[CONTENT WARNING: extreme sexism and racism]
This is a long one, so bear with me.
Christian Picciolini is a former white supremacist, who created a non-profit aiming at de-radicalizing people who went down his path; not surprisingly, he’s in strong demand right now. On March 3rd, Sam Harris did a live interview with Picciolini for his podcast on a stage in Dallas, Texas, and the podcast itself went public on March 25th.
Roughly a month after the audio went up, though, Harris got a legal letter from someone who took objection to how they were described by Picciolini. Harris informed Picciolini he was editing the interview after it went up to remove the offending sections. Picciolini took offense, as he thought his description was accurate, and provided evidence to support his view. Harris was unmoved, and replaced the existing audio with the edited copy. Picciolini took to Twitter to complain, Harris again blew him off, Picciolini posted his evidence there.
Given just this information, Harris’ actions are odd. He wasn’t an expert on the person Picciolini described, so it would be very tough to hit the New York Times v. Sullivan bar for defamation, the most likely tort leveled at him (disclaimer: don’t take legal advice from a Computer Scientist! ). You could argue Harris had an ethical duty to remove the content, but Picciolini’s evidence and expertise makes those charges plausible prima facie and thus worthy of discussion. Still, the devil’s in the details, so let’s see what Sam Harris chopped out. Alas, Harris scrubbed his podcast feed of the old content, but he missed a spot on YouTube.
PICCIOLINI: [55:55] It’s disturbing to me that in many cases the Left has adopted – and when I say “the Left,” I mean that’s a pretty vague term, right, we’re talking about like radical Left for the most part – when they adopt the same tactics of their enemies, do they really become any different than those people? [applause]
HARRIS: [56:20] The truth is it’s not that extreme, though – this is a very well subscribed fringe, if it’s a fringe – this is, just-
PICCIOLINI: Are you sure it’s not the Russians?
HARRIS: I’m sure they’re helping! It’s like, it’s Google, you know? It’s the fact that James Damore wrote what was an utterly innocuous and almost entirely defensible scientific document, right, which was just bemoaning the fact that you couldn’t talk about these things at Google. He not only got fired, he got vilified publicly, just – whatever error might be found in his letter, people of goodwill have to be able to talk about these things honestly.
PICCIOLINI: Agreed, but I also want to know- why he was doing exclusively all-Right and white nationalist podcasts, for months after that incident?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, what’s interesting is that you – in his case, I mean, I don’t know him, I haven’t met him, I know people who do know him and have interviewed him – [57:29] In many cases what you’re seeing is- the door on the Left is closed to anyone who makes any kind of sense on these specific taboo topics.
HARRIS: [1:03:01] I should say – before we start, I would encourage you to make your question actually a question, and – this is not so much for-
HARRIS: Yeah, and short – it’s not so much for the way I feel up here, but the way you feel when you’ll feel the ire of all of your fellow audience members raining down on you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ll skip my long tirade about vegetarianism-
HARRIS: [1:03:25] Okay.
MEMBER: So when I read James Damore’s, uh, kinda [pieced?] memo – a lot of alarms went off in my head, but I kind of feel the same way I think you two feel. What’s bad about this, what’s actually wrong? [1:03:40] But, you had mentioned the concept of dog whistles, and how groups are becoming very sophisticated and how they align their language, to kind of sneak it in. So how do all of us get attuned to navigating that space of “this is OK? This is kind of scary? This is really scary?”
HARRIS: [1:18:27] Charles Murray, I think, is a straight-up academic who has been unfairly demonized, and I had him- [applause] … I had him on the podcast, because… I mean, I had always thought his book, “The Bell Curve,” was radioactive and I didn’t read it when it came out, and- when he was attacked at Middlebury, and I was becoming increasingly worried about the pathology on the Left – the de-platforming, and the obviously illegitimate attacks on real academics, and the closing down of discourse – I decided to have him on just to see what that conversation became, and…
HARRIS: [1:19:10] I don’t think Charles Murray has a racist bone in his body. Now, I don’t – I know him only on the basis of that conversation, and having read his book – but the most controversial paragraphs in “The Bell Curve” are amazingly innocuous. That was a full blown moral panic, that reaction to “The Bell Curve,” and when I saw what happened to me because I had Charles Murray on the podcast – when I saw the Vox article that came out, and… my private correspondence with Ezra Klein, trying to get him to correct the errors in that article – Ezra Klein is the editor-in-chief of Vox – it’s just amazing to encounter the leftist irrationality and demonization that awaits you, if you touch this topic. So… yeah, I think Charles Murray has been unfairly treated – [1:19:59] and James Damore, I’m reasonably sure, has been unfairly treated [1:20:03] – but it’s really a problem… that you can have a website like Vox that breaks real stories – I mean, they’re not as bad as Salon or some other journals …
HARRIS: [1:43:39] I mean, you asked, why was James Damore being interviewed on only alt-Right podcasts, or whatever it was – I’m not so sure that was true, in his case, or at least eventually he was interviewed elsewhere but – I think he was on Rogen’s podcast – but [1:43:54] someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali… the doors on the political right open wide because she’s saying things that are critical about Islam, and Christian fundamentalists come out of the woodwork to support her… but she’s a secular atheist, truly liberal person …
PICCIOLINI: [2:24:38] I certainly think that there are a lot of people that don’t know – or very innocently using terms in well-meaning ways – that they have no idea that they’ve adopted these terms from people who’ve intentionally put them out there. So yeah, I’m not gonna paint with a broad brush and say that everybody who’s saying what people are calling “dog whistles” is meaning that, because “globalization” is a return-
HARRIS: Some people are just worried about globalization, whatever they think it is.
PICCIOLINI: It’s about who says it, what their background is, what their track record is, and ultimately what their meaning ends up being.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [2:25:15] Sure, but James Damore going on a few podcasts that you don’t like was enough for you to suggest that there was some sinister-ness there earlier. So how do you reconcile this?
PICCIOLINI: Because I probably know a little bit more about him, in the background, than more people do. You know, he went exclusively, at the very beginning, on alt-Right pod – they cheered him on, he was their hero for a little while – and he may still be, I think they’ve stop talking about him and moved on to somebody else, but-
MEMBER: But if you know some specific- if you know some things that we don’t know, could you be specific about what that information is? Or what-
PICCIOLINI: I’m not in the business of shaming anybody.
MEMBER: Well… Okay.
HARRIS: And again, I don’t actually know enough about Damore to push back here. Everything I’ve seen from him is compatible with him just talking to whoever will talk to him in the aftermath of the Google memo.
PICCIOLINI: And I think that’s what I meant by knowing more, because I’ve watched these alt-Right podcasts that he’s been on, and the things that he’s said, have gone outside of the scope of this letter that he wrote. So, you know, you can make your own decision. I mean, I’ve never met the guy, and I’m not gonna call him a Nazi, but he’s sympathetic-
MEMBER: Well, if we’re having a fact-based conversation, I think that if you make accusations you could cite specific facts.
PICCIOLINI: Who’s facts, though? So there are two- my facts? I’ve heard him say things in podcasts that were very aligned with their ideologies, from a racial perspective. I’m not talking about, you know, women and the workplace, and things like that. I don’t recall exactly what those things were, it was- it happened a while ago. [2:26:56]
My earlier analysis does need a bit of tweaking, as Stefan Molyneux is a Canadian, so the wait
… Hang on, almost all the fuss on Twitter was over Molyneux. Here’s Picciolini’s original Tweet, thread of evidence, Harris’ dismissal, Picciolini’s ask for more info (which Harris ignored). Picciolini even shares his side of an email conversation with Harris, which makes it clear Molyneux is threatening the lawsuit against Harris. Damore only comes into the conversation a day later, when Picciolini casually mentions him, and Harris issues a blanket dismissal:
I don’t think I will ever understand this impulse to double down (and double down again) on an error. Apologizing to people for having misrepresented them is not that hard–even if you don’t like them. And it’s the only way to remain honest.
The original analysis works fine for Damore, and its made even weirder because Harris bends over backwards to praise Damore and plead ignorance on specifics. He is not the one to sue! Picciolini is, though that’s likely a rough road as his factual claims are at least plausible (though Damore did semi-apologize for those KKK tweets). Even weirder, Harris didn’t just scrub out Picciolini’s claims about Damore, he scrubbed out every mention of Damore including the bits where Harris sings his praises. Did Damore think he was defamed by merely being associated with Harris? I seriously doubt it, as Damore explicitly named Harris as an idol. There’s a giant puzzle piece missing here.
(I should signpost that Damore’s memo runs contrary to the science and evidence, so Harris’ endorsement of it suggests ignorance or motivated reasoning on his part. As for Charles Murray, remember this podcast was recorded a few weeks before Harris published his emails with Ezra Klein. Still, it’s also worth signposting that Harris’ “straight-up academic” without “a racist bone in his body” counted how often people were mentioned in encyclopedias to prove non-European cultures have produced far less significant works of culture! The Bell Curve has been endlessly dissected and found to lack rigor, and as for the cries of persecution it was “openly welcome within the ranks of the conservative elite and even quite well tolerated by the liberal elite, both lay and scholarly.”)
That leaves Stefan Molyneux’s piece in this puzzle. What was worthy of threatening a lawsuit?
HARRIS: [1:15:52] To go back to this other point, though, do you think I should do an event like this with Jared Taylor?
AUDIENCE: Yes! Do it! Stefan Molyneux!
HARRIS: That’s another name that keeps getting thrown at me-
PICCIOLINI: So Stefan Molyneux is a name that I know very well, because a significant number of parents that reach out to me have lost their children to his ideology. [1:16:16] And he is now a pretty rabid white nationalist, denying the Holocaust or coming very, very close to that. [1:16:23] I would love to see you “own” him, if you’re gonna shame somebody, I’d sit in the front row for it. [1:16:29]
PICCIOLINI: [1:17:05] … I’ve sat with Richard Spencer for two hours, and I see through all that. I see through most of the performance that he has – I mean, he’s a racist, don’t get me wrong – but there’s also a performance element to it, and putting them on a stage and giving them a platform makes things come out of their mouth that maybe they don’t really normally say. But Molyneux, now- I mean, he’s a dangerous person. He is somebody that is effectively destroying families around the world, because he is latching on and giving his, his views to these really impressionable young people, who now are convinced that every problem in their life is because of their parents, or their family, and now they need to you know divorce them and never, ever talk to them again. [1:17:49] But then he starts feeding them with, you know, Holocaust denial, and then he starts talking about, you know, white genocide, and all these things – so you know, [1:17:57] I think that there’s a limit to who we decide to give space to, and who we don’t.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What about Charles Murray?
HARRIS: So, Charles Murray- I’m glad you raised Charles Murray… [1:18:09]
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [1:48:25] You’ve been, in my opinion, unnecessarily hard on the right, while ignoring the ills of the left. [1:48:33] So when you say things like “oh, you know, people lean towards far-right ideology,” you strawman, like… James Damore was on alt-Right podcasts. Stefan Molyneux has never been a Holocaust denier, I don’t know where you got that from, and you said that – I guess, implicitly, you’re implying the Jordan Peterson is alt-Right, which he’s not, so that’s a total straw man. So, to sit there, and say that – do you not see where people might lean right when that- [scattered cheers] when they hear the ills of the left about intersectionality, and [1:49:02] basically, the things that Sargon of Akkad talks about, intersectionality politics – do you not see why people may have an inherent distrust of the far left, and may lean towards the right, or maybe centrism- not defending the alt-Right, I don’t think anyone in this audience would defend the alt-Right – … [1:49:18]
PICCIOLINI: [1:51:32] … to answer your question, I do call it out on the left when I see it, because I- it enables the Right, just like the Right enables the far Left, and we need to stop that because this isn’t a game that’s gonna end up with a winner if we keep playing it. We’re both gonna lose, both sides.
HARRIS: [1:51:50] Just to correct the record, I don’t want to create any more pain than is necessary: I don’t think you said anything about Jordan Peterson –
PICCIOLINI: I’ve never mentioned him.
HARRIS: And, as far as Stefan… this is the problem with how these conversations go. So, I saw my friend Douglas Murray on Stefan’s podcast, and – forgive me if you’ve heard me say this before, but this is the only thing I’ve said about Stefan, I think, on my podcast – many people have been telling me to go on his podcast, or have him on mine – I see him talking to my friend Douglas Murray, who is a wonderful person and is much maligned, for reasons that are totally unfair, but – so he’s there, talking to Stefan, he clearly doesn’t really know who Stefan is, he’s just on yet another popular podcast- and at some point in the conversation, Stefan says something that suggests his… rather…
PICCIOLINI: Just say it.
HARRIS: … suspicious fascination with racial difference, like he says something about the – average IQ in African countries or – so, something which Douglas clearly never heard before and just didn’t know what to do with, and he just kind of dodged and moved on, right? So that was the first time I was watching Stefan, and – again, I don’t watch Stefan’s podcast, but I’ve seen many episodes and I’ve seen him on Rogen, and I’ve heard the rumors about his cultic behavior, and all that – but, then I saw his- Stefan’s conversation with Jared Taylor, right? And that was just a glad-handing gab fest, I mean there was no daylight between these guys, they each loved the other more, it was just a bro fest. [audience laughter]
HARRIS: [1:53:28] And then- but I didn’t really know who Jared Taylor was, so then I just kind of went down the rabbit-hole, and I saw Jared Taylor talking to somebody who’s just like a straight-up Nazi. And there’s no distance between Jared and the Nazi. So this is, this is a kind of reputational contamination by association which, at its extreme, becomes unfair because – you know, Douglas Murray is impeccable – and he was talking to Stefan and didn’t know who he was talking to, really. But maybe Stefan didn’t really know enough about Jared Taylor? I don’t know, right? So I don’t know how far the moral opprobrium should migrate. But, I know that, at the far end, there really are some racists who will – if they won’t fully own the identity now, because they’re cagey – if you spend five minutes listening to them you understand what their worldview is about.
PICCIOLINI: I’ve also spoken to dozens of families impacted by what Molyneux has done – I’ve seen the videos, they’re out there if you look for them, where he’s talking about the Holocaust – I mean, he’s also from Canada and they have a law in Canada where you cannot deny the Holocaust, it’s a considered a crime. So he knows how to toe the line very well. I’ve also seen him in conversation with David Duke, and other people like that, so I mean – that’s your opinion, and I respect that –
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The only thing that – Sam especially – your fans and me included would say is that, the only game you played with Murray there – and it wasn’t disingenuous – but it did seem a little unfair that you were playing the “seven degrees of separation” game, where you spoke with this person one time, and I think that’s how your fans will know –
HARRIS: Well no, the problem with Stefan, for me, is that he didn’t find anything negative to say about Jared Taylor’s worldview, right. So I got the sense that he – again, I can’t read his mind – but I got the sense that he wasn’t just duped, he actually- he knows what Jared Taylor thinks, so that’s suspicious to me, and so – that makes me think that he’s of a piece with Taylor, in that regard. [1:55:29]
(Signposting: If Harris’ glowing endorsement of Douglas Murray set off some alarm bells, give yourself a cookie. The political Right has been wailing about a Muslim invasion for decades, and it has yet to arrive. In reality, crime has dropped in Sweden as more Muslims have migrated there, the majority of Islamic sects are A-OK with contraception, and Muslim fertility rates are rapidly dropping towards the norm for Europe. Pretty much everything about the “Muslim Invasion” is more fantasy than fact.)
OK, that’s more like a response to a targeted legal challenge. Again, nothing Sam Harris says appears to rise to the level of defamation, not even the Jared Taylor/Molyneux bit as he’s made it clear he’s stating his personal opinion.
Molyneux may be a Canadian citizen, but he’s retained a US law firm which implies he’s filing in a US court and under that jurisdiction. That makes little sense, as Canada is far more plaintiff-friendly for defamation cases, and it’s been argued that a US defamation ruling wouldn’t be enforceable in Canada. Based on the facts in front of me, in my non-expert opinion (not a lawyer! ) this smells more of an empty legal threat than a legit one.
Holocaust deniers like James Keegstra have been convicted of hate speech in Canada, true. But Picciolini is wrong; read the relevant sections of Canada’s Criminal Code, and you’ll see it covers “promoting genocide,” inciting “hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace,” and “communicating statements” publicly that “wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group.” The Holocaust is never explicitly mentioned, and I can’t find it in any other Canadian law. Here’s what Keegstra was actually accused of:
Mr. Keegstra’s teachings attributed various evil qualities to Jews. He thus described Jews to his pupils as “treacherous”, “subversive”, “sadistic”, “money-loving”, “power hungry” and “child killers”. He taught his classes that Jewish people seek to destroy Christianity and are responsible for depressions, anarchy, chaos, wars and revolution. According to Mr. Keegstra, Jews “created the Holocaust to gain sympathy” and, in contrast to the open and honest Christians, were said to be deceptive, secretive and inherently evil. Mr. Keegstra expected his students to reproduce his teachings in class and on exams. If they failed to do so, their marks suffered.
I can’t find a single Canadian case involving Holocaust denial alone, and it’s an awkward fit under those two sections of the Criminal Code. At any rate, prosecutions under Sections 318 and 319 are exceedingly rare, to merely charge the crime requires the consent of Canada’s Attorney General. At his last conviction Keegstra was fined $3,000 CAD, which was eventually appealed down to a one-year suspended sentence with 200 hours of community service, so it’s not like the government is hauling you off to the Gulag, either. And, to top it all off, only your own statements can convict you under those two codes. I can accuse you of hate speech every hour of the day, and that cannot be used against you in court. There’s no damage from my accusation, beyond defamation of character.
So has Picciolini defamed Molyneux? I’m not sure. In addition to Picciolini’s evidence, I can add that Molyneux has endorsed the work of Kevin MacDonald, who David Duke has called a friend, and they’ve both pushed a conspiracy theory about Jews and communism. As mentioned by Harris, Molyneux has interviewed Jared Taylor, who’s known as a white supremacist. Molyneux and Vox Day have talked about “white genocide,” a common white supremacist conspiracy theory, and Molyneux believes that whites are a distinct race. He sees conspiracies about race in the strangest places. He directs a lot of hate at black people, too. Molyneux’s sexism? Off the charts.
Women who choose the assholes will fucking end this race. They will fucking end this human race, if we don’t start holding them a-fucking-ccountable. … Women who choose assholes guarantee child abuse. Women who choose assholes guarantee criminality, sociopathy. […] Women keep that black bastard flame alive. They cup their hands around it, they protect it with their bodies. They keep the evil of the species going by continually choosing these guys. […] Stop fucking monsters and we get a great world. Keep fucking monsters, we get catastrophes, we get war, we get nuclear weapons, we get national debt, we get incarcerations … Women worship at the feet of the devil and wonder why the world is evil. And then you know what they say? We’re victims!
What else changed during that podcast edit? Nothing. You’ve read all the modifications Harris made. He never recorded additional commentary to discuss the edits, never mentioned any sort of legal letter, nor even added that he thought Picciolini’s accusations were false. As of this writing, the two videos on YouTube have matching descriptions and the podcast’s description hasn’t changed at all. Your only hints of change were the existence two videos with different timestamps, plus the filename of the podcast (“Picciolini_Re-edit_V2.mp3“), and even then you’d have to go over several hours of audio with a fine-toothed comb to unearth what was different, and even then you’d have no idea why it was different! If it weren’t for Picciolini’s tweets, Sam Harris would have successfully memory-holed James Damore from his podcast episode and minimized what was said about Stefan Molyneux.
Think about that: in a dispute between someone espousing white supremacist views (Molyneux), and an expert on white supremacy, Sam Harris not only sided with the former, he went out of his way to protect them by silently erasing content, then when he was called out for doing that Harris dismissed the evidence and experience of the expert in public!
That sets a dangerous precedent. A lot of people are drawn into the alt-Right via gradual radicalisation, by listening to people who disguise their bigotry behind scientific platitudes and denunciations of more radical members, then gently sliding toward the more extreme end of things. A non-trivial number of the self-described alt-Right start down the extremist path via Sam Harris, by their own admission; so if Harris is sanitising moderate white supremacist views, even if only at the behest of a (probably) baseless lawsuit threat, he’s making it easier for people to join the alt-Right and become white supremacists.
Sam Harris just signaled to alt-Right extremists that he’s fine with being part of their pipeline, he’s happy to create more white supremacists, by creating taboos which shield their more extreme views from the sunlight.
HARRIS: [54:08] Steve [Pinker]’s point was that – the problem with not letting conservative and even right-wing views get expressed on college campuses, is that – well, any taboo view, whether it’s intelligence and race, and gender differences, whatever is a considered a third rail in intellectual life now – the problem with not letting these views get discussed, honestly and at length, is that… certain truths are being concealed, and certain conversations are being deemed off-limits, and people aren’t developing intellectual antibodies to the bad ideas that get accreted around these topics. So if, for the first time in your life, your hearing what seems like perfectly honest talk about IQ, say, but it’s come in from someone like Jared Taylor, right? Well then, you’re on this greased slide into being indoctrinated into this kind of racist worldview, and- the primacy of free speech has to be such an obvious value for the Left, and the fact that we’re losing sight of it is really the most worrisome thing here. [applause] [55:55]
Try practising what you preach, Harris.
[HJH 2018-05-18] Less than thirty-eight hours after I posted this, Sam Harris deleted the original video. You can still find a copy on YouTube, and others have extracted some of the missing audio (though not all of it, judging by the video’s length).
 Hilliard III, Asa G. “Either a paradigm shift or no mental measurement: the nonscience and the nonsense of The Bell Curve.” Cultural diversity and mental health 2.1 (1996): pg. 2