Greenwald and Hussain on Sam Harris and racism

This April 3 post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

I know of no living public intellectual whose views get caricatured and misrepresented quite as routinely as do Sam Harris.

What’s disheartening isn’t that people disagree with Harris. It’s that they haven’t taken the time to understand what’s there to disagree with! I don’t know whether Harris is right or wrong regarding a lot of the positions he defends. But I do know that whether he’s right or wrong is of profound importance — that these are topics that strike at the heart of our political and ethical principles. So it is endlessly disappointing when other public figures simply fail to engage with any views or assertions even in the vicinity of Harris’.

A case in point: Yesterday [April 2], Glenn Greenwald retweeted an Al Jazeera article by Murtaza Hussain, “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“. The article argues for a strong continuity between the pseudoscientific racism of many historical thinkers, and the contemporary criticisms of Islam by “new atheists” like Harris.

Although I’m unfamiliar with Hussain’s other work, my past experience with both Greenwald and Al Jazeera has generally been very positive. So I was stunned to find the article in question packed with misinformation and outright libel. A relatively careful and sensitive attempt to defend a thesis like Hussain’s might appeal to psychological studies and sociological models indicating that our fear of the Other can sometimes unconsciously skew our priorities, potentially causing anyone — even an avowed anti-racist like Harris — to misunderstand the causes for his own concerns. But this sort of armchair psychoanalysis is not Hussain’s approach. Instead, he simply misstates Harris’ actual, on-the-record views, making him out to be an overt supporter of racism, fascism, and genocide.

Harris confronted Greenwald, pointing out that the article was simply not accurate. And Greenwald… stuck by the article.

I profess bafflement. I cannot imagine that if Greenwald took the time to do a little more research, he would continue to endorse Hussain’s transparent journalistic misconduct. Even if you remain inwardly convinced that someone is a racist, you should not hesitate to retract demonstrable falsehoods presented as evidence for that accusation. It is one thing to castigate and condemn a person; it is quite another to publicly endorse intellectual dishonesty as a means of defaming that person.

What did Hussain write? I’ll assess eight representative assertions.

[1] [I]n the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for torture,

No. This suggests that Harris has called for the torture of actual, real-world individuals or groups. Moreover, it suggests that he somehow thinks Muslims, and Muslims alone, are uniquely deserving of torture. Both of these claims are false.

Harris has certainly said that it is not impossible for torture to be justified in hypothetical extreme scenarios; but this is a view primarily about general ethical theory, and not about political practice. As it happens, it is the same position endorsed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on torture; so as philosophy it is perhaps not as deranged as it initially sounds. But what’s relevant here isn’t whether Harris’ brand of consequentialism is right or wrong, noble or despicable. It’s that his view simply isn’t what Hussain claims it is.

[EDIT: Harris’ view on torture is actually somewhat complicated. If you want more details on his current position, I suggest reading this 2011 article. Even though Harris thinks there can be extraordinary circumstances in which torture is ethically justifiable “in principle“, he thinks it should remain illegal, and he thinks that known instances of torture (e.g., at Abu Ghraib) were “sadistic“, “stupid“, and “patently unethical“. Most relevantly, Harris’ reasoning, be it right or wrong, holds equally for Muslims and for non-Muslims, contrary to Hussain’s “in the case of Muslims” qualifier.]

[2] [In the case of Muslims Harris has supported] pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes,

No. The source of this falsehood is the fact that Sam Harris once described (with explicit horror and revulsion) a scenario in which pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes might occur. Relatively scruple-free journalists like Chris Hedges then took this passage and, well, lied about it. It’s… actually no more complicated than that. See Harris’ response.

 [3] [Harris has supported] the security profiling of not just Muslims themselves, but in his own words ‘anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim’. Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of ‘looking Muslim’ which Harris makes.

This is at least not literally false. Instead, it leaves out the fact that Harris thinks the profiling should be primarily non-racial, and insofar as it is racial it should focus to a significant extent on white people like himself. Quoting Harris in the very article on profiling Hussain cited:

When I speak of profiling ‘Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,’ I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice). To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.

If Harris’ views on profiling are to be taken simply as proof of his racism, are we to gather that he also harbors a racial bias against white people? To be clear, I’m not endorsing Harris’ view on profiling here. I’m only endorsing discussing these issues without reliance on caricature.

[4] Harris has also written in the past his belief [sic] that the ‘Muslim world’ itself lacks the characteristic of honesty,

No, he’s written that Muslims routinely refuse to honestly evaluate the doctrines of Islam. Quoth he: “Who will reform Islam if moderate Muslims refuse to speak honestly about the very doctrines in need of reform?

Summing Harris’ view up as “the Muslim world itself lacks the characteristic of honesty” is deliberately modifying Harris’ statements to sound maximally simplistic and culturally essentializing. This, of course, helps make it tie better into Hussain’s chosen narrative. But if Harris’ assertions reflect a skewed world-view, should it not be possible to critique them without going to the trouble of distorting them first?

[5] [Harris has written that] Muslims as a people ‘do not have a clue about what constitutes civil society.

No. The source of the misquotation is this statement by Harris:

A third of young British Muslims say they want to live under sharia law and think that anyone who leaves the faith should be put to death. This is a third of British Muslims. 68% of British Muslims think that their neighbors who insult Islam should be arrested and prosecuted. 78% think that the Danish cartoonists should be brought to justice. These people do not have a clue about what constitutes a civil society.

To my knowledge, he does not say this of “Muslims as a people“. If he does, then Hussain should cite that, and not cite a random mistitled Youtube video.

[6] As he has said: ‘It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.’ This belief in the need to fight open-ended war against Muslims […]

No. Stop right there. ‘War with Islam‘ does not have the same semantic content as ‘Open-ended war against Muslims‘.

The former quotation makes it sound like Harris thinks the doctrines of Islam are causally responsible for terrorism, and that these doctrines must be undermined if the violence is to end. Plenty of people would contest this claim. But in so doing they need not pretend that Harris is making the latter assertion, as though Harris thinks we should violently attack any and all Muslims indefinitely. This is simply not an honest paraphrase.

[7] Indeed he argues in his book that the only suitable form of government for Muslim people is ‘benign dictatorship‘, an echo of the 19th century social theorist George Fitzhugh who argued in favour of slavery by saying: ‘The Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child.’

This is a transparent lie. In at least five different respects.

  • (a) Harris is not talking exclusively about countries with large Muslim populations in the relevant passage. At least, North Korea was not a predominantly Muslim country the last time I checked….
  • (b) Harris is talking about relatively oppressive states, not states with populations of any particular cultural background.
  • (c) Harris is differentiating these states based on political and economic freedoms, not based on race or skin color.
  • (d) Harris does not endorse ‘benevolent dictators’ in general, but merely, citing Fareed Zakaria, raises the hypothesis that such dictators may not be a terrible idea in all cases. His worry seems to be that rushing to democratize the entire world will have a destabilizing, schism-producing effect.
  • (e) Harris does not endorse such dictators as a permanent solution in any circumstance, at most merely as a transitional one.

Note: Strongly attacking any or all of these views does not require deceiving anyone about what is actually being asserted! Really. It doesn’t.

[8] Harris has stated that the correct policy with regard to Western Muslim populations is in fact that which is currently being pursued by contemporary fascist movements today. In Harris’ view: ‘The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.’

No. Harris was not citing fascists approvingly. (Good grief!) He was criticizing liberals for getting a moral issue wrong that is so obvious (in his view) that even some extremists — or, as Harris calls them in the same passage, “lunatics” — have figured it out. If I half-jokingly noted ‘Even Hitler saw that vegetarianism was a good idea,’ I would not be citing Hitler approvingly; I would be suggesting that the sanity waterline is very low indeed.

In quoting Harris out of context here, and failing to in any way indicate Harris’ actual meaning, I do not think it an overstatement to say that Hussain forfeits any claim to journalistic credibility.

Hussain, Greenwald, and Al Jazeera have betrayed an important trust to their readers today. They now owe them, and Harris, an apology and a retraction for writing, promoting, and publishing without disclaimer, respectively, such an irresponsible hit piece.

Here’s hoping they do better tomorrow.



[UPDATE, April 8: The above doesn’t really address the deeper significance of Murtaza’s thesis, or the truth of his and Greenwald’s more general claims. It merely reports on an instance of journalistic misconduct. Since there’s so much interest in the more substantive issues here, I’ve written a follow-up post to continue the discussion: Is “Islamophobia” Real?]

Why I oppose capital punishment

This post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

Why do we punish criminals? We punish as prevention — to keep the criminal from causing further harm, or to deter potential offenders. We punish as rehabilitation — to heal the criminal’s psyche, or to make him a functional member of society. And we punish as retribution — to give the victims peace of mind, or to balance the scales of Justice itself. This is why we lock human beings up in very small rooms with other very bad people, and why we sometimes give money to corrections officers to kill them. But having been made aware that these are our reasons, we can question whether they are good reasons.

Focusing on the death penalty sharpens the question. Given corpses’ incorrigibility, rehabilitation is ruled out. Nor has it been proven that execution is a better deterrent than life in prison. Murderers do not systematically weigh all the consequences before acting. And even if they were rational and well-educated enough to do so, they’d be crazy to give much thought to the death penalty: In the United States, 40% of homicides go unsolved, and even among the convicted, only 3% of murderers are sentenced to be executed.

Now, perhaps if we made the death penalty far more common, we’d start seeing deterrence effects. And maybe we could cut down on the billions of extra dollars we spend on capital trials by cutting a few corners and streamlining the process. (Sure, this might add to the 350+ innocent U.S. citizens who have been wrongfully executed or exonerated at the eleventh hour, but every omelette needs its eggs.) Hell, there are countless changes we could make to more efficiently deter prospective criminals — cut off the hands of serious offenders, torture them horrifically, lock them in solitary confinement for decades. But we have to weigh the benefits of methods like capital punishment against the damage they do — the damage they do to the criminals, and the damage they do to our common humanity, to all members of the society.

This brings us to retribution, the most emotionally compelling justification for executing people. We all intuitively feel that two wrongs do help make a right. If we found a cheap, easy, completely effective way to make murderers productive members of society just by treating them like kings — without inflicting any harm upon them, and with a net benefit for society — it would seem as though our moral cosmos had been turned upside-down. (This is not a thought experiment. Commit your crimes in Norway.) Feeling that an unpunished evil is doubly evil, we try to balance the scales of human suffering — by adding yet more suffering into the mix.

Evolutionarily, our intuitions make some sense. Even if private lethal injections have little value in a modern civil society, we could imagine the fear of murderous reprisals perhaps helping keep prehistoric tribal communities intact. But not all of our evolutionarily ‘natural’ reactions are helpful today. There is nothing more natural in times of human tragedy than wanting to find some enemy or scapegoat to lash out at. Hatred and a lust for death are perfectly normal reactions to grotesque depravity. But such reactions are, for all that, perfectly unhealthy. Finding coherence and closure through positive and constructive endeavors rather than through bloodthirsty vengeance is just as ‘unnatural,’ and just as humanly necessary, as practicing healthy eating in the face of a ‘natural’ instinct to overindulge.

Coping with extreme grief and anxiety by destroying other individuals is a strategy that functioning societies should discourage, not feed. In the rest of the developed world, this is precisely what they do. In the last 10 years, Japan has killed 35 people, Taiwan 41 people, Singapore some unknown large number, and the United States — as of Mr. Steven Wood of Texas, seven days ago — 535 people. Not one of the other 38 developed nations has killed anyone in the 21st century, most having abolished it decades ago. The United States ranks with China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria as one of the few nations in existence retaining a legal system that routinely kills human beings. This on its own does not make the U.S. wrong and the rest of the world right; but it does undermine our confidence that a liberal democracy, to flourish, must execute its citizens.

Do victims need to see other humans suffer in order to find peace of mind? Do we as individuals and as a society function best when we feed our blackest hatred and vindictiveness, or when we undertake the difficult task of cultivating compassion, of humanizing even those we most despise? Only the sciences of mind can hope to find an answer. But in lieu of conclusive evidence, erring on the side of a society held fast by something other than hatred and fear does not seem unreasonable.

It has been argued that capital punishment may actually increase murder rates by sending the “brutalizing” message that it’s acceptable to kill people in some circumstances. Violence begets violence. If it’s OK for a judge or juror or technician or prison official to kill a human being for reasons other than self-defense, the value of a person’s life is not unconditional. So if you think a person is really bad, murder might conceivably be the right thing to do! At least, Mr. Murderer, your goal is vindicated, though we find your methods distasteful (and just might kill you for them). The subtler ramifications of living in a culture that wavers and quibbles on the morality of killing a person surely run far deeper than whatever minute, short-term fluctuations in dehumanization we might be able to detect in the immediate wake of these systematic, targeted, state-sponsored killings.

There is a place in a modern, humane society for preventative and rehabilitative justice. But even if we had any reason to believe that ‘eye for an eye’ morality had a significant deterrent effect, such a benefit would not be worth the price of our humanity. It would not be worth sacrificing the basic and pristine value of every person’s existence. We should draw the line exactly here.

Why are we so bad at talking to each other?

This is a revised version of a Friendly Atheist post.

Whether the secular movement flourishes will depend on how well it can carry on a dialogue with its religious friends and foes. It’s through conversation that we will change our public image, negotiate political gains, and form alliances on specific issues. It’s conversation that will determine whether our numbers expand.

But the stakes are drastically higher than that. In an increasingly interdependent world, our ability as human beings to resolve disputes verbally is the only abiding safeguard against violence, against polarization, against seeing informed democracy degenerate into shouting matches.

Why, then, are we so averse to talking to those with whom we disagree? Why do dialogues fail? Why are we so rarely persuaded? If we can understand why we’re so bad at resolving our differences, maybe we can do a little to change that fact.

Greta Christina noted at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference that “arguing about religion is not a waste of time.” Although debaters themselves may be bewilderingly obstinate in the heat of battle, onlookers remain surprisingly receptive to new ideas. This suggests that the best way to promote atheism is to argue before a large audience.

However, there will always be cases where we need to get a point across to someone directly. Most interactions between theists and nontheists will be in small groups, or one-on-one. And it is these direct chats that are ideal for reaching out to those individuals who are least informed about atheists, least inclined to waste time on the Internet perusing atheist blogs or YouTube debates. Aside from the occasional prime-time atheological sound bite, person-to-person discussion will be what tends to define our image and plant the earliest seeds of doubt. So the question retains its urgency. What makes discussion break down? Judging by the debates I’ve seen and participated in, there are two main culprits.

I. Our discussions aren’t collaborations.

We see debate as an opportunity to defend ourselves, attack another position, fight for dominance and power and respect. We see it as something either I win or you win, not as something both sides succeed or fail in together. Our discussions are antagonistic because we enjoy being right, we take pride in the strength of our reasoning — and we feel shame and dismay when we are proven wrong.

Why don’t we feel the happy excitement of a new discovery when someone corrects a mistake of ours? Because the discussion has been framed as a competition, not as a mutual pursuit of deeper understanding. It’s not enough to make overtures of camaraderie; even exchanges between the best of friends can become bitter squabbles if either side becomes too invested in who is right, overshadowing what is right. A healthy discussion should feel like trading recipes or researching a common interest; each side should keenly (or casually) desire to understand the other, to learn and not just to teach. We have plenty to learn from the religious; if nothing else, we have plenty to learn from them about other religious people, and how to better reach out to them and find common cause. This sort of cheerful shared curiosity must drive discussions. A religious exchange motivated only by the evangelical desire to banish ignorance, however well-meant, is doomed to failure.

Remember: It’s not fun to be wrong. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sam Harris suggests that our brains process falsehoods with an experience akin to disgust. It’s a delight to encounter beliefs you agree with. It’s a pleasure to hold beliefs which seem to make sense of your experiences. At the same time, it’s not easy living with contradictions and lacunae; cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. A discussion of deeply held beliefs is more like an affective rodeo than like trading indifferent data points.

What’s the take-away? Be nuanced. Be moderate. ‘Nuanced’ doesn’t mean ‘complicated’. Express your views clearly and concisely, but follow up a negative comment with a positive comment, to mitigate the inevitable emotional sting while leaving the intellectual content intact. And ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean ‘wishy-washy’ on points of substance. You will come across as moderate if you are willing to make concessions, ask sincere questions, compliment the other side, and admit your own shortcomings, even if these sugar-coated asides are irrelevant to your central argument, and even if the argument itself is a radical one. A very little friendliness and good humor goes a very long way. Indeed, just coming across as a nice person tends to do a lot more to attract skeptics and allies than even the most devastating logic. And, of course, it leads to way better conversations.

II. Our discussions aren’t specific.

When we speak of persuading people about atheism, we aren’t really speaking about some isolated bit of theology. Atheism here is code for a very broad and complex world-view, rich in methodological and theoretical commitments. This is our long-term strength, because it provides something with which to fill the epistemic void left by deconversion. But it’s our short-term weakness, because it makes our discussions too all-or-nothing. It forces us to demolish a towering world-view in one fell swoop, when we’d be better off chipping away slowly at the foundations.

We are at our strongest when we can debate particular, relatively weakly held claims. This allows us to show off the power, the richness, the appeal of scientific and philosophical reasoning — without drowning out that appeal in the backlash of immediate outrage. Why leap to debate God when you can sharpen Ockham’s razor first on ghosts, or homeopathy, or climate change denialism? In this way you can teach the intellectual methods motivating atheism, which are in any case far more important and life-saving than atheism itself. If the methods manage to take root, they will do more to eat away at dogma from within than any argument made by another ever could.

Sticking to specifics makes it easier to convince the other side of some particular claim; and even if the issue is a trivial one, there is much value simply in the act of learning to inquire skeptically and revise one’s views. Moreover, it is on these innumerable factoids, far more than on deep and unshakable moral convictions, that theists and atheists disagree.

The same, surprisingly, is true of American liberals and conservatives. If a discussion were had on interpreting some specific data or theory, the dialogue could advance and both groups could come away better educated. Because the debate is instead halted at incredibly broad topics — we don’t debate some claim about abortion, we debate abortion itself — no progress is made. Instead, both sides fall into the well-rehearsed rituals of their cherished established beliefs, camouflaging a mass of negotiable factual disagreements as a monolithic dispute of irreconcilable values. This is how sides in a dispute fossilize into factions. There are indeed real conflicts over values — but these are as dust compared to the mountains of cost-benefit analyses, empirical generalizations, and causal interpretations on which the two sides would first diverge. When the discussion stays in vague, well-trodden territory, we do nothing but go in circles.

How does this work in practice? Paul Veyne, in “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?”, quotes the missionary Évariste Huc’s account of Tibet:

We had adopted a completely historical mode of instruction, taking care to exclude anything that suggested argument and the split of contention; proper names and very precise dates made much more of an impression on them than the most logical reasoning. When they knew the names Jesus, Jerusalem, and Pontius Pilate and the date 4000 years after Creation, they no longer doubted the mystery of the Redemption and the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, we never noticed that mysteries or miracles gave them the slightest difficulty. We are convinced that it is through teaching and not the method of argument that one can work efficaciously toward the conversion of the infidel.

Set aside the manipulative evangelism and notice the lesson in psychology. Even the best arguments tend to fail when they’re pitted against the deepest convictions of a competing religion, cemented by habit and guarded by stereotyped, mantra-like counterarguments. Non-argumentative, factual accounts, on the other hand, slip through the cracks quite easily. This is not simply because they are framed as indisputable facts, nor because they are too idiosyncratic and exotic to brook easy retort. It is because they are friendlier, less confrontational. They invite listening and learning, rather than intellectual combat.

Such a technique, of course, can easily be abused. It merely replaces one authority with another. We want to encourage productive and dynamic dialogues, not just a one-sided soliloquy. Yet if we want the communication without the rancor, we must make argument its own reward. It must be a happy act aimed at real discovery and mutual enrichment.

If our only goal were to make everyone believe the same thing we believe, we’d be better off relying on the rhetorical power of facts and figures and jargon. But orthodoxy, even scientific orthodoxy, isn’t our goal. Our goal is a world of open-minded critical thinkers, of people who have made a habit of questioning, and of seeking, and of imaginatively advancing the human discussion in science and in politics. However you envision secularism’s end-game, no path is possible in the absence of civil and productive dialogues between people with radically different world-views.

This is not to say that such dialogue is easy. It is to say that we have no choice. We have to talk.