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Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Debate, In the news | 7 comments

Sam Harris updates his “response to controversy” page

Sam Harris has a new/updated version of his “response to controversy” page, with much more material about issues to do with alleged racism and Islamophobia. Interestingly, the page says: “Have I made the job of distorting my views easier than it needed to be? Undoubtedly. And in this particular case, a careful reader was kind enough to take the author’s feet out of my mouth on many other points.” The link is to a discussion by Robby Bensinger.

I do think that Harris sometimes makes a point in an unnecessarily provocative way, as when he states in one article: “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.”

Harris is clearly correct that this is best read to mean something like: “my concern [was] that the political correctness of the Left has made it taboo to even notice the menace of political Islam, leaving only right-wing fanatics to do the job. Such fanatics are … the wrong people to do this, being nearly as bad as jihadists themselves. I was not praising fascists: I was arguing that liberal confusion and cowardice was empowering them.”

Fair enough. That is doubtless what he was getting at, and it is more or less how I would interpret the passage. Someone who is prepared to be charitable should interpret the passage that way. Nonetheless, it is not what the passage literally says. Harris has gone for a rhetorical flourish to berate liberals who would otherwise be his allies, even at the expense of seeming to say that fascists talk most sensibly about something. It’s possible, of course, that certain fascists in Europe do have some particular things to say that are sensible – indeed, this can be a good tactic for fascists: weave some sensible statements into your pronouncements and policies to boost their credibility. Some may have said some sensible things about the threat of political Islam, and perhaps it’s true that these things tend not to be said by liberal commentators. But extreme-right figures in Europe surely also say a lot of crazy, hateful, fearmongering things. Surely many things that are said by these figures about real or supposed threats from Islam and Muslims in general are not sensible, and are, indeed (and to say the least!), socially dangerous. Note that in the original passage Harris said “the threat that Islam poses” rather than “the threat that political Islam poses”. If you are going to make the point that he wants to make, maybe you should be very cautious and clear about how you express it.

As you go through the web page, Harris defends himself against accusations by quoting numerous passages at sufficient length to provide context. In many of these cases, I want to support him, but I have to acknowledge that choices of expression – usually aimed at being provocative – give some excuse to the critics. I’d like them to be more careful and charitable, but some responsibility also falls on Harris to be cautious with his rhetoric on such hot-button topics.

My point is not to condemn Harris so much as to draw attention to his own acknowledgment that he has brought the problem on himself to an extent, making it easier than it had to be to distort his views (or simply not understand them). Provocative rhetoric for dramatic impact makes up part of this problem, as does another thing that Harris acknowledges: just because something is worth saying does not mean that it is worth saying by him (or by any of us in some particular situation where it may give a false impression of the overall message that we’re trying to convey).

But at the same time, it does seem that some of his critics are, as he says, without scruples – prepared to pile on libellous accusations about what he thinks and what he is saying even after he has explained himself. As always, language is slippery. I know from long and sometimes bitter experience that no matter how cautiously and painstakingly you explain yourself there will always be room for a variety of interpretations from others. Sooner or later, though, you need to speak or write. Otherwise, you will never get your message out.

In some cases (Chris Hedges is one), it appears to me that the commentators on Harris are more motivated by a wish to destroy his credibility, and so neutralise him in public debate, than to discuss the merits of the actual issues. If they don’t think that’s a fair inference … well, maybe they ought to think about their own inferences that they are willing to draw.

  • Fairs do’s. I said I hoped he would do this, and I’m delighted that he has.

    “For instance, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, but they have yet to
    develop long-range rockets, and there is every reason to believe that
    the people currently in control of these bombs are more pragmatic and
    less certain of paradise than the Taliban are. The same could be said of
    Iran, if it acquires nuclear weapons in the near term (though not,
    perhaps, from the perspective of Israel, for whom any Iranian bomb will
    pose an existential threat).”

    I still think it was not unreasonable, given the context, to infer that Harris was in fact referring to Iran, but I’m very glad that he’s now made it clear that he wasn’t. In fact, his clarification is especially timely, given that it’s only two days since Benjamin Netanyahu said this : “to imagine what the world would be like with a nuclear Iran, imagine what the world would be like with a nuclear al-Qaida. There’s no difference.” It’s precisely because of this context that I think clarity from a reasonably influential writer is pretty important, if he isn’t to be seen as lending support to some rather extreme elements.

    I still think, all the same, that the topic needs a much more sophisticated analysis than Harris has thus far offered. Clearly, he views the Islamist threat as the most pressing, but is that simply because it’s the threat that most likely to be directed at his country? Are Muslim nations objectively more likely to launch a nuclear first strike than the USA or Israel? Sure, the leaders of those nations may not be motivated by a clamour for the afterlife (though Bush at times made me wonder), but they are bolstered by the comfortable knowledge that they would face no retaliation on a remotely similar scale.

    All the same, I’m genuinely glad that he’s clarified his thinking on this.

  • Charles Sullivan

    The way Harris obfuscated the whole fact/value distinction by claiming that values are a kind of fact therefore he’s single-handedly dismantled the distinction, makes me wonder about how much hyperbole he uses, and how often. I’m all for charitable readings, but I think Harris has his own agenda that probably involves using hyperbole to sell books.

  • Al

    Clarified or changed?

  • RussellBlackford

    I don’t see any basis to think he has changed his thinking on the point. I actually disagree somewhat with Colin on this one. I think the passage has always been fairly clear in context, though the rhetoric may be distracting. I won’t go deeply into this, since I’m sure we’ve discussed it before, but it was always clear enough to me that he was not talking about Iran but some hypothetical future nation that might fall under the sway of truly apocalyptic rulers armed with intercontinental nuclear-tipped missiles. His point is that this must not be allowed to happen or inevitably there will be horrific loss of life, etc., as the US will inevitably launch a first strike, feeling it has no other choice.

    The overall theme of the book is that, contrary to what he sees as tendencies in liberal multicultural thought, beliefs really do matter because they guide actions. So we cannot be sanguine about the possibility of a nuclear-armed, etc., state led by people with beliefs in the righteousness of suicidal jihad against the West. The moral, as I recall the passage, is that Muslims themselves need to ensure that such a situation does not arise, not that the US should be nuking Iran.

  • Good frickin’ Christ, people Sam Harris is not the problem– There is no doubt our country is under siege, but the more dangerous threat comes from the Christian Right and those who would abuse its guarantees, tolerance, and traditions. Sam Harris has been a reasoned, responsible and principled voice in alerting us to the extremes of any “faith” that adheres to intolerant, archaic, death-worshipping superstitions that contramand the common good. It is not racist, phobic, fear-mongering or wrong to refine these distinctions, so long as it is clear the enemy is not a race, a people, or a creed, necessarily, but the stultifying and consciousness crushing nature of beliefs forged in bygone ages of ignorance. H.G. Wells once wrote, “Civilization is a race against education and catastrophe.” It is sad and woefully misguided when we expend talent and time turning on one of the educators, and not on the many looming sources of catastrophe.

  • We have indeed discussed it before, Russell – twice, I think. And as
    I’ve said before, thinking about the ‘unthinkable’ situations in which
    such an action may be necessitated to prevent an even worse action is
    entirely fair game to philosophers and lawyers like. In fact, it’s important that we do so.

    My first concern was that Harris had not taken sufficient steps to distinguish that enterprise from the parallel, real-life discussion that was taking place around an actual, real-life country that some people (Netanyahu, for one) think do meet his criteria. When using a hypothetical case that closely resembles a real-life case, I think we should all take care to be clear as to which is which.

    My second (and continuing) problem is Harris’ assumption that religious zealotry and a clamour for the afterlife would be the factors most likely to lead a country to launch a nuclear first strike. This strikes me as a questionable assertion; it seems to me at least as likely that someone like Netanyahu would respond to a nuclear-armed Iran (or even a plausible suspicion thereof) by instigating a pre-emptive version of the Samson Option, bolstered by the confidence that no-one could/would dare retaliate in kind. I’m not saying that I think this is actually likely; but it seems at least as likely as an Al Qaeda-like faction taking over a nuclear armed nation and launching a suicidal attack from its borders. (While not being slow to send others to their deaths, the actual ledership of al Qaeda seem to show a rather traditional concern for their own life and limb.)

    Harris seems determined to insist that it is ‘crazy Muslims’ who present the existential threat to the planet. Yet he is a citizen of the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons in anger; a nation whose nuclear arsenal almost certainly outweighs the combined total of the entire Muslim world; a nation that has recently invaded two Muslim countries, in one case with no real justification, and launched attacks into several others; a nation that did so under the leadership of a president who claimed to have been following what he believed to be the will of his god. I can see whay he personally fears Islamists more than US or Israeli (or Russian/Chinese/Indian) aggression, but as a philosopher, i think he should at least be trying to take a step back and survey the bigger picture.

  • To be succinct, I think there are 2 reasons why a nation may not be deterred from launching a first strike by the fear of retaliatory annihilation:

    1. they have no fear of death;
    2. they are aware that no-one has the means or the will to retaliate in kind.

    The former may be true of some future hypothetical Islamist state, but the latter is true of (at least) the USA right now.