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Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Debate, In the news | 7 comments

Sam Harris updates his “response to controversy” page

Sam Harris has a new/updated version of his “response to controversy” page, with much more material about issues to do with alleged racism and Islamophobia. Interestingly, the page says: “Have I made the job of distorting my views easier than it needed to be? Undoubtedly. And in this particular case, a careful reader was kind enough to take the author’s feet out of my mouth on many other points.” The link is to a discussion by Robby Bensinger.

I do think that Harris sometimes makes a point in an unnecessarily provocative way, as when he states in one article: “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.”

Harris is clearly correct that this is best read to mean something like: “my concern [was] that the political correctness of the Left has made it taboo to even notice the menace of political Islam, leaving only right-wing fanatics to do the job. Such fanatics are … the wrong people to do this, being nearly as bad as jihadists themselves. I was not praising fascists: I was arguing that liberal confusion and cowardice was empowering them.”

Fair enough. That is doubtless what he was getting at, and it is more or less how I would interpret the passage. Someone who is prepared to be charitable should interpret the passage that way. Nonetheless, it is not what the passage literally says. Harris has gone for a rhetorical flourish to berate liberals who would otherwise be his allies, even at the expense of seeming to say that fascists talk most sensibly about something. It’s possible, of course, that certain fascists in Europe do have some particular things to say that are sensible – indeed, this can be a good tactic for fascists: weave some sensible statements into your pronouncements and policies to boost their credibility. Some may have said some sensible things about the threat of political Islam, and perhaps it’s true that these things tend not to be said by liberal commentators. But extreme-right figures in Europe surely also say a lot of crazy, hateful, fearmongering things. Surely many things that are said by these figures about real or supposed threats from Islam and Muslims in general are not sensible, and are, indeed (and to say the least!), socially dangerous. Note that in the original passage Harris said “the threat that Islam poses” rather than “the threat that political Islam poses”. If you are going to make the point that he wants to make, maybe you should be very cautious and clear about how you express it.

As you go through the web page, Harris defends himself against accusations by quoting numerous passages at sufficient length to provide context. In many of these cases, I want to support him, but I have to acknowledge that choices of expression – usually aimed at being provocative – give some excuse to the critics. I’d like them to be more careful and charitable, but some responsibility also falls on Harris to be cautious with his rhetoric on such hot-button topics.

My point is not to condemn Harris so much as to draw attention to his own acknowledgment that he has brought the problem on himself to an extent, making it easier than it had to be to distort his views (or simply not understand them). Provocative rhetoric for dramatic impact makes up part of this problem, as does another thing that Harris acknowledges: just because something is worth saying does not mean that it is worth saying by him (or by any of us in some particular situation where it may give a false impression of the overall message that we’re trying to convey).

But at the same time, it does seem that some of his critics are, as he says, without scruples – prepared to pile on libellous accusations about what he thinks and what he is saying even after he has explained himself. As always, language is slippery. I know from long and sometimes bitter experience that no matter how cautiously and painstakingly you explain yourself there will always be room for a variety of interpretations from others. Sooner or later, though, you need to speak or write. Otherwise, you will never get your message out.

In some cases (Chris Hedges is one), it appears to me that the commentators on Harris are more motivated by a wish to destroy his credibility, and so neutralise him in public debate, than to discuss the merits of the actual issues. If they don’t think that’s a fair inference … well, maybe they ought to think about their own inferences that they are willing to draw.