Here is Sam Harris’s great sin: In the context of many hot-button issues, the data leads him to a conclusion or approach that conflicts with one or another liberal orthodoxy. Liberals and seculars, not immune from the same faults as other humans over whom we feel superior, then commence with knee-jerk tantrums over Harris’s perceived violation.
This is how it always goes. Harris holds a position on an issue that conflicts with our gut-level sense of fairness or compassion or what have you. Those are good senses to have! I’m glad that we all lean in the direction of tolerance and pacifism! But rather than see that Harris clearly is coming by his less-pleasant positions (like those on gun policy) honestly and with obvious reluctance (how many times does he have to say that he thinks the only real, but unattainable, solution to gun violence is to have no guns?), liberal-secular opponents of his scream something like “NRA apologist!” What?
Or: He observes that at this point in history, radical Islamists are the folks who tend to want to blow up airplanes, so he says we should be looking at them more carefully instead using security bandwidth on grandmas in wheelchairs. The result? People scream “racist!”
This is absurd and it’s beneath what progressivism and the secular movement purports to be. It’s exactly the kind of one-dimensional thinking that you and I don’t like about the right and the religious. It’s the insatiable and never-ending hunt for apostates.
Maybe it’s because liberals are beleaguered, that our progress over the decades really is under constant threat, we have become hypersensitive to those within our own ranks who may be undermining all we’ve fought for. As a beleaguered liberal (no one out-beleaguers me, baby) I get it.
But for the love of sweet flappy jeebus, Sam Harris is not the enemy.
Harris ranks high in my book for thinking in depth, for challenging assumed philosophical tenets and ideals to which he might be inclined to adhere. He wrestles with the ethical and moral implications of the subjects about which he writes and speaks. He thinks in terms of what might result in the greatest degree of well-being for the most people, rather than simply clinging to principles for principles’ sake. I don’t have to like what he comes up with at the end, but I’m damn glad he’s working on whatever he’s working on.
But let me be clear. It’s perfectly fine, as far as I’m concerned, to disagree with Harris on whatever issue ruffles your feathers, be it guns, atheism, his taste in music, or that weird hairstyle he once sported.
What is driving me up the fucking wall is when liberals and seculars are so desperate to throw him out with the bathwater when he arrives at conclusions that differ from what We Hold to Be Self-Evident — or when he simply travels down a hypothetical path of reasoning and shows us where it leads. When he’s called a racist or a torture-lover or whatever, I have to presume it’s a result of the reader ignoring all the many, many words surrounding the words that one doesn’t like. You don’t have to like his conclusions on, say, torture, but to say that he’s all-for-it generally and has no qualms about it, that reveals more about the critic than about Harris.
Progressives and seculars, I find, are a little too goddamned eager to throw a label of “bad guy” on folks within our own trenches, and parade around with their Sam-Harris-shaped trophies to show how their righteous indignation is better than yours. Goddamn it, folks. There are real threats to progressivism and secularism and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all around us, and yes, there are a fair number of stone-cold, grade-A assholes right here who purport to be part of the skepto-atheist movement (even though they’re not part of any movement I’m involved in). Let’s save the demonization for the demons.
A note: Yeah, I’m turning off comments for this post because life is short and I’ve had a shitty day, and I’m not interested in the comments section becoming a trove of carefully mined quotes of the outrageous and unforgivable things Harris has said (“oh yeah, Paul, well what about when he said THIS!!!”). I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written, so you’re not going to surprise me with anything, and nothing of his has ever lead me to the histrionics that characterize so much of his detractors’ criticisms. If you want to piss all over me for this post, go open a Tumblr account. They’re free.