A perfect example of the Sam Harris two-step


As a follow-up to my post on how the alt-right hate groups are targeting young skeptics for recruitment, I want to point out how prominent atheists like Sam Harris are enabling this disturbing trend, something that Harvard secular chaplain Greg Epstein has already observed. This is because people like Harris say things that are rife with ambiguity. I and many others have noted before the disingenuous way that Sam Harris argues that enables him to be on both sides of an issue, something that I have labeled the Sam Harris two-step, though he is not the only one to use it. Charles Murray is also a master at it. They both seem to say outrageous things then, when challenged, point to other statements that seem contradict it.

I came across an excellent example of this in comments that Harris made during the last presidential elections when Ben Carson ran for the Republican nomination. Harris made this statement: “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time.” (He also has some nice things to say about Ted Cruz over Barack Obama.)

The first reaction of any sane person would be an incredulous “You have got to be kidding me!” Harris would choose as president a religious grifter who is largely ignorant of world affairs and who wants to screw over the poor over one of the leading thinkers of our time and who has an enviable lifetime record of support for the oppressed and downtrodden and worthy causes?

So what happens if you call out Harris for taking the outrageous position of endorsing Carson? He (and his many supporters) will indignantly respond that you are dishonestly and deliberately taking him out of context (this is his favorite defense) by pointing to the next statement Harris makes, which is “Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile, Ben Carson does not…the fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal…but at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.”

So you end up and scratching your head. Does he like the “dangerously deluded religious imbecile” Carson and dislike Chomsky or not? And this is precisely the problem with Harris. He likes to have it both ways. He first tacks to the extreme right by saying he prefers Carson over Chomsky (something that will greatly please the extreme religious right wingers), and then he tacks to the left by calling Carson a religious imbecile. The classic two-step on display. Note that he could have easily avoided any ambiguity by saying that he disagreed with Chomsky on US foreign policy. There really is no reason to bring in Carson into any discussion on foreign policy because he is irrelevant. But by deliberately saying that he prefers Carson over Chomsky, he has thrilled right-wingers.

Young skeptics who look up to Harris as an atheist role model can easily be sucked into thinking that it is acceptable to support a religious imbecile as long as that person supports an extreme right-wing political agenda. Is it any wonder that with prominent atheists expressing ambiguous sentiments like this, young skeptics who are drawn to them initially because of their atheism can easily drift into supporting fascists, neo-Nazi, and xenophobic groups and ideologies?

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    So you end up and scratching your head. Does he like the “dangerously deluded religious imbecile” Carson and dislike Chomsky or not?

    I’m sorry, but this is a poor example and it makes you look very simple-minded. Is there no place for nuance in your worldview? In this example Harris is saying ‘Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile, but I prefer him over Chomsky, at least in the area of foreign policy, because Carson says bad things about muslims and Chomsky does not.’ I.e. He dislikes them both, but he dislikes one more than the other.
    False dichotomies such as “you must like or dislike a person, no room for mixed reviews” and “”if you like A you must dislike B” are oversimplistic and you should strive for deeper understanding.
    This should not be construed as endorsement of anything Harris has ever said, that would be another oversimplification on your part.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Reginald,

    Sorry, but I disagree. Harris is not making the nuanced statement that you ascribe to him. He said that given a choice, he’d vote for Carson as president over Chomsky. In other words, he is willing to overlook everything else, however bad, other than their attitude towards Muslims. That is a very strong statement.

    [UPDATE: I am sure that if I think hard enough I can think of some policy on which I think Donald Trump is better than Bernie Sanders. But I would never say that because of that one issue I would vote for Trump over Sanders. All the other stuff is simply too huge to ignore.]

  3. says

    Reginald’s response as well as the “taking out of context” response are both responses that fail to consider the audience that we are concerned about. OK, so let’s say, for the sake of argument that we are indeed “simple-minded” or “taking out of context.” What might the alt-right be doing with these same comments? Does someone like Reginald think they’re going to consider context? Or that they’ll be thoughtful about such statements? If Reginald or others see the answer to these latter two questions as “No,” then I hope they can start to see why we’d have an issue. Seriously, stop worrying about us being “simple-minded” or “taking out of context” and be concerned about what might be if the alt-right were to do the same. For example, the problem with the remark about preferring Carson is with how the alt-right will interpret it. Will they interpret it as being limited to foreign policy? Will they??? (Also, Reginald, please note that Mano also wrote, “Note that he could have easily avoided any ambiguity by saying that he disagreed with Chomsky on US foreign policy,” so I find Mano to have already recognized that interpretation of “Harris is saying ‘…I prefer him over Chomsky, at least in the area of foreign policy.’ What you said, Reginald, doesn’t differ much from what Mano had already said.)

    I can understand that anything anyone says can be twisted to mean something it doesn’t (Darwin’s remark on the complexity of the eye comes to mind), but a problem with people like Harris is they make it too darn easy to do. Worse, it’s then harder to show how people who might be getting it wrong why and how they are getting it wrong when there are conflicting quotes.

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Reginald Selkirk:

    Obviously he’s critical of them both, but if the Republican nominee were Ben Carson and the Dem nominee were Chomsky, he obviously has the option of a candidate from another party, writing in a candidate, or not fucking voting.

    He’s willing to vote for Ben Carson, given the right circumstances. That a person would ever, EVER register a vote for Ben Carson for the job of President of the USA shows the grossest intellectual incompetence.

  5. mnb0 says

    “The first reaction of any sane person would be an incredulous “You have got to be kidding me!”
    Sorry. The name Sam Harris is a spoiler. My first reaction was: “What else would you expect from him?”

    “So you end up and scratching your head.”
    Not at all. He dislikes Chomsky even more than Carson (no prizes for guessing correctly why that would be) and the conclusion confirms what I’ve thought about Harris several years now: he’s a piece of s**t, because of the reasons you gave in @2. But not in the article – and frankly, anyone, like RegS today, who’s incapable of thinking those reasons up himself has a superficial mind.
    Plus you’re missing one more point. Sammy is also guilty of a strawman: “He understands that jihadists are the enemy.” Given Chomsky’s views on authority and power it may even be justified to call Sammy a filthy liar. RegS neglecting that one doesn’t speak for his intellect either.
    Of course I’ve the dubious advantage of having had to deal with filthy right wingers for more than 15 years now, since this Great Blonde Leader took charge:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geert_Wilders

  6. smrnda says

    Even if one wanted to agree with Harris that ‘jihadists are the enemy’ he’s got to demonstrate that jihadists are a bigger concern than poverty, lack of health care or just ordinary shootings by random people with guns in the USA. One could argue that the people who suffer most due to US foreign policy are rarely USians.

  7. Jenora Feuer says

    @smrnda:
    Your first line about ‘lack of health care’, more to the point, pretty much says ‘one could argue that the people who suffer most in the U.S. are doing so because of U.S. domestic policy, not because of any jihadists’.

    I’d say for most people in the U.S., the ‘jihadists’ are less of an enemy than their own government. (And even the ‘jihadists’ are in the position they are because of U.S. foreign policy.) I put ‘jihadists’ in quotes because we know the deliberate implication of the original statement was that ‘jihadist’==Muslim.

  8. drken says

    Young skeptics who look up to Harris as an atheist role model can easily be sucked into thinking that it is acceptable to support a religious imbecile as long as that person supports an extreme right-wing political agenda. Is it any wonder that with prominent atheists expressing ambiguous sentiments like this, young skeptics who are drawn to them initially because of their atheism can easily drift into supporting fascists, neo-Nazi, and xenophobic groups and ideologies?

    True, but they’ll also learn that if Laurence Kraus was more handsome, the women complaining about him harassing them would have liked it. They’d also learn that torture can be done ethically (despite not actually working). So, put it on the pile with all the other horrible things Sam Harris has said for which he believes he is being persecuted and silenced for, which you can read about in his best selling book, at one of his many speaking engagements, or when he’s quoted in the NY Times again.

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