Your Feelings Are No Excuse

Emotions may explain why people overreact, but they don’t justify it.

A drawing of Margaret Atwood
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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Editor’s note: The sixth annual Hitchens Prize was awarded to Margaret Atwood at a dinner last night in New York. The award is given by the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation in association with The Atlantic, where Christopher Hitchens was a contributing editor; it was given originally in association with Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair, where Hitchens was also a columnist and contributing editor. The prize celebrates writers whose work exemplifies “a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.” Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. Her latest essay collection, Burning Questions, was published last month. Here is the text of the remarks she made after receiving the award.

Thank you for this unusual Christopher Hitchens Prize. The Swedish Humor Award used to be my favorite in the unexpected-awards department, but this one has just replaced it. So amazed was I to hear that I had been chosen as the Hitchens 2022 recipient that, in addition to looking over my shoulder to see who was really meant—Canadians do that as a matter of course, as it’s considered a social gaffe not to—I looked over my shoulder twice, while exclaiming, “Surely not me!” I find myself in very distinguished company indeed—the company of previous Hitchens Prize laureates who actually know real-life things and write about them astutely, unlike the rag-picking, wandering-minstrel mythomaniacs who call themselves novelists, among whom I count myself. If I wasn’t suffering from imposter syndrome before, I certainly am now.

The other person who would doubtless be amazed on this occasion would be Christopher Hitchens himself, not only by the fact that there is a prize in his name (he would be the first to make some bad-taste quip about that; “Hitch kitsch” springs to mind) but also that I, in particular, have been awarded it. “What, her?” he might well have exclaimed. I suspect him of having taken a dim view of me, mouthy colonial female from the uncool sticks that I was, or am. “Stay in your lane, Margaret,” I am sometimes told, to which I can only reply, “What is my lane?” Taking the positive view: Perhaps these reprimands from others are not reprimands at all, but well-meant warnings. They see me wandering fecklessly out into traffic, oblivious to the danger, and want to help me avoid being squashed. They must have been muttering secret incantations, too; many attempts have been made, but I remain unsquashed.

I was never told to stay in my lane by Christopher Hitchens, I hasten to add. He, too, did not know what his lane was, and wouldn’t have stayed in it if he did. We had at least that in common: a failure to recognize lanes. It goes with a disrespect for the fences around the corrals where the sacred cows are kept, though they keep changing the cows, I notice. Hitch would have noticed that too.

On one memorable occasion, I shared a stage with Christopher Hitchens. It was in a tent at the U.K. literary festival known as Hay-on-Wye. As the canvas walls flapped in the obligatory pelting rainstorm, and as smoke from Hitch’s conveyor belt of cigarettes swirled around me, I did my best to stand my ground, whatever it was. Meanwhile, Hitch did a kind of verbal sword dance around me. I can’t remember what we were supposed to be debating—I hope it was not The Moral and Social Obligations of the Modern Fiction Writer, or Is There Such a Thing as a Woman’s Novel—but I do recall the skill with which he debated it. I refrained from saying, “Christopher Hitchens goes hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, hop,” although he did, in a manner of speaking, narrowing his eyes through the blue fumes he’d exhaled as he took wicked aim at the rhetorical targets he himself had just erected. It was bracing. It was a workout. And, dare I say, it was a draw. Or as close as you could ever come to a draw, with Hitchens.

At least he didn’t accuse me of hurting his feelings, nor did I accuse him of hurting mine. Having feelings was not a thing back then. We would not have admitted to owning such marshmallow-like appendages, and if we did have any feelings, we’d have considered them irrelevant as arguments. Feelings are real—people do have them, I have observed—and they can certainly be plausible explanations for all kinds of behavior. But they are not excuses or justifications. If they were, men who murder their wives because they’re feeling cranky that day would never get convicted.

You can’t exist as a writer for very long without learning that something you write is going to upset someone, sometime, somewhere. Whether you end up with a bullet in your neck will depend on many factors—there are lots of bullets, and some necks are thicker than others—but let us pause to remember that the most important meaning of freedom of expression is not that you can say anything you like without any consequences whatsoever but that the bullet should not be your government’s, and it should not be fired into your neck for an expression of political views that don’t coincide with theirs.

Hitch and I were both of an archaic generation that endorsed the basic principles of logic. We knew an ad hominem when we fell over one. We didn’t consider the factual truth of any given matter to be dispensable—or worse, to be some scoundrelly piece of propaganda cooked up by the opposing party. We both believed in a healthy society’s need for public debate, with testable evidence presented. So maybe Hitch would not have said, “What, her?” about me. Instead, he might have said, “It could be worse.” Which is what I would have said about him. We may have disagreed about content, but we were in accord about process.

If he were still with us, what would Christopher Hitchens be making of our present time? We don’t know: He isn’t here in our present time, but we are. We urgently need to figure out why the present time we are in fact living through has become so grim, and what can be done about it. It does seem to get more extreme by the minute. COVID lockdowns, riots against COVID lockdowns, a war in Ukraine that’s being fought to defend the principles of an open democracy as against those of a closed autocratic regime. And an ongoing examination of last year’s violent coup attempt in that erstwhile beacon of democracy, the United States—a country in which various parties are now proposing to drag people in front of firing squads, without even a trial, it seems. Who needs a trial when it is known with absolute certainty who ought to be gunned down? How is it known? A finger has pointed. There is no need for evidence or truth.

If you’d like a few examples from history of this process in full spate, they are readily available, and they come from both the so-called right and the so-called left. The Terror, during the French Revolution. Hitler’s elimination of any political opposition, beginning in 1933. Stalin’s purges, sometimes with show trials, often not. The Red Guard period in China. Pol Pot. The Argentinian generals who dropped opponents into the ocean out of airplanes. That’s the beginning of a long, long list.

I expect Hitch would join me in a distinction I have been making lately: that between belief and truth. It’s a comment on our special times that I’d even feel I have to make this distinction. A belief cannot be either proved or disproved. If you wish to believe that invisible flower spirits are causing your string beans to grow, there is no point in my trying to dissuade you, because these entities are invisible and immaterial. Something proposed as a truth can, however, be put to the test. In recent years, people have confused beliefs with truths. From this confusion have come ideologies and dogmas—the characteristic of a dogma being that it’s proposed as an absolute truth and cannot be disputed, and if you try disputing it, you’ll be burned as a heretic.

During the past 15 years or so, the Western world has been under intense attack. By Western world, I mean the world of open, representative democracies, in which the governed have a say in who is to do the governing, in which the judicial arm is separate from the executive arm, in which the laws at least attempt to reform themselves in the direction of fairness and a balance between the rights of the individual and the interests of society at large—or so goes the theory.

Some of the attacks have come from without: foreign troll bots have been busily undermining trust and spreading falsehoods. But some have come from within, from both the so-called right and the so-called left. Democracy doesn’t work, we’ve been told. It’s corrupt. It’s all controlled by money—there’s something to that point of view, you must admit. Strongmen are more efficient. Decadence must be stamped out. For the good of the universe, certain people must be silenced or eliminated. If you’re my age, you’ve heard this before. In fact it is—quite literally—where I came in.

I’ve taken to drawing a simple diagram to illustrate the problem. Inscribe a circle. At the top, write Tyranny. At the bottom, write Chaos. Across the middle, there’s a band we might call “Open democracy.” There’s an arrow going up to Tyranny on the left, and one on the right. There’s an arrow going down toward Chaos on the right, and one on the left. There’s a big arrow on either side going directly from Chaos to Tyranny: Get yourself a dictator, and he’ll clear up the chaos; so goes the thinking when things become chaotic enough.

The moderate center is a preferable place to live. There’s more respect for the individual, or that is the idea. There’s at least some desire for human rights for everyone, or that, too, is the idea. There’s less fear, and that is the idea as well. But the moderate center is also the hardest position to defend. It lacks a Big Slogan. It lacks hordes of robotic followers. It’s untidy. It resists the homogeneous. And it’s under constant attack from both extremes, those on the so-called right and the so-called left.

It is this dream of a moderate democratic center that Ukraine has been defending, and that defense has had a broad effect. Suddenly, the recent detractors of democracy are concluding—or some of them are—that maybe democracy is a system worth fighting for, because the alternatives are so much worse. Could it be that open debate, the importance of truth, the necessity of human rights for all, and the desirability of evidence are making a comeback? Is mere yelling about to go out of fashion? Let us devoutly hope so.

I’m sometimes asked what I consider the most important issue facing us today. The climate crisis is at the top of the list, because what it’s doing to the planet will determine a lot of what is materially possible for the human species over the next 50 years. Fire, water, earth, and air are being altered at this very minute. How much more alteration before we find ourselves so far out of our comfort zone that we cease to exist?

But, more immediately, there’s another important question the times we live in are asking us. That question is: What sort of political system should we choose? If it’s open democracy, we’ve got some work ahead of us. We must roll up our proverbial sleeves, grab our arrows of desire, sharpen the paring knives of our wits, dedicate our swords to the pursuit of truth, strengthen our resolve, resist the serpents of false argument, hop into our chariots of fire, and … Oh dear (or slightly stronger exclamation), cries the ghost of Christopher Hitchens. What a sack of mixed metaphors!

Yes, I know. But desperate times require desperate remedies, and our times are desperate. However, instead of all these chariots and swords, I’ll propose something simpler. Don’t panic. Think carefully. Write clearly. Act in good faith. Repeat.