When dialogues become duels

Why did the recent blow-up between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald happen? Why was my subsequent discussion with Murtaza Hussain so unproductive? More, why are squanderous squabbles like this so common? Even among intelligent, educated people with similar moral sensibilities?

To a first approximation, the answer is simple: Hussain wrote a sloppy, under-researched hit piece. More worried about Harris’ perceived support for U.S. foreign policy than about Hussain’s journalistic misconduct, Greenwald happily lent Hussain a megaphone. Egos flared and paralyzed discussion, and only a few third parties called Hussain or Greenwald out on their errors. So there the story ended.

But if all we take away from this debacle is ‘well, Those People are crazy and dumb and shouldn’t be listened to’, we’ll have missed an opportunity to hone our own craft. Habitually thinking in such terms is how they fell into error. They thought, ‘Those guys are the Enemy. So they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t deserve to have their views presented with charity and precision! They are simply to be defeated.’

And, of course, recognizing that this way of thinking is harmful still isn’t enough. They think that we are the ones in the throes of us-vs.-them thinking. The parallelism is rather comical.

And the thing is, they’re right. … And so are we.

Both sides are at the mercy of enemythink, even if only one side happens to be right on the points of fact. Even my way of framing this conversation in pugilistic terms, as a ‘conflict’ with ‘sides’, reveals a deep vulnerability to partisan animosity. To make progress, we have to actually internalize these lessons, and not just use them as more excuses to score points against the Other Side.

There are four fundamental lessons I’ve taken away from the Hussain/Greenwald libel scandal. And they really all boil down to: Getting everything wrong is easy, and treating discussions like battles or status competitions makes it worse. Put like that, our task could hardly be more simple — or more demanding.

1. There but for the grace of Rigor go I.

Rationality is hard. It isn’t a matter of getting a couple of simple metaphysical and political questions right and then coasting on your brilliance. It takes constant vigilance, effort, self-awareness. We shouldn’t be surprised to see mostly reasonable people slipping up in big ways. Rather, we should be surprised to observe that a jabbering bipedal ape is capable of being at all reasonable in the first place!

Since we’re all really, really bad at this, we need to work together and form social circles that reinforce good epistemic hygiene. We need to exchange and test ideas for combating our biases. I couldn’t put it better than Julia Galef, who lists seven superb tips for becoming a more careful reasoner and discussant.

We can’t spend all our time just clobbering everyone slightly more unreasonable than we are. We must also look inward, seeking out the deep roots of madness that make humans susceptible to dogmatism in the first place.

2. Reality is nonpartisan.

By this I don’t mean that two sides in a dispute must be equally right. Rather, I mean that falling into reflexive partisanship is dangerous, because the world doesn’t care that you’re a Skeptic, or a Libertarian, or a Consequentialist, or a Christian. You and your ideological allies might have gotten lots of questions right in the past, yet still completely flunk your next empirical test. Reality rewards you for getting particular facts right, not for declaring your allegiance to the right abstract philosophy. And it can punish without mercy those whose operative beliefs exhibit even the smallest error, however noble their intentions.

Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox.

I think Harris worries about this too. He doesn’t like identifying as an ‘atheist’, because he strongly opposes any tendency to see simply being reasonable as an ideology in its own right.

We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

[… R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.

I’m not sure this is the best strategy for banding together to save the world. Labels can be useful tools for pooling our efforts. But it’s absolutely a good strategy when it comes to improving our intellectual clarity on an individual level, any time we see ourselves starting to use tribal allegiances as a replacement for analytic vigilance.

philosoraptor

Partisan divides lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to you committing inferential fallacies. Therefore, don’t just get mad, and don’t just get even; get it right. You have far more to fear from your own errors than from your adversary’s.

3. When you have a criticism, talk it over first.

It sounds banal, but you’d be surprised how much mileage this one gets you. Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.

Neither Hussain nor Greenwald extended that basic courtesy to Harris; they went for the throat first. Harris did extend that courtesy to Greenwald; but Greenwald wasn’t interested in talking things out in any detail, preferring to go public immediately.

Like Harris, I tried actually talking to Greenwald and Hussain. The result was revealing, and relatively civil. I still came away disappointed, but it was at least several steps up from the quality of Hussain’s dialogue with Harris. Had we begun with such a conversation, rather than waiting until the disputants were already entrenched in their positions, I suspect that much more progress would have been possible.

If you intensely oppose a view, that makes it all the more important to bracket egos and get clear on the facts right at the outset. All of this is consistent with subsequently bringing the discussion to the public, if the other party doesn’t respond, if you’re left dissatisfied, or if you are satisfied and want to show off how awesome your conversation was.

4. To err is human. To admit it, tremendously healthy.

Everyone screws up sometimes. The trick to really being a competent conversationalist is to notice when you screw up — to attend to it, really ponder it and let it sink in—

— and then to swiftly and mercilessly squish the mistake. Act as though you yourself were pointing out an enemy’s error. Critique it fully, openly, and aggressively.

Making concessions when you’ve screwed up, or when you and your opponent share common ground, makes your other positions stronger and more credible. Because you’ve proven that you can change your mind and notice conflicts between your theory and your data, you’ve also demonstrated that your other views are likely to track the evidence.

Don’t think, ‘Well, I’m right in spirit.’ Don’t think, ‘My mistake isn’t important. This is a distraction. I should keep a laser focus on where I’m right.’ If you ignore too many small errors, they’ll add up to a big error. If you don’t fully recognize when you’ve misjudged the evidence, but just shrug it off and return to the battlefront, then, slowly but surely, you and the facts will drift further and further apart. And you’ll never notice — for what evidence could convince you that you aren’t listening to the evidence?

Constant vigilance! That’s the lesson I take from this. Be uncompromisingly methodical. Be consistently reasonable. Never allow your past intellectual triumphs or your allegiance to the Good Guys to make you sloppy. Always seek the truth — even when the truth is a painful thing.

Realities to which you have anesthetized yourself can damage your person and your mind all the same. You just won’t notice in time to change them.

Harris’ heresies: A dialogue between Hussain and Bensinger

In April, Murtaza Hussain sparked a divisive controversy with an Al Jazeera editorial attacking antireligious activist Sam Harris. Columnist Glenn Greenwald promoted the article, and when Harris objected that Hussain had seriously misrepresented him, Greenwald followed up with his own attack on Harris.

After reading Hussain’s article, I largely sided with Harris, accusing Hussain of intellectual misconduct and disputing Greenwald’s ‘Islamophobia’ accusation. With Greenwald’s strong endorsement, Hussain responded, which led to an online back-and-forth between us. I think people on both sides of this quarrel would benefit from seeing our conversation, so I present it below, organized by topic.

1. Torture and Nuclear War

Murtaza Hussain
GGSideDocs

This was a piece which could only be written by someone utterly ignorant of the political and social contexts in which Harris makes his arguments. Harris – for all his apparent moral and character failures – happens to be stridently political and is not ignorant of the context within which he is speaking. His endorsement of this piece seems to reflect a disingenuous claim on his part that it constitutes a solid defense of him – nothing could be further from the truth.

When I first read the claim here that Harris’ defense of torture extends only to hypothetical non-real world individuals, I almost fell off my chair laughing. Harris wrote “In Defense of Torture” in 2005, directly in the middle of the Iraq War and the public debates over torture spawned by the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, Guantanamo Bay, and innumerable CIA “black sites” all over the world. The claim that he is offering a neutral commentary on the subject in general – and not giving his green-light as a scientific and philosophic authority to the policies being fiercely debated at that very moment – is utterly risible. It has not been nameless, shapeless, colourless, individuals who have been the subjects of institutionalized torture over the past decade and as a political animal Harris knows this full well.

Much the same can be said of his delightful commentary on the utility of nuclear holocaust. He’s not making this argument in a vacuum, there is a fierce public debate about a particular Islamic country (Iran, if you’re somehow unaware) potentially attaining nuclear weapons. There is literally no other country being debated at present to whom his “hypothetical” scenario may pertain than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite his apparently deep ignorance of this issue, given what actual experts (including the leading figures in the *Israeli* defense establishment) have to say about the utility of deterrence, he still feels compelled to chime in with his casually genocidal opinion.

Furthermore, saying we are at “War with Islam” in the context of the past decade of bombings, invasions, occupations and wanton mass-murder (which he incredibly believes are actually massive favors to the subject peoples), is, contrary to Robby’s endearingly quaint contention, indeed a call for open-ended war. The United States is conducting a battle without defined limits under the guise of an amorphous “War on Terror” – a war which has no defined victory conditions and in variously brutal forms continues to be carried on with no end sight. In his great wisdom, [Harris] simply wants us to change the name of the open-ended war which already exists and, by expanding it from “Terror” to “Islam”, make every one of the 1.5 billion people who identify with the latter a potential enemy. Much as Harris would like, Muslims – even secular-minded ones – are never going to stop identifying with the 1400 year old constructed civilization which, despite its present hardships, has for centuries been the world standard in art, science, governance, as well as racial and religious tolerance. While in Muslims’ present downtrodden state some have tried to wipe their contributions out of history and paint them as timelessly-backwards savages (a frequently-employed colonialist depiction of their subjects), Muslims have a collective memory of their past and will not be parted from it, nor from their identification with Islamic civilization.

Robby BensingrNeither I nor Sam have ever claimed that his philosophical arguments can have no implications for public policy. (If you think we have made such a claim, I invite you to cite it.) The very dichotomy ‘philosophical vs. practical’ is misleading; Sam would be the very first to acknowledge that ideology, both thoughtless and reflective, has real-world consequences. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles have real-world consequences too. I think there are some important arguments against Sam’s position on torture that he hasn’t adequately addressed yet, and I’m happy to discuss that ethical question both in the abstract and in real-world cases.

My point was only that your original claim was highly misleading. Your quotation suggested that Sam endorses torturing actual real-world people for being Muslims, and you used this ‘for being Muslims’ implication to argue that he’s an anti-Muslim racist. This is seriously disingenuous, given that none of his arguments are specific to Muslims, and given that he has publicly insisted that torture should be illegal.

You misrepresented the data, and in a way directly relevant to your thesis that Sam is a (genocidal, fascistic) racist. That is unconscionable. I will continue to point this out until you acknowledge the error, apologize for it, and take steps to prevent the further spread of misunderstanding and confusion in this already-murky debate.

You persist in repeating the claim that Sam has endorsed pre-emptive nuclear attacks as some sort of moral imperative. I’ve read the passages in question, and I’m not seeing it. He describes a situation in which he would expect nuclear war to occur. Where, in any of his writings, has he gone beyond that and endorsed this nightmare end-game? In point of fact, he has publicly denied ever having done so. This places an especially strong burden on you to back up your accusation with incandescent clarity.

Obviously Sam’s nightmare scenario is relevant to real-world nuclear stand-offs. That’s why he’s talking about them! His fear of such eventualities is a large part of why he went to the trouble of writing The End of Faith. The point isn’t that he’s pretending his thought experiments have no bearing on reality. That would defeat the purpose of bothering with thought experiments even academically. The point, rather, is that he isn’t in any fashion endorsing nuclear genocide. Much less nuclear genocide as a supremacist mechanism for mass racial cleansing, as you suggest! That thing you keep saying happened — it never happened. No aspect of this charge of yours falls short of journalistic fraud.

I’ll agree with you that “War on Islam” may be a poor word choice on Sam’s part. It’s obvious in context that Sam intended this phrase to mean that the doctrines and traditions of Islam are in opposition to liberal humanistic values, that they are a major locus of calamity — compare “War on Drugs” or “War on Poverty”. It’s equally obvious that he didn’t mean this “War” to occur primarily through actual warfare and violence; in the main he is interested in a war of ideas, and the central thesis of The End of Faith is not that Muslims should be rounded up into death camps (as a reader of your over-the-top diatribe might come to believe), but that Muslims should be intensely criticized on all sides until the religion moderates itself.

A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.

No serious reader can miss this point. But “War on Islam” may lend itself too easily to confusion with a “War on Muslims”, much as “Islamophobia” is too easily confused with “Muslimophobia”. There are certainly rhetorical choices Sam’s made that I disagree with.

Murtaza HussainRegarding his position on torture and nuclear weapons use Sam would like us to suspend our normal, universal condemnation of these things and start considering their practical utility in certain circumstances. Given that he’d like to do this in the context of The War Against Islam he believes we should be fighting, there is only one group of people upon whom these things would then be visited. If we were killing smokers and drug users en masse and as a matter of policy, I could understand the analogy you draw. Given that we actually are killing Muslims in large numbers I find [this] to sound distastefully like a call for broadening the present scale of conflict.

Robby BensingrThat may be near to the truth regarding torture, but it is clearly just not the case regarding nuclear weapons. To my knowledge, there is not a single line in Sam’s writings that advocates the use of nuclear weapons. I’m honestly very surprised that you’re continuing to repeat this simply false claim, particularly since you could publicly retract the mistake without retracting your other claims.

The source of the lie that Sam endorses nuclear first strikes is a passage in The End of Faith where he describes a scenario in which he thinks that the United States would, for prudential reasons, conduct a nuclear first strike. Nowhere does he say that the U.S. should, for moral reasons, do such a thing. Rather, he calls it “an unthinkable crime” and “an unconscionable act” in that very passage. (Nor does he think a nuclear Iran or Pakistan qualifies as an example of the scenario he describes.)

The whole point of the nuclear scenario is that it’s an almost unimaginably nightmarish occurrence — he calls it “perfectly insane” and a “horrible absurdity“, again in the original passage — that we should do everything in our power to prevent. Yet, merely because Sam is the one making the argument (and because Chris Hedges has set a startlingly dishonest precedent for misreporting about it), you seem to feel some bizarre license to skew the evidence so that it fits the pattern of your other claims.

This, more than most of your other claims, clearly deserves a public retraction and correction. Please make it clear to your readers that the facts still matter. Make it clear that we can disagree profoundly, and criticize one another harshly, without indulging in distortions or misrepresentations at all. This is not a grey area.

Murtaza HussainI don’t think that Hedges is incorrect in his criticism of him. What Sam does in all these scenarios, whether it is with regards to the endorsement of torture, profiling or whatsoever, is to do a lot of faux-liberal hang-wringing before essentially saying it is terrible but may be necessary. There is no other way you could endorse the use of nuclear weapons in a contemporary scenario without making a big show of expressing grief and sadness over the prospect of it – and frankly it makes the end result (which has a practical basis in actual debates he is aware of) any different.

Robby BensingrBut Sam didn’t endorse the use of nuclear weapons. That claim is entirely false. You can repeat it any number of times and never see the iteration syphon from it its falsehood. No matter how convinced you still are that somewhere in his secret heart of hearts Sam Harris thinks we should nuke the Middle East, you at least owe it to your readers not to misrepresent Sam as ever having actually stated such a thing. Your interpretations and speculation need to be marked as such. Ditto for Hedges’.

You declared, as though it were fact: “[I]n the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for […] pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes“. That statement is demonstrably false. It’s your duty to withdraw it, and it can only serve to make your criticisms of substance more credible if you replace this fabrication with an honest critique that nowhere misrepresents the evidence. (Such a critique can be made, so I see no reason to resort to anything less.)

When it was pointed out that Sam never “publicly stated his support” for anything of the sort, rather than revising your statement, you decided that he must have silently had that support in the back of his head while writing the passage.

When it is pointed out that he’s written about how horrific a nuclear holocaust would be and how important it is that we prevent it, you again retract nothing, but now add another ad hoc stipulation to your theory: He must be pretending to be horrified by the prospects of a nuclear apocalypse because he wants to trick his liberal friends into endorsing his secretly-held-but-never-actually-stated view.

… But Sam’s passage expressing moral disgust and horror at the possibility of nuclear genocide is the very passage — the only passage! — that made you think that Sam endorsed nuclear first strikes in the first place. Your hypothesis seems to have acquired an inertia of its own, enough to persist even when none of the original evidence remains. The problem isn’t only that the “publicly stated his support” part of your claim is false as a matter of public record. It’s that even if you replaced “publicly stated his support” with ‘once left implicit undertones of support’, you wouldn’t have any evidence for your interpretation that didn’t presuppose the truth of the interpretation.

Murtaza HussainIn a very real sense this is what extremists of all persuasions do: 1) Posit an extremely dire scenario, 2) Argue that, though it may be painful and awful and transgress all limits it may be necessary to do terrible things in such a scenario, 3) Suggest that such a scenario is imminent. If point 3) did not exist in the form of raging debate around him (a debate of which he is both cognizant and a particularly odious partisan within) I’d say he doesn’t know what he is doing and is merely a hapless, honest academic who is being woefully understood. He isn’t that, and he is cynically manipulating his audience –  including people like you – who are militantly committed to the idea that he speaks in good faith.

Because something is said in a more-sorrow-than-anger tone and is admitted to be evil (a concept which he doesn’t believe in so I’m not sure how he can claim to view it as mitigating) before being portrayed as potentially practicable doesn’t make it better, it makes it far, far worse by convincing people that it may in fact be palatable.

Robby Bensingr Huh? Sam believes in evil.

You don’t seem to be processing what I’m saying. Or what Sam is. The argument you’re sketching is ‘In certain dire circumstances, we should use nukes. Those circumstances are likely to occur. So we should be open to using nukes soon.’ This is very nearly the opposite of the point Sam made, which was: ‘In certain dire circumstances, it is likely that we would use nukes. Those circumstances are likely to occur, and if a nuclear first strike resulted it would be “an unthinkable crime“, an “unconscionable act“, a “horrible absurdity“. So we should do our best to prevent the use of nukes, by preventing the dire circumstances that could trigger them.’

‘Militant good faith’? … That’s a new one. I’m perfectly open to being shown that Sam is secretly a sadistic racist nationalist. I just want to see evidence. I don’t want to have to just take your word for it as an expert on Sam’s psyche. Your arguments so far are long on speculative exegesis and short on textual evidence.

2. Dehumanization

Murtaza HussainSurely not every single Muslim would then be tortured or nuclearly-annihilated, but when viewed in context of his many other public statements on the matter it seems reflective of his conception as Muslims as fundamentally lesser humans to whom – when the need arises (like, right now, during this war, happening today) the normal standards of decency and human rights need not apply. Thus, we don’t need to feel very bad about Abu Ghraib and GTMO because perhaps there is a moral calculus (which Sam proposes) where such actions are not so bad after all. While we may have had to afford due process and to respect the “collateral damage” in past conflicts, in this one the same concern may perhaps be waived, as we’re doing what we need to do against a fanatically inhuman enemy.

Robby BensingrWhat you have here is an empirical hypothesis about Sam’s motivations. You think that he endorses violence because he thinks of Muslims as subhuman, and violence toward dehumanized minorities is much easier to countenance.

The problem for this thesis is that a lot of the evidence you mustered in its support is demonstrably false or markedly misrepresented. To make sure that you aren’t continuing to endorse it out of habit even after the original grounds for it have been stripped away, we need to re-evaluate it and consider alternative hypotheses much more seriously. For example, you need good reasons to reject the following two hypotheses:

  • 1. Generic callousness: Sam doesn’t consider Muslims subhuman. He’s just generally an aggressive and non-empathic person, one who has an easier time imagining and justifying violence than most people do. Islamist militants catch his attention because they’re an unusually obvious threat, but he’d be just as callous toward any other group that seemed dangerous to him.

  • 2. A false model of religious psychology:  Sam doesn’t consider Muslims subhuman. He just has one or two false beliefs: That Islam is unusually violent, and/or that people who follow religions tend to be strongly influenced by their faith’s doctrinal contents. If the former belief is extreme enough, then his endorsement of extreme responses is easy to understand even if he finds it nauseating to even have to consider such violence means. (Note that Sam has said he finds his own views on torture “deeply unsettling“!) That he would harbor the latter belief isn’t surprising, since he wrote a whole book arguing that metaphysical dogmatism drives the behavior of religious people.

Since the Qur’an is proportionally more violent than e.g. Christian and Hindu holy texts, it’s not surprising that someone reading it could arrive at an overly simplistic conclusion about its adherents’ views. But if sloppy ethnographic scholarship or a false model of the power of religious doctrine fully explains Sam’s overriding concern with Islam, why should we feel compelled to posit bigotry on his part as well?

Both of those hypotheses would allow you to continue criticizing Sam, and they seem generally consistent with your political views. They also helpfully explain why people who are neither sociopaths nor bigots, like Stanford Encyclopedia writers, can endorse Sam’s ethical views, and why people who are neither sociopaths nor bigots, like P.Z. Myers, can endorse Sam’s anti-Islam views. So why haven’t you seriously considered these or other hypotheses? Given that your confidence in your conclusion seems not to have been shaken by the loss of most of your cited evidence, I think you should seriously consider the possibility that you’re succumbing to confirmation bias here.

It sounds like you’re saying that your bigotry hypothesis predicts that Sam will try to justify or dismiss Abu Ghraib or GTMO. If so, this is another important disconfirmation of your view. Writes Sam, as early as 2007:

It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make a travesty like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. I consider our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to be patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders in the last century of U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I ever seen the wisdom or necessity of denying proper legal counsel (and access to evidence) to prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay.

You also pluck out of thin air the allegation that Sam downplays the harm of collateral damage. This broadcasts to me unavoidably that you truly haven’t done your research. Sam has written against the routine justification of collateral damage as viscerally as any other commentator today. Indeed, one of his main reasons for even raising the issue of torture was to highlight how comparably grotesque collateral damage is.

Two minutes of Googling would have revealed to you Sam’s views of collateral damage, GTMO, Abu-Ghraib-style abuse, and nuclear war. It honestly sounds in a lot of your arguments like you just haven’t taken the time to read this stuff. You have an image in your mind of the Archetypal Racist Neo-Con, and you’re increasingly succumbing to the habit of freely blurring the lines between this image’s hypothetical misdeeds and Sam’s actual words.

[Click here to see the rest of the discussion.]

Is “Islamophobia” real?

This is a shorter version of an April 8 Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog post.

My previous post on the Sam Harris / Glenn Greenwald clusterfuffle was mostly procedural. I restricted myself to assessing the authenticity of Murtaza Hussain’s citations, barely touching on the deeper issues of substance he and Greenwald raised. But now that we’re on the topic, this is a great opportunity to pierce through the rhetoric and try to get clearer about what’s actually being disputed.

My biggest concern with the criticisms of Harris is that they freely shift between a number of different accusations, often as though they were equivalent. At the moment, the most salient seem to be:

A. He’s a racist, and has a racially motivated hatred of Muslims.
B. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.
C. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.
D. His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.
E. He doesn’t appreciate just how harmful and dangerous the United States is.
F. He advocates militarism and condones violence in general.

I’d like to start disentangling these claims, in the hopes of encouraging actual discussions — and not just shouting matches — about them. Although I’ll use Harris and his recent detractors as a revealing test case, the conclusions here will have immediate relevance to any discussion in which people strongly disagree about the nature and geopolitical significance of Islamic extremism.

Racism?

In “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“, Hussain focuses on [A], trying to pattern-match Harris’ statements to trends exemplified in 18th- and 19th-century pseudoscience. It seems chiefly motivated by the fact that Harris, like a number of historical racists, opposed the aims of a disadvantaged group and, well, is a scientist.

Commenting on my previous post, Hussain appeared to shift gears and back off from accusing Harris of racism:

[T]he point of the post [I wrote] is not “Sam Harris is racist”. Indeed, as he accurately noted, he has a black Muslim friend. The point is that he conciously [sic] lends his scientific expertise to the legitimation of racist policies. He is also an avowed partisan and not a neutral, disinterested observer to these issues. .He [sic] is not speaking in terms of pure abstraction, and he is not as a scientist immune from the pull of ideology (as the racist pseudoscientists I compared him with illustrate). […]

Politics is my field, science is his field, and I would not make dangerously ignorant comments about neuroscience. He on the other hand feels little compulsion [sic] about doing the same politically and using his authority as a scientist and philosopher to justify the actions of those who would commit (and *have committed*) the most utterly heinous acts in recent memory.

I couldn’t care less about his atheist advocacy, I couldn’t care less if he blasphemed a million Quran’s [sic], what I care about is policies of torture and murder not being once again granted a veneer of scientific protection

I’d make three points in response. First, to my knowledge Harris has never made anything resembling the claim ‘I am a scientist, ergo my views on world politics must be correct’.

Second, although I grant that someone’s scientific background doesn’t automatically make her a reliable political commentator, experience with the sciences also doesn’t invalidate one’s future work in political or ethical theorizing. It’s possible to responsibly specialize in more than one thing in life. Moreover, interdisciplinary dialogue is a good thing, and there really are findings from the mind sciences that have important implications for our political tactics and goals. Blindly rejecting someone’s views because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience is as bad as blindly accepting someone’s views just because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience!

My third response is that Hussain’s attempt to backtrack from accusing Harris of racism is transparently inconsistent with his earlier statements. If he’s changed his mind, he should just say so, rather than pretend that his article is devoid of bald assertions like:

[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable. […]

Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of “Negroes”. […]

[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century – including those who helped provide scientific justification for the horrors of European fascism.

That certainly doesn’t sound like an effort to maintain neutrality on Harris’ personal view of race, to merely criticize his support for “racist policies“. If such was Hussain’s intended message, then he failed rather spectacularly in communicating it.

In point of fact, I agree with Hussain and Greenwald that racism directed at Muslims is a very real problem, and that it really does lurk in the hearts of a distressingly large number of critics of Islam. (Harris agrees, too.) As Hussain rightly notes, the fact that Islam is not a race is irrelevant. It happens to be the case that most Muslims aren’t of European descent; and for most white supremacists, that’s enough.

The point here isn’t that it’s impossible to oppose Islam for bad reasons, including hideously racist ones. It’s that there may be good reasons, or bad but non-racist ones, to oppose Islam as well. In the case of Harris, we have no reason to think that any race- or skin-color-specific bias is responsible for his stance on Islam. All the undistorted evidence Hussain cites is only relevant to charges [B]-[F] in my above list. This is perhaps why Greenwald, who followed up with a much more measured article, sets the race issue aside before proceeding to make his case against Harris.

Xenophobia?

Following Greenwald, let’s momentarily bracket race. Is there any cause to be concerned more generally that the tone or content of criticism of Islam may be based in some latent fear of the foreign, the unknown?

Not in all cases, no. Plenty of critics of Islam have all too intimate and first-hand an understanding of the more oppressive and destructive elements of Islamic tradition.

But in some cases? In many cases? Perhaps even, to some extent, in Harris’ case, or in mine?

Sure.

I’m just trying to be honest and open here, and do a little soul-searching. I’m trying to understand where writers like Greenwald and Hussain are coming from. I’m trying to extract my own lessons from their concerns, even if I disagree strongly with their chosen methods and conclusions.

I can’t 100% dismiss out of hand the idea that part of the explanation for the degree and nature of our aversion to Islam really is its unfamiliarity. That’s just human psychology: When apparent dangers are weird and foreign and agenty, we’re more attentive to them, and we respond to them more quickly, strongly, and decisively. I am woefully ignorant of what day-to-day life is like nearly everywhere in the world, and no matter how much I try to understand what it’s like to be a Muslim in different societal or geographic settings, I’ll never bridge the gap completely. And that ignorance will inevitably color my judgments and priorities to some extent. I hate it, but it’s true.

Although on introspection I detect no traces of ethnic animus or cultural bias in my own head — if I did, I’d have already rooted it out, to the best of my ability — I can’t totally rule out the possibility that some latent aversion to the general Otherness of Islam is having some effect on the salience I psychologically assign to apparent threats from militant Islamism. Being biased doesn’t feel a particular way. Particularly given that we’re hypothesizing small, cumulative errors in judgment (‘micro-xenophobia’), not some overarching, horns-and-trumpets Totalitarian World-View. Everyone on the planet succumbs to small biases of that sort, to unconscious overreliance on uneducated intuitions and overgeneralized schemas.

And to say that these sorts of errors are common, and are very difficult to combat, is in no way to excuse them. I’m not admitting the possibility so that I can then be complacent about it. If I am in fact systematically biased, then I could cause some real damage without even realizing it. It’s my responsibility as a human being to very carefully and rigorously test whether (or to what extent) I am making errors of this sort.

… But the coin has two sides.

It’s just as possible that the biased ones are the people whose criticisms have been quieted by their experience with the positive elements of Islamic tradition. It’s just as possible that generally valuable heuristics like ‘be culturally tolerant’ are resulting in a destructive pro-Islam bias (‘micro-relativism’?). It’s just as possible that small (or large) attentional and inferential errors are coloring the views of Islam’s defenders, making them ignore or underestimate the risks Harris is talking about. Benevolent racism is just as real as malevolent racism.

The take-away message isn’t that one side or the other is certainly wrong, just because bias or bad faith could account for some of the claims made by either side. It’s worthwhile to set aside some time to sit quietly, to try and really probe your reasons for what you believe, see whether they are as strong as you thought, place yourself in the other side’s shoes for a time. But a general skepticism or intellectual despair can’t rationally follow from that. Perhaps we’re all biased, albeit in different directions; but, given how high the stakes are, we still have to talk about these things, and do our best to become more reasonable.

Importantly, one thing we can’t automatically take away from a discovery that some person is being irrational or bigoted, is the conclusion that that person’s arguments or conclusions are mistaken. Someone’s reasoning can be flawless even if the ultimate psychological origins for his belief are ridiculous. And, for that matter, purity of heart is no guarantor of accuracy!

It’s not good enough to feel righteous. It’s not even good enough to be righteous, or have the best of intentions. We have to put in the extra hard work of becoming right. So, with that moment of reflection behind us, we must return with all the more urgency to determining the relationships between charges of ‘racism’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘militarism’, and so on.

Islamophobia?

In “Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus”, Greenwald writes:

Perhaps the most repellent claim Harris made to me was that Islamophobia is fictitious and non-existent, “a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia”. How anyone can observe post-9/11 political discourse in the west and believe this is truly mystifying. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is every bit as clear as “anti-semitism” or “racism” or “sexism” and all sorts of familiar, related concepts. It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. I believe all of those definitions fit Harris quite well[.]

The definition Greenwald constructs here seems rather ad-hoc, indeed tailor-made to his criticisms of Harris. It is not the ordinary definition of “Islamophobia”; its parallelism with sexism, anti-semiticism, homophobia, and clinical phobias is unusually tenuous; and it certainly isn’t the definition Harris had in mind when he criticized the term. Greenwald’s clause (3) is uselessly vague: if I made sweeping and unjustified positive claims about Muslims, that would surely not make me an Islamophobe! Adding his clauses (1) and (2) helps, but the focus on a subminority’s “sins” or “bad acts” is a complete red herring; if no Muslims had ever done anything truly wrong, Islamophobia would still be possible.

Let’s attempt a more to-the-point and generally applicable definition. If I’d never seen the word before, I’d probably expect “Islamophobia” to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Islam. And it’s often used that way. But it’s also used to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Muslims — as Greenwald’s puts it, “irrational anti-Muslim animus”. (For a historical perspective, see López 2010.)

Already, this duality raises a serious problem: Writers like Harris happily identify as anti-Islam, but strongly deny being anti-Muslim. If “Islamophobia” is used to conceal leaps between criticisms of Islam (as an ideology or cultural institution) and personal attacks on Muslims, then it will make inferences between [B] and [C] in my list above seem deceptively easy.

The best summary I’ve seen of potential problems with the term “Islamophobia” comes from Robin Richardson, a seasoned promoter of multiculturalism and education equality. He writes:

The disadvantages of the term Islamophobia are significant. Some of them are primarily about the echoes implicit in the concept of phobia. Others are about the implications of the term Islam. For convenience, they can be itemised as follows.

1. Medically, phobia implies a severe mental illness of a kind that affects only a tiny minority of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims may be, it is not merely a mental illness and does not merely involve a small number of people.

2. To accuse someone of being insane or irrational is to be abusive and, not surprisingly, to make them defensive and defiant. Reflective dialogue with them is then all but impossible.

3. To label someone with whom you disagree as irrational or insane is to absolve yourself of the responsibility of trying to understand, both intellectually and with empathy, why they think and act as they do, and of seeking through engagement and argument to modify their perceptions and understandings. […]

7. The term is inappropriate for describing opinions that are basically anti-religion as distinct from anti-Islam. ‘I am an Islamophobe,’ wrote the journalist Polly Toynbee in reaction to the Runnymede 1997 report, adding ‘… I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall… If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism’.

8. The key phenomenon to be addressed is arguably anti-Muslim hostility, namely hostility towards an ethno-religious identity within western countries (including Russia), rather than hostility towards the tenets or practices of a worldwide religion. The 1997 Runnymede definition of Islamophobia was ‘a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’. In retrospect, it would have been as accurate, or arguably indeed more accurate, to say ‘a shorthand way of referring to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims – and, therefore, dread or hatred of Islam’.

Crucially, Harris isn’t claiming that there’s no such thing as anti-Muslim bigotry. He isn’t even claiming that no one criticizes Islam for bigoted reasons. Instead, his reasons for rejecting “Islamophobia” are:

Apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as “Islamophobia.” My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali is said to be suffering from it. Though she was circumcised as a girl by religious barbarians (as 98 percent of Somali girls still are)[,] has been in constant flight from theocrats ever since, and must retain a bodyguard everywhere she goes, even her criticism of Islam is viewed as a form of “bigotry” and “racism” by many “moderate” Muslims. And yet, moderate Muslims should be the first to observe how obscene Muslim bullying is—and they should be the first to defend the right of public intellectuals, cartoonists, and novelists to criticize the faith.

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society.

These are identical to Richardson’s concerns 1 and 8. Harris objects to rhetorical attempts to blur the lines between attacks on Islam and attacks on Muslims, particularly without clear arguments establishing this link.

More, he objects to dismissing all extreme criticism of Islam using the idiom of clinical phobias, because he doesn’t think extreme criticism of Islam is always unreasonable, much less radically unreasonable. If harsh critiques of Islam are not deranged across the board, then demonstrating [D] ‘His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.‘ will not suffice for demonstrating [C] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.‘, independent of the fact that neither establishes [B] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.

Greenwald says that he deems Harris “Islamophobic”, not because Harris criticizes Islam, but because Harris criticizes Islam more than he criticizes other religions. But he gives no argument for why an anti-religious writer should deem all religions equally bad. It would be amazing if religions, in all their diversity, happened to pose equivalent risks. And neither racism nor xenophobia can explain the fact that Harris opposes Islam so much more strongly than he opposes far less familiar religions, like Shinto or Jainism. As Harris puts it,

At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.

Ockham’s Razor suggests that we at least entertain the idea that Harris is just telling the truth. He’s unusually critical of Islam because his exegetical, psychological, and geopolitical assessment of the doctrines, practices, and values associated with contemporary Islam is that they’re unusually harmful to human well-being. He could think all that, and be wrong, without ever once succumbing to a secret prejudice against Muslims.

There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false, and the far larger onus of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias. If these burdens can’t all be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain profoundly irresponsible.

The fact that there are cases where criticisms of Islam are manifestly ridiculous, without the slightest basis in scripture, tradition, or contemporary practice, does not change the fact that “Islamophobia” is rarely reserved for open-and-shut cases. The accusation is even employed as a replacement for substantive rebuttals, as though the very existence of the word constituted a reason to dismiss the critic of Islam!

If there’s one thing contemporary political discourse does not need, it’s a greater abundance of slurs and buzzwords for efficiently condemning or pigeonholing one’s ideological opponents. As such, although I’m happy to grant that Islamophobia exists in most of the senses indicated above, I am not persuaded that the word “Islamophobia” is ever the optimal way to point irrational anti-Muslim or anti-Islam sentiment out.

Jingoism?

I’ve focused on “Islamophobia”, but I doubt that’s the real issue for Greenwald or Hussain. Instead, I gather that their main objection is to Harris’ apparent defenses of U.S. foreign policy.

Would Greenwald and Hussain consider it a positive development if Harris demonstrated his lack of bias by equally strongly endorsing a variety of other U.S. military campaigns that have no relation to the Muslim world? Surely not. Greenwald’s complaint is not that Harris is inconsistently bellicose or pro-administration; it’s that he’s bellicose or pro-administration at all. Likewise, for Hussain to fixate on whether policies like war or torture are “racist” is to profoundly misunderstand the strength of his own case. Even if they weren’t racist, they could still be grotesque atrocities.

In my comments, Hussain commended biologist and antireligious activist P.Z. Myers for criticizing Islam without endorsing violence. (Greenwald has also cited Myers, with wary approval.) But Myers claims to “despise Islam as much as Harris does” (!). Writes he:

I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism. The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death. That is not islamophobia: that is recognizing the primitive and cruel realities of a particularly vile religion, in the same way that we can condemn Catholicism for its evil policies towards women and its sheltering of pedophile priests. We can place various cults on a relatively objective scale of repugnance for their attitudes towards human rights, education, equality, honesty, etc., and on civil liberties, you know, that stuff we liberals are supposed to care about, Islam as a whole is damnably bad.

It is not islamophobia to recognize reality.

If we admit that Myers’ view of Islam is not manifestly absurd or bigoted, then we must conclude that the entire discussion of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia was a red herring. It is Harris’ pro-U.S., pro-Israel militarism that is the real issue.

It doesn’t take nationalism, imperialism, sadism, or white supremacism for two otherwise reasonable people to disagree as strongly as Greenwald and Harris do. Given how messy and complicated religious psychology and sociology are, different data sets, different heuristics for assessing the data, and different background theories are quite sufficient.

The simplest explanation for Harris’ more “unsettling” (as he puts it) views is that he…

  • (a) … thinks religious doctrines often have a strong influence on human behavior. E.g.:

Many peoples have been conquered by foreign powers or otherwise mistreated and show no propensity for the type of violence that is commonplace among Muslims. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation every bit as oppressive as any ever imposed on a Muslim country. At least one million Tibetans have died as a result, and their culture has been systematically eradicated. Even their language has been taken from them. Recently, they have begun to practice self-immolation in protest. The difference between self-immolation and blowing oneself up in a crowd of children, or at the entrance to a hospital, is impossible to overstate, and reveals a great difference in moral attitude between Vajrayana Buddhism and Islam.[…] My point, of course, is that beliefs matter.

  • (b) … thinks Islam has especially violent doctrines.
  • (c) … thinks that if Islam is a significant source of violence, then the best way to respond is sometimes militaristic.

Greenwald strongly rejects (b), claiming that singling out Islam for special criticism is outright bigoted. He may also doubt (a), inasmuch as he thinks that militant Islamism is fully explicable as a response to material aggression, oppression, and exploitation. Myers, on the other hand, grants (a) and (b) but strongly rejects (c). In all these cases, rational disagreement is possible, and civil discussion may lead to genuine progress in consensus-building.

Accusing Harris of harboring a special anti-Muslim bias would be a useful tactic for discrediting his policy analysis overall. But I think Greenwald and Harris are both arguing in good faith. Why, then, has Greenwald neglected such a simple explanation for Harris’ stance? Unlike Hussain, Greenwald isn’t a sloppy or inattentive reader of Harris.

My hypothesis is that Greenwald is succumbing to the reverse halo effect. It’s hard to model other agents, and particularly hard to imagine reasonable people coming to conclusions radically unlike our own. When we find these conclusions especially odious, it’s often easiest to imagine a simple, overarching perversion that infects every aspect of the other person’s psyche. Certainly it’s easier than admitting that a person can be radically mistaken on a variety of issues without being a fool or a monster — that, here as elsewhere, people are complicated.

As more evidence of human complexity, I’d note that although Greenwald paints a picture of Harris as a kneejerk supporter of Israel and of U.S. militarism, it is Greenwald, and not Harris, who thought that the Iraq War was a good idea at the time. And while Harris has defended Israel on a number of occasions, he has also written:

As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious.

and:

Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their ‘freedom of belief’ on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps his views are quite off-base. But they are not cartoonish, and he has argued for them. His opponents would make much more progress if they spent as much time on rebuttals as they currently do on caricatures.

The innumerable sins of the United States may be relevant to the pragmatics of (c), but recognizing these sins should not automatically commit us to dismissing (a) and (b). Likewise, writes Harris:

[N]othing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world.

There are lots of ways to reject Harris’ doctrine (c). Myers makes a pragmatic argument (improving lives, not destroying them, mitigates dogmatism) and, I gather, a principled one (pacifism is the most defensible ethos). Greenwald might add that who we’re relying on to prosecute the war makes a vast difference — that enhancing the power and authority of the U.S. would have more costs and risks than Islam ever did, even if Islamic extremism were a serious threat.

Those aren’t utterly crazy positions, and neither is Harris’. I can say that, and endorse civil open discussion, even knowing that whichever side is the wrong one is very, veryvery wrong — and that the future of human happiness, liberty, and peace depends in large part on our getting this right.

It is precisely because the question is so important that we must not allow public disagreement over the answer to degenerate into banal mud-slinging. It is precisely because our biases — be they micro-xenophobia, micro-relativism, or the halo effect — threaten to vitiate our reasoning that we must put our all into practicing self-criticism, open-mindedness, and level-headed discourse. And it is precisely because our intellectual opponents, if wrong, threaten to do so much harm, that we must work every day to come to better understand them, so that we can actually begin to change minds.

It is not an easy task, but the need is great. If we’re serious about the underlying problems, and not just about scoring points in verbal debates about them, then there is no other way.

[UPDATE, April 11: Hussain and I appeared with human rights advocate Qasim Rashid and Center for Inquiry president Ronald Lindsay on the Huffington Post Live to discuss whether the recent attacks on Harris are overblown. Click here to watch.]

__________________________________________________
Further reading
Greenwald, Glenn (2013). “Murtaza Hussain replies to Harris and his
defenders”. GGSideDocs.
Greenwald, Glenn (2013). “The racism that fuels the ‘war on terror”. The Guardian.
Harris, Sam (2013). “Response to Controversy”. Sam Harris Blog.
Harris, Sam (2012). “Wrestling the Troll”. Sam Harris Blog.
Myers, P.Z. (2013). “Both wrong, both right”. Pharyngula.
Richardson, Robin (2009). “Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism — or what?” Insted.