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And what if he's nice?

Don't meet those you love to hate. There could be consequences. Stanley Fish writes.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2011 21:51 IST

A philosopher I know told me that once, when he was explaining his views on a contested matter to a group of his peers, he was met with this objection: "But that sounds like Stanley Fish." I'd bet that no one else in the room had met me and that few, if any, had read me. It's just that for many in his corner of the discipline, saying of someone that he sounds like Stanley Fish is a quick and easy way of refuting him.

I took the anecdote as a compliment. After all, you don't get to be the poster boy for obvious error everyday. I, of course, have my own 'Stanley Fishes'. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas occupies such a place in my anti-pantheon. I have been throwing verbal brickbats at him for years, poking academic fun at his slogans and trumpeting the emptiness of his programme to anyone who would listen. This means that Habermas is very important to me. I feel that I couldn't get along without him. If he were taken away from me, I wouldn't know what to do. I'd have to find someone else to be the object of my unreflective scorn. That would prove difficult, given that Habermas, or anyone else who might fill this slot, has particular views (the ones I love to hate), and installing a disciple in his place wouldn't be satisfying.

But how could Habermas ever be taken away from me? Even if he were no longer publishing, I could have recourse to his previous writings; I could still say, "sounds like Habermas" and leave it at that. The only thing that might take him away from me is meeting him, something I was threatened with a few years ago in Chicago, but something I avoided like the plague. Why? Because were I ever to meet him, the odds are that I would like him (the public record suggests that he is an admirable fellow) and if I liked him it would be hard for me to continue beating up on him.

In fact I would immediately regret, and want to take back, all the nasty things I had said with such zest.

This has happened to me several times. I got to know long-time personal piñatas and found that they were - can you believe it? - human beings, often perfectly nice human beings with nice families. Even worse, the first words out of their mouths were sometimes, "I admire your work" - and once an author hears that, his estimation of the person voicing this pleasing judgement rises. The psychology I am describing isn't limited to the academic world. There may be a politician who embodies every idea and policy you detest and fear. There may be a distant family member whose unmerited success gives you a receptacle for your resentment and envy. These are valuable people and you want to hold on to them.

So whoever are the characters filling out your precious roster of perfect villains, take care not to meet them. And if one of your antiheroes happens to turn up in a coffee shop you're sitting in, get up and leave immediately.

The New York Times
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 05, 2011 21:49 IST