Monday, May 25, 2015

Because My Heart Is Pure

The most valuable lesson to be learned from Sam Harris's recent e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky is that two atheists, both champions of science and of Enlightenment values and rationality, can disagree vehemently on issues they both consider to be of first importance.  This might seem obvious enough, but I noticed that some of the coverage failed to grasp it.  The first notice I saw of their exchange was this article from Salon, was subtitled "How the professor knocked out the atheist." That Chomsky is also an atheist is hardly obscure; whoever wrote that headline was trying to create an illusion of more space between the combatants.

I consider this more important than who "won."  Not too surprisingly, there was little agreement about that question, with Harris's fans sure that Harris won, or at least that Chomsky lost because he was mean and rude to Harris, and Chomsky's fans sure that Chomsky won, mopping up the floor with Harris.  Or "undressed" Harris, as one notably wacky headline put it.  (The headline stayed with the post as it was cross-posted to several sites.)  Elsewhere I learned that Chomsky bitchslapped Harris, that he owned him,  and so on.  PZ Myers provided a round-by-round, punch-by-punch commentary on the exchange.  So did Susan of Texas.  Those who haven't yet seen the exchange, and are interested, could begin there. I'd prefer not to link to Harris's original blog post, just because he doesn't deserve any more traffic; you can find it easily with a simple online search if you wish.

What interests me here is Harris's recent postmortem on the encounter, in which he lamented that "Anyone who thinks I lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do":
Harris said he had hoped to learn what Chomsky actually believes about the ethics of intent, and he hoped his own arguments would steer leftists away from their “masochistic” tendencies.
He said Chomsky’s followers believe the U.S. was morally worse than ISIS because it had, through “selfishness and ineptitude,” created ISIS and victimized millions of people in other nations.

“This kind of masochism and misreading of both ourselves and of our enemies has become a kind of religious precept on the left,” Harris said. “I don’t think an inability to distinguish George Bush or Bill Clinton from Saddam Hussein or Hitler is philosophically or politically interesting, much less wise.

... Harris complained that he encountered “contempt and false accusation and highly moralizing language” throughout his exchange with Chomsky – and he now wishes he had addressed those points immediately and directly.
...“I wanted to talk to him to see if there was some way to build a bridge off of this island of masochism so that these sorts of people that I’ve been hearing from for years could cross over to something more reasonable, and it didn’t work out,” he said. “The conversation, as I said, was a total failure, but I thought it was an instructive one.”
I agree that the conversation was instructive, though probably not for the reasons Harris thinks.  Harris initiated the exchange by telling Chomsky that "I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate."  (Harris was being disingenuous about that, since he'd announced on Twitter that he was "trying to arrange a debate with Noam Chomsky".) The ensuing conversation clarified Harris's misunderstandings very effectively, and his follow-up remarks are even more instructive.

When Harris first contacted Chomsky, he now reveals, he didn't really think he had anything to learn from him.  He was already certain that he had the True Gnosis, and if given access to what he regarded as Chomsky's cult of devotees, he could expose Chomsky's "misreadings" and free his cult from their "masochistic" view of US policy and conduct.  It's ironic that he should complain of "contempt and false accusation and highly moralizing language" from Chomsky, because that describes his own contributions so very well.  Though Chomsky explained, with amazing patience really, why he disagreed with Harris, Harris simply brushed his explanations aside and repeated his original claims -- but repetition is not argument.

The accusation of masochism, which is very nearly content-free, is especially interesting.  No one, Harris believes, could have any good reasons for judging US policy as harshly as Chomsky does, so he and his followers must be suffering from some sort of mental dysfunction.  The tactic may be connected to Harris's interest in neuroscience, which is being used nowadays to explain away all human behavior as the result of conditions within the brain, not to any external (social, political, intellectual) factors.  Those who adopt this tactic (or other reductive pseudo-explanations) never pause to consider that, if this were true, it would apply as forcefully to themselves and to neuroscience itself as to everyone else.  It would mean, for example, that Harris's stance on Islam, as well as his politics generally and his atheism in particular, is also merely the product of some kink in his synapses, not because of his superior intellect.

It also has another consequence.  Suppose that all the Muslims in the world suddenly acknowledged that Harris is right that Islam is an inherently violent cult, renounced faith in favor of atheism, and blamed Islam for everything wrong in the Middle East and in the world.  Would that be "masochism" in Harris's eyes?  I don't see how it could be anything else.  But perhaps Harris believes that Muslims are Muslims due to some neurobiological defect, so they are incapable of change, and must (however regretfully -- we're all humane and well-intentioned here!) be exterminated.  Since Harris's view of Islam is so clearly irrational, perhaps it should be diagnosed as "sadism."

Clearly Harris hoped to leapfrog over Chomsky and speak directly to his followers, bringing them the Healing Light that he uniquely has to offer.  Now, I know that, like most well-known people (Harris included), Chomsky has some fans who are devotees, who parrot his opinions without understanding them.  But I don't see any reason to believe that this is true of all of them.  Many of them have ties to various traditions of political dissent: pacifism, antiwar, international solidarity, and so on.  I formed my views on the Vietnam war, for example, based on the evidence, long before I read Chomsky's writings.  I liked them because they fit with everything else I knew.  I disagree with him on some matters, and have written about some of those at length.  I've observed that despite the accusation, popular in certain circles, that Chomsky tolerates no disagreement, he can be disagreed with if you have some idea of what you're talking about; witness the disagreements between him and Gilbert Achcar in their lengthy conversations on the Middle East, for example.  So if Chomsky's fans don't immediately accept Sam Harris's Love Gift of Wisdom, they may well have reasons other than mere "masochism."

Harris's position on morality is often described as consequentialist, including (albeit ambivalently) by himself.  Like most such classifications, consequentialism isn't all that clear-cut, but it apparently boils down to "the view that an action is right if and only if its total outcome is the best possible. This is the basic form of consequentialism; there are, however, many varieties, a few of which will be noted below. What they all have in common is that consequences alone should be taken into account when making judgements about right and wrong."  If so, then Harris is an odd kind of consquentialist, because he insists to Chomsky that intent (American intent, anyway) is vitally important, and it seems to trump every other consideration for him.  No matter how horrible the outcome of US conduct, it's still better than anything anyone else does, because the United States *
are, in many respects, just such a “well-intentioned giant.” And it is rather astonishing that intelligent people, like Chomsky and [Arundhati] Roy, fail to see this. What we need to counter their arguments is a device that enables us to distinguish the morality of men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein from that of George Bush and Tony Blair. It is not hard to imagine the properties of such a tool. We can call it “the perfect weapon.”
"The perfect weapon" is a totally imaginary concept, a weapon that can kill only bad guys without harming any good guys in the slightest.  Harris fantasizes that US officials would gladly use the Perfect Weapon if they could, thus avoiding any collateral damage whatever, and that bad guys (Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, whoever) would reject it even if they were offered it, because they are totally Evil and like hurting innocent people.  How he knows this is not clear.  But since the Perfect Weapon doesn't exist, this is a purely speculative exercise, which is revealing given Harris's professed disdain for metaphysics and other boring, airy-fairy logic-chopping.

In the real world, we must consider how people use the imperfect weapons they have.  And oddly, Harris is rhetorically ready to concede that the United States is less than perfect.
There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad. In this respect, we can more or less swallow Chomsky’s thesis whole. ... The result [of our actions] should smell of death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.
We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent. There may be much that Western powers, and the United States in particular, should pay reparations for. And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has undermined our credibility in the international community. We can concede all of this, and even share Chomsky’s acute sense of outrage, while recognizing that his analysis of our current situation in the world is a masterpiece of moral blindness.
Taken out of context, these remarks could be taken to accuse Harris of surrender-monkey American-self hating masochism.  But his concession has no consequences.  Like any exceptionalist (Rachel Maddow is another well-known example) Harris simply refuses to admit that "our misdeeds" might lead to anger and retaliation by our victims, especially since even if the US should atone and pay reparations for our crimes, in fact we never do.  We just keep killing and killing and killing.

Rather than a consequentialist, then, Harris appears to be quite the opposite.  America is good, not because of the consequences of our actions, which are in fact often quite bad, but because we mean well.  Our intentions not only need to be weighed along with the outcome, but they trump everything else. And we know this, not because of any evidence, but simply a priori, as a matter of faith.  Chomsky and others have rebutted Harris's claims about American good intentions, but the rebuttals bounce harmlessly off Harris's armor of true belief.  Evidence?  Reason?  Harris laughs your evidence and reason to scorn, because he knows.

To acknowledge that our actions might have consequences is not to justify any and all retaliation, as exceptionalists like to claim.  What it means is that we cannot make a great show of injured innocence when the chickens come home to roost.  I don't think that the 9/11 attacks were justified, any more than Martin Luther King Jr. was calling for the Vietnamese to invade and conquer the US when he called his government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" in 1967.  If Harris had any principles, it would be he and others like him who called for the destruction of America for its manifold crimes; but he has no principles. America, that "well-intentioned giant," can do whatever we like, because we're the good guys.

One other small matter.  Harris whined about the limitations of e-mail, the medium through which he Chomsky communicated.
I’m sorry to say that I have now lost hope that we can communicate effectively in this medium. Rather than explore these issues with genuine interest and civility, you seem committed to litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way. And so, to my amazement, I find that the only conversation you and I are likely to ever have has grown too tedious to continue.
I've been on the receiving end of this sort of passive-aggressive nonsense myself: people who clashed with me in a public forum "reached out" via e-mail, in the apparent belief that in public discussion I'm just putting on a show and in a private exchange I'll admit that I don't really believe anything I say in public.  I wonder if such people are projecting; in some cases it seems they are.  "Tedious" does describe Harris's conduct in his correspondence with Chomsky, but of course he projects onto the Other.  What, I wonder, did Harris prefer?  Does he think he'd have done any better face-to-face?  Maybe have a brewski with the Noamster and just be two regular guys together?  The trouble wasn't that e-mail inhibits communication, it was that Harris wasn't interested in communicating: he was going to preach, and Chomsky was supposed to listen, and marvel, and be saved along with all his household.  In my experience it's usually Christians who talk like this.

Notice also how in Harris's followup he "now wishes he had addressed those points immediately and directly."  That's one of the benefits of having this sort of exchange in writing, including e-mail: you can take your time, consider your next move in relative tranquility, and even delay your response until you've had time to think it over.  But Harris isn't, on the evidence, interested in thinking.

* I'm relying on Susan of Texas's quotations from Harris here, not from Harris's original post, but the quotations are accurate; you can follow the links to his blog if you want to check them.

** Here I'm copying PZ Myers' quotation from Harris, under "Round 8."