Talk about sucking all the motivation out of me…I was all primed to write today about this Islamophobia nonsense that is still going around. It seems to be the latest bogus argument against atheism: why, atheists are just all bigots who hate Muslims, the complainers say, instead of actually addressing the fact that religion a) lacks a truthful foundation, b) lacks any method for investigating the accuracy of its claims, and c) uses that lack of evidence to excuse the most odious social behaviors. While there certainly are islamophobic individuals, to claim that this is the primary motivation for New Atheism is simply ridiculous and contrary to everything the major proponents (I refuse to call them “leaders”) of this movement have written.
I just give up. And not in a good way, mind…I think he shot himself in the foot again. He has made a set of arguments that completely ignore what the critics have been saying and don’t rebut much of anything at all.
First off, beginning by accusing all of your critics of being bigoted poopyheads for calling you a bigoted poopyhead…not a good move.
A general point about the mechanics of defamation: It is impossible to effectively defend oneself against unethical critics. If nothing else, the law of entropy is on their side, because it will always be easier to make a mess than to clean it up. It is, for instance, easier to call a person a “racist,” a “bigot,” a “misogynist,” etc. than it is for one’s target to prove that he isn’t any of these things. In fact, the very act of defending himself against such accusations quickly becomes debasing. Whether or not the original charges can be made to stick, the victim immediately seems thin-skinned and overly concerned about his reputation. And, rebutted or not, the original charges will be repeated in blogs and comment threads, and many readers will assume that where there’s smoke, there must be fire.
If calling Sam Harris a “racist” is a low blow and unfair and difficult to disprove, what about calling people “unethical”? I don’t think Glenn Greenwald is unethical at all; I think he has been a consistent and ethical proponent of liberal and progressive values throughout his career. He has not shown the kind of frothing derangement at confronting atheists that Chris Hedges has shown, for instance. Greenwald objects to things Harris has written, and explains why. Harris does seem thin-skinned. He has said a few things that many others disagree with, me included, and to get upset at principled disagreement on those matters reeks a bit of objecting to any criticism at all.
I don’t think Harris is islamophobic, but I disagree on other things, and for disagreeing with him on racial profiling and agreeing that the atheist movement is not perfect, I got labeled “odious”, “unscrupulous”, a “troll”, and responsible for distorting his views and damaging his reputation. The mechanics of defamation can work both ways, Dr Harris, and you seem to be very capable of it yourself, while simultaneously placing your affronted dignity on a pedestal and being outraged that anyone would question it. Defending your views would look less thin-skinned if you weren’t constantly prefacing your defense with that exasperated sigh that it is so unfair and demeaning that you have to do so.
It’s just more footshooting. And then, for further target practice on distal digits, the third paragraph is a beautifully written, lucid distillation of exactly what annoys many people about Harris. He’s got a real talent for this.
Such defamation is made all the easier if one writes and speaks on extremely controversial topics and with a philosopher’s penchant for describing the corner cases—the ticking time bomb, the perfect weapon, the magic wand, the mind-reading machine, etc.—in search of conceptual clarity. It literally becomes child’s play to find quotations that make the author look morally suspect, even depraved.
Aaargh. That’s the whole problem. Look, Spock is a caricature, not a paragon; retreating behind the fog of philosophical abstraction is precisely the kind of behavior that has given atheists a bad name. When talking about profiling people to improve airport security, forget about the fact that it is targeting human beings for special indignities. When talking about the possibility that torture might work sometimes, forget about the reality of human beings causing and receiving dehumanizing agony. When considering the possibility that Muslim fanatics might get nuclear weapons, argue that we might just be justified in vaporizing millions of human beings to prevent that possibility.
There’s a place for playing philosophical games when thinking about trolleys and vats and logic puzzles, but when it comes down to real world thinking, reducing hugely complex problems to simplified abstractions does not provide clarity at all, only confusion and false conclusions. Right now, this country is facing the consequences (well, a good portion of the country is trying to ignore the consequences) of this kind of robotic pseudophilosophical argument. We had people making rationalizations for all-out warfare against a country that we claimed to be a clear and present danger on the basis of having weapons of mass destruction, that we argued was ruled by a brutal dictator who should be prevented from doing more harm, and on the basis of those widely promoted “corner cases”, we murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, shattered a country’s infrastructure and opened it up to corporate exploitation, and drained our finances dry pouring more and more cash and blood into a brutal war.
You do not get to make these cold calculations while leaving out the human element — the fact that we atheists, as a people supposedly dedicated to reality and truth and respect for the potential of the human mind, can so callously dismiss personal experience and the lives of the people at the heart of these hypothetic scenarios and thought experiments is precisely the reason their author is so easily made to look “morally suspect, even depraved.”
Harris does a good job of bringing up the fuller context of some of the quotes that he feels have been excerpted to misinterpret him, but he seems incapable of recognizing that what he considers a justification merely compounds the problem. Somehow, the moral calculus only goes one way. We are allowed to contemplate (in a rarefied philosophical way, of course) bombing or torturing or isolating people who have a slim chance of contributing to harm to us, but somehow we never consider that perhaps the people on the other side are making the very same calculation, considering that they are amply justified in bombing or torturing or isolating those privileged Westerners, because we might harm them.
And sadly, they have better empirical evidence of real threat.
Now I’m not excusing terrorist actions. Quite the opposite: I reject them unambiguously and fault them for failing to appreciate the humanity of their opponents. And if I do that, I cannot fail to similarly reject such actions taken to protect my side. No excuse can justify nuking or torturing my people, so no excuse can justify nuking or torturing anyone else…especially considering that the United States has more blood on its hands than any other nation.
This is not the time to invent elaborate philosophical justifications for abhorrent actions — it is time to unhesitatingly reject them, to express our grief and shame and horror at these options. It is not enough to bloodlessly pretend it’s a philospher’s penchant. We need to consider the human cost, and weight that most heavily.
Harris’s ability to distance himself from everything and view people’s personal pain dispassionately, as he does in all of his responses, is what’s hurting him, and he doesn’t even seem to be able to recognize it. Even when I share his respect for philosophy and science, I cringe at his inability to express a proper appreciation of the humanity of his subjects. I don’t think he’s a robot, but when he dries up and goes all academic and philosophical, he gives an awfully good impression of one, and I think he makes a lot of his arguments from that arid ground of the abstract, rather than the heart of his humanity. I’d pass along a suggestion from another philosopher who was able to see the importance of the individual:
We have to touch people.