The Sciences

The scourging of Sam Harris

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 10, 2012 3:56 AM


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A reader pointed me to this Sam Harris post, Wrestling the Troll. He asked what I thought of the post, and what I thought of Harris. In regards to Harris I don't think much. I found The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason to be overly simplistic in the model of religion as a phenomenon which he seemed to hold, and I wasn't really on board with the normative vision Harris was promoting. To be overly pat Sam Harris strikes me as a traditional liberal universalist. In his imagined future all intelligent men and women will bend the knee to John Dewey, and espouse liberal individualist values. Perhaps. That may be the most likely path, but it may not be a very likely path. Most of his follow up works have struck me as extended polemics and provocations. This is often necessary, but I don't have a large appetite for that sort of material myself. In any case my faith in reason has limits. Harris' brutally clean and crisp modernist vision is one which I can't fully support. But when it comes to the post there was much I recognized. The issue which Harris faces is that in some ways he has a naivete about the power of reason to shape our future and our present. There is almost a guilelessness when it comes to propositions he forwards which are going to shatter the shibboleths of many of his sympathizers. Recently he has outlined a plan for some level of profiling. Though I'm usually skeptical of the efficacy of profiling because of the coarseness of the implementation (e.g., a pro-Western Ismaili or Sikh is more likely to be profiled because of the obligate demands of their religion in terms of dress, as opposed to less visibly "Muslim" political activists who are the really threat), I don't think that it is an issue that needs to be taken off the table. But for some of Harris' critics he has committed a grave faux paus. As someone who has almost certainly been profiled I have to be honest and say that I find it interesting that people tend to become much more agitated by those who outline at least a tacit defense of the practice, rather than the practice itself, which is implicitly ubiquitous every single day. In other words, discussion and mooting of an issue is more objectionable than the reality of the issue itself. I suspect that incest may be an appropriate analogy. We all understand that incest occurs all around us. But we would take great umbrage with anyone defending or proposing a systematization of incest. Of course I do not believe that profiling is objectionable in the same way that incest is. The root of problem here for Harris is that there are particular commitments on the political-cultural Left in regards to issues of diversity and multiculturalism which are difficult to unpack, but which now have a tribal valence. Fundamentally this is less about a clear principle, and more about bright lines which have grown almost organically to a knife's edge.

The major problem plainly is that Sam Harris is an Islamophobe

. And that's OK by me, as I am an Islamophobe. Islam broadly scares me, and Muslim cultures scare me (the mainstream Muslim position is that someone like me should be given time to repent, but otherwise be put to death as a traitor to the religion of my ancestors). I think Harris brings up real issues with the singular resistance to Western modernity which Islam as a civilization seems to present in our day. For example, the OIC actually promoted an alternative set of human rights, consonant with the views of Muslims the world over. Unlike Harris I am more sanguine about Islam and its role in the geopolitics of our of small planet. I suspect that right now we are at "peak scary Muslim." But that does not negate the fact that Muslim societies are profoundly illiberal, and present a vision of human flourishing which is sometimes difficult for Westerners to recognize. One can say the same about South and East Asia or Africa, but the difference between these cases and the Muslim world is that non-Western Asian and African societies do not have a coherent response to the Western vision. Rather, they may not accept Western ways in practice, but in general they have acceded to the power of core Western values and institutions (e.g., freedom of religion is officially protected even in states which violate freedom of religion egregiously in practice). The problem from my perspective, and likely Harris', is that Muslims have become part of the unofficial protected classes which are subject to an expectation of sensitivity. Many liberals now conflate Islamophobia with racism, which is an accusation that many people take seriously, and which Sam Harris naturally takes personally. Though many Islamophobes may have racist motives, the reality is that the Muslim religion is a retrograde system of thought on the whole, and liberalizing tendencies may not be aided by a hands off laissez faire attitude. From what I can tell Sam Harris treats Muslims with the same brutal skepticism and distaste which his erstwhile fellow travelers exhibit toward conservative Christians. But Christophobia and Islamophobia are not equivalent. Christophobia is a term used only by the tribe of the political Right. Islamophobia is used only by the tribe of the political Left. Though in the abstract each tribe may recognize the existence of both phenomena, operationally the Right ignores Islamophobia, while the Left ignores Christophobia. A secondary dynamic here are charges of anti-Semitism which are occasionally leveled against atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins for their anti-Jewish statements. The problem here is that Judaism is a religion, while Jews are a people, and our society has a hard time differentiating an attack on the former from one on the latter (in fact, the most prominent heirs of early modern anti-Jewish thinkers are often secular Jews, who consciously or unconsciously recycle older critiques of the insularity and rank superstition of Rabbinical Jewish culture). An irony here is that though Sam Harris is being blasted for supporting profiling is in part a function of his deviation from his expected profile. If Michele Bachmann came out with Harris' argument there might be criticism, but it would probably elicit less shock and anger, because these are the ideas you'd expect from Michele Bachmann. What Harris has done, and what he regularly does, is wander off the tribal reservation and express views which shock and disgust his fellow mindless villagers. By referring to Harris' critics as mindless villagers I'm not implying that they're necessarily wrong. Above I indicated that I don't think much of many of his arguments. But, many of his critics are reacting from emotion, and a sense that he has violated important communal norms. Not a reasoned objection. Rather, reason here is passion's servant. I think Sam Harris gives reason too much credit, and is too uncritical of its power. But he practices what he preaches, and expresses highly heterodox and uncomfortable viewpoints, probably because he doesn't take into account the power of social reasoning, and group conformity. The tribal mind has only a few categories. If Sam Harris goes off the reservation on such an important topic, what is he? To borrow a page from fashionable academy, Harris becomes the Other. The sensitive consideration given to one's own tribe goes out the window, as Harris is now an outcast. Clearly then one can now probe his motivation, reframe his own argument toward rhetorical advantage without any sense of the importance of fair play. Bad people do not deserve fair play. Sam Harris has voted himself off the island, and now he swims with sharks. Good luck to him! Where to go from here? Sam Harris ends with a note on comments:

Incidentally, readers often ask why I haven’t enabled comments on my own blog, since they build a sense of community and generate traffic. Needless to say, I know that I have many smart and knowledgeable readers who have valuable insights to share on any topic I’m likely to touch. My reasons for not enabling comments are essentially the same as those given by Seth Godin on his blog. You can read his justification here. I also can’t spare the time to read hundreds of comments in an effort to determine whether they would contribute, however subtly, to the problem of noise and defamation that has now sucked me into its vortex. This is not to say that I don’t care what my readers think. As you can see, I do. And I do my best to read your emails. But generally speaking, I’m at the limits of my bandwidth and have to draw the line somewhere.

I spend between 1/3 and 1/2 of my time on this blog engaging with and reading comments. Why? This weblog has a moderate amount of traffic, so so far I've been able to manage the discussion. But it is always of the essence that the discussion be productive and value-added. The problem is that too often active blog comments boards become a forum for dueling trolls, or self-congratulatory back-slapping between fellow travelers. I have no patience for either. When a commenter says something which implies that they know something I ask directly: what do you know? This is a critical juncture. If the commenter does know interesting and illuminating things we all benefit. On the other hand, if the commenter is too stupid to even know that they don't know what they think they know, you will most assuredly not hear from them again. Such commenters have no one to blame but themselves for setting up an implicit challenge in terms of threshold of value-add. The ultimate point is not to burnish your own reputation, bask in your own intelligence, or win a futile argument. Rather, the goal is that we all know just a bit more about the world around us than we did before you began to write.

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