At the risk of losing my status as an academic philosophy insider, I admit that I am willing to defend Sam Harris on a number of topics. He is a far more nuanced thinker than many of the people we associate with him. However, his spat with Ezra Klein over identity politics, his podcast with Coleman Hughes, and his newfound camaraderie with people like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson have been disappointing.
I’m not going to provide a comprehensive critique of the noise that Harris makes on the topic of race and identity. I instead wish to make a point about hypocrisy.
It is important to understand people like Harris and Peterson first and foremost as political figures. Their prominence and appeal is owed primarily to a broad political context. It explains the demographics of their audiences, the framing of their arguments, and which topics they chose to speak (and not speak) on.
The fact has two notable consequences:
- On the one hand, we can criticize Harris and Peterson for failing to take their status as political figures more seriously. Although they do explicitly talk about politics, they also take themselves to be able to transcend into a realm of apolitical—and thus superior—discourse through the power of sheer rationality.
- On the other hand, critics of Harris’ stance on organized religion often fail to recognize that he is primarily engaged in a political project. (Something similar is true of Peterson, which explains why a mere assertion of one’s progressive politics doesn’t suffice as an effective critique of him.)
What do we get when we put the two points together?
In recent discussions with Peterson, Harris repeatedly pressed Peterson with the worry that, even if Peterson doesn’t personally believe in the tenets of Christianity, he provides conservative Christians with the tools to rationalize their faith. The idea is that we should be very careful about saying anything that might appear to let religion off the hook. Even if what we say is plausible or technically true, there is an audience that will utilize the claims to entrench themselves further in their destructive religious views. This sort of argument traces back to Harris’ first book, the End of Faith, in which he criticizes religious moderates for providing the societal cover for radicalism and fundamentalism.
As someone with significant experience in fundamentalist, evangelical, and theocratic Christianity, I think Harris’ concern is legitimate. Christians (and, well, everyone) have a long history of misinterpreting sources in the process of cherry-picking arguments. Since I agree with Harris that Christianity does a lot of damage, we should be very careful when making arguments that can be easily misheard or bastardized. It would undermine the cause.
Hence we see that Harris’ concerns are legitimate for political purposes. He is willing to sacrifice the act of publicly stating some truths for the sake of a broader program that aims at collective well being via more fundamental truths. Peterson or anyone can make some perceptive and insightful points about the meaning of Christianity, but since we know that we live in a society full of powerful Christian theocrats (and people inclined to vote for them), we need to be especially aware of how the points will be interpreted. We should cut off the rhetorical oxygen to those who seek out impressive sounding intellectuals to find vicarious justification for their destructive politico-religious views.
I can get behind this. But for some reason, Harris is unable to see that the exact same argument applies to his treatment of race.
Harris or anyone can make some perceptive points about the limits of some anti-racist arguments, but since we know that we live in a society full of powerful racists (and people inclined to vote for them), we need to be very aware of how the points will be interpreted. Even if Harris is not a racist, he routinely provides racists with the ability to rationalize their views or, at the very least, continue living in prejudice. Harris’ arguments show up to racists as articulate restatements of their position.
This sort of argument traces back to the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which King decries the white moderates who refuse to see their role in perpetuating white supremacy when they take their centrism as an ability to transcend into a realm of apolitical, non-racial discourse. Moderates provide the societal cover for blatant racism.
Harris gets understandably annoyed when people take his critiques of religion out of context. As I’ve said, his denouncers often fail to see the fundamental political motivation of his project. Shouldn’t Harris then recognize the political motivation behind the strongest critiques of his claims about race? At their core, they amount to the question of why Harris’ discussion of race isn’t subordinated to a broader political project of unequivocal anti-racism. Harris is obviously aware of this sort of move. He simply, and hypocritically, doesn’t make it in this case.
I am not claiming that Harris is technically wrong in any of his claims about race, just as he doesn’t claim that people like Peterson are technically wrong in their claims about Christianity. I am making the same move that Harris makes: we must take note of the political context of our claims and how they are likely to be used by people who hold significant political power. When we do that with respect to religion, we find a fundamental problem that we must confront directly. The same is obviously true for racism. Thus, if Harris insists on framing discourse on religion in a political context, he should do the same with his discourse on race.
If he doesn’t, he is a hypocrite.
1. Harris appears to be aware of the point I’m making. When talking to Charles Murray about IQ and race (and as he restated with Klein), Harris questions the motivation for being interested in such a topic. There are two possible reasons for this: 1) the motivation might indicate a prejudice that would/could undermine the reliability of the results, or 2) the political climate is such that the results of the investigation would/could be weaponized for racist purposes. Both are legitimate concerns. But Harris appears not to recognize their full significance when he speaks on race, which is strange given how much racists enjoy Murray.
2. Someone might object that Harris is the true anti-racist, unlike the SJWs with their identity politics and, perhaps, anti-white racism.
I agree with Harris that it is annoying when religious people say that atheists have just as much faith (or more!). Atheists can sometimes be misguided, but they aren’t the opponent. The issue is with those who accept the ideology, in either moderate or radical forms. That is why when moderate religious people claim to be the true expression of their religion, we can count on Sam Harris to lay into them. Even though they have strong criticisms of other forms of their own religion, for political reasons they do not go far enough. Yet on the topic of race, Harris becomes what he has spent so much time criticizing: he is a moderate who objects to the radicalist forms of an ideology that he doesn’t fully want to reject; and he sees a full rejection of the ideology as the same sort of radicalism. It is annoying. Anti-racists aren’t the opponent.
3. Someone might object that Peterson’s claims are literary and interpretative, whereas Harris’ are factual. The distinction might be fair, but Harris would make his political move even if the claims about religion were factual. He often does—for instance, when people make claims about the socio-political (i.e. non-scriptural) causes for religious extremism. Harris makes the point ad nauseam here.
Regardless, the objection misses the point. The types of claims are less important than their political consequences. There is no doubt that Harris provides oxygen for racists. They feel like they have a brilliant free thinker on their side. Harris needs to realize that first. Then reassess.
4. My argument doesn’t entail that Harris shouldn’t be critical of anti-racist arguments at all. I’m not suggesting that he fall in line, switch off his brain, and repeat after Ta-Nehisi Coates. He simply needs to critique in a different context. And he must be exceedingly clear and explicit about doing so. As of now, his criticisms signal the view that prominent anti-racists are irrational nut cases. Racists love it.
5. Finally, my case comes down to the issue of (mis)interpretation. There are certainly many differences between anti-racists and anti-religion people. So pointing out disanalogies is not, in an of itself, a response to my argument. But I don’t see how there could be a difference that justifies Harris talking in ways that empower racists.