Sam Harris recently stuck his foot in his mouth, claiming that the lack of women in active positions within atheism is because atheism lacks that “estrogen vibe” and that a “critical posture” is “intrinsically male”, which got him some heat. So he scurried off and has written a reply: I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.
Wrong. Right from the title, he gets it all wrong. Here’s how he could easily defuse the whole situation: acknowledge that what he said was wrong, and move on. “I spoke off the cuff, and I said things that were invalid and perpetuate the problem of sexism in atheism. I apologize, and will try to do better.” Over. No problem. We’d all be able to move on, and would appreciate that he’s trying.
Because the problem is that he is the sexist pig. We all are. We’re human. I admit that, as a 57 year old white man, I have reflexive attitudes that are going to be racist, sexist, ethnocentric, and narrow-minded — my brain is full of cognitive shortcuts that developed as I was growing up in a racist, sexist culture. All we can do is aspire to overcome them…when they slip from our tongues, to be aware, to stop, retract, and correct ourselves, and try to overcome. That self-awareness is key. We can override our racism and sexism by consciously recognizing them and applying the thoughtful side of our minds to correct our baser impulses. But that only works if you don’t deny their existence.
The title is only the start. The whole long-winded mess is an attempt to excuse an unfortunate gaffe, and only makes it worse. He could have addressed it in a sentence; or if he wanted to be prolix, as he is, a paragraph. But no, we get 2500 words of evasion and rationalization and blaming.
The beginning: the reporter, Michelle Boorstein, was playing gotcha and trying to get a controversial quote for her pro-religion bias, and also she was ignorant and didn’t know some of the demographics of religion. I don’t give a damn: Michelle Boorstein did not say the words, you did.
The quote: his excuse is that it was obvious he was joking. “Estrogen vibe” is silly. I don’t give a damn: you said it. If it was a joke, say it was wrong, and that it was a poor joke.
His list of excuses: they just get worse and worse.
1. I started by claiming that my readership seems more male than female. And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.
Yes, we know. We’re not idiots. We understood exactly what you said, which is that actively engaged atheists are men, because reasons. That’s actually the question…why do you think that is so?
And the reasons:
4. I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.
Why? Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? It often is, because of early culturization and because of widespread assumptions about the nature of women, but you yourself asserted that these differences were intrinsic — “that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” — rather than perhaps some phenomenon of social conditioning that might be corrected by men being perhaps a little less belittling.
What you did was clearly place the blame for the situation on the essential natures of women, rather than recognizing that it’s a consequence of the social environment…in which, perhaps, the existence of male leaders who are dismissive of the capability of most women to contribute leads to more women feeling less interested in contributing. Perhaps the fault lies in people like you, rather than in the women who are reduced by your attitude?
But of course we can’t blame Sam Harris. He hasn’t even considered the problem.
5. However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.
Let me remind you that the entire first couple of paragraphs consist of Sam Harris berating Michelle Boorstein for her ignorance.
I found her remarks stunningly uninformed. I did my best not to let this derail the interview, but after we left the stage I told her that she had a professional responsibility to get her facts straight.
Sam Harris hasn’t even thought about how his opinions affect women who might read his work, but he’s willing to deliver his opinion about the abilities of women atheists to the Washington Post. OK, I guess self-awareness isn’t one of Harris’s strengths…or perhaps he thinks he has none of the professional responsibilities he’s ready to demand of others.
And then it gets weirder. He reconstructs from memory a long bit of dialog from a fan who came up to get her book signed: Reconstructed Offended Feminist brings up stupid point after stupid point, which Reconstructed Brilliant Sam Harris deftly refutes and exposes her every failing, and closes triumphantly with a stunning conclusion.
Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife. If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s actually an honest statement about my psychological biases. I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.
Yep, the “My best friends are X” argument, plus the “I like X better anyway” argument. I guess misogynists don’t exist anywhere on Planet Earth, since all men had a mother.
And after putting words in the mouth of Reconstructed Offended Feminist, he somehow manages to end on a paragraph about smug sanctimonious liberals who criticize him for his stance on Islam. I don’t even … what’s the relevance? Is it just to make clear that this is always about poor crucified Sam?
Jebus, but that was awful. Long and tendentious and inexcusably boring, while simply reinforcing all of the criticisms that were delivered against him. I’m only about a quarter through his latest book, and it’s suffering from some of the same sins: it’s dead monotonous, and I’m feeling like he could have left off most of the introductory verbiage to get to the meat of his point (which he hasn’t, so far, in my reading). He claims to have been edited (by women! Mustn’t forget that essential point!), but I’m surprised that none of them told him to cut out most of what he said, especially anything in which he comes off as lashing out bitterly at his critics, and just address the substance of his own quote.