hitchens’ sexism and anti-choice beliefs were very well know. As usual, Hitchens was never shy about sharing his views on such objective topics as the lack of funny women. But a couple of days ago, I got an email from someone asking if I had a reference to what Seymour had referenced. And then soon after, I got the another email (emphasis in original):
I found it in a 1989 issue of The Nation and the argument is 100% the opposite of what Mr. Seymour asserts. Perhaps more research should be done before excerpting the works of someone who either has not read the originals, or has and has decided to fabricate an argument out of misused quotes.
Before getting to the meat of the issue here, this is clearly an extremely silly (yet angry) person. Assuming that an error was found, that hardly counters the point at hand. Basically, all Seymour is saying is that Hitchens was a sexist with anti-choice views. This is true. What’s the big deal here? So I dived into the quote and realized that the problem must stem from the following sentence:
He also had a record of opposing certain reproductive rights for women, suggesting that society should “claim a right and an interest” in the fate of the unborn child and therefore might limit abortion access to any woman who “is the victim of rape or incest, or if her mental or physical health is threatened” as part of a “historic compromise” offering in return a health service with free contraception and an adoption service.
My email person clearly misunderstood this sentence. It is an entirely reasonable mistake. I have found Seymour to be a rather unclear writer at times. So I pointed out that the problem was Seymour’s use of the word “any” when he should have used “only.” With “any,” it is possible to read the sentence as meaning that Hitchens was against a rape/life-of-the-mother exception (which is untrue) or that those were the only exceptions that he was in favor of (which is true). With “only,” the sentence is clear and correct.
I pointed this out to my email person, who responded, “Garbage.” I wasn’t expecting anything better. Hitchens, more than anyone in the New Atheist movement other than maybe Sam Harris, has extremely protective fans. It’s actually funny. One sees the same thing with Ayn Rand fans. So these people who don’t believe in God tend to deify these secular heroes. Hitchens can’t be a deeply flawed but brilliant writer. He has to be perfect and thus people like Richard Seymour must be destroyed — regardless of what assumptions they must make about an awkward sentence.
Still, the point of this article is to highlight the interesting ambiguity of the sentence, not the silliness of a true believing subgenius. And I do think it is fascinating that a single synonym change can make all the difference in the world in the meaning of a sentence. It is also terrifying. What it means is that we could all use a great editor. And as in the case with my email person, understanding is largely dependent upon the goodwill of the reader.