Sam v. Ben: Who Ya Got?


I’ve parachuted into several of my friends’ and acquaintances’ Sam Harris/Bill Maher v. Ben Affleck/Reza Aslan arguments online, but I haven’t really tried to put forth anything like a full position on the matter. This is largely because, to be blunt, I’ve mostly seen the same tired sets of arguments deployed over and over again, with the two sides talking past each other. Roughly, my sympathies are with Sam Harris in the argument, and for what it’s worth, I think that people who’ve attacked Harris on my Facebook feed have done a really terrible job of doing so.

To say that they’ve been terrible is probably overstating their heft and insight. These arguments suffer from some pretty obvious logical fallacies that are easy enough to spot, and frankly a bit disappointing from people who often see themselves as open-minded and intellectual.  For instance, there is no real evidence in what Sam Harris said to label him as a racist (if for no other reason than that “Muslim” isn’t a race).  These people are, I think, taking what Harris is saying, and putting it through a sort of internal translator that turns what he actually said into a caricature of that thing that they are used to seeing (want to see?) from people who are genuinely hateful. On this specific point, it’s important to note just how frequently and carefully Sam Harris (who, we should remember, made his bones mostly as a fierce critic of Christianity in America) outlines exactly who he is talking about.  That he *says* he is not talking about everyone within a group, but rather that he is noting that certain ideas are becoming too mainstream within a very large section of the planet’s population, is not as important as the *feeling* that his critics have that he must be one of those Islamophobes.  They’re not arguing against Harris so much as they’re trying to knock down a simplistic, racist, straw man proxy.

Moreover, I’ve also seen deployed just about every other clear logical fallacy. Appeal to authority: Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, not an expert in religion (must one hold a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies to say, “it ain’t cool to chop off heads”?).  Tu quoque: but America does far worse.  Fine, we’ll argue that point another day.  Islamic radicalism may or may not, in its causes, be connected to American Imperialism, but that doesn’t prevent a reasonable person from pointing out that the full range of oppressions and atrocities emanating from certain subsets of the Muslim world are morally indefensible.  And so it goes on.  I often read good arguments that I disagree with, but this debate seems singularly incapable of articulating an attack on Harris that is not on its face obviously silly.

This, to me, gets to what I see as the heart of the matter.  This is a debate that tests a rather simple proposition: can you hold a nuanced position?  Has American foreign policy been murderous, rapacious, arrogant, and imperialistic?  Yes.  Has this exacerbated the problem of extremism in large sections of the Muslim world?  Yes.  Are the beliefs held by shocking numbers of Muslims throughout the world completely unacceptable?  Yes. Should we fight actively against the conservative trajectory that Islam in Western nations is increasingly taking? Yes.  Should it bother people of progressive minds that 40% of British Muslims under the age of 40 think Britain would be better off under Sharia law, that more than 70% think that it should be illegal *in Britain* to insult the Prophet? Yes. That one in five of this same group *in Britain* think that death is an appropriate punishment for apostasy or adultery?  Yes.  Are rhetorical questions super annoying? Yes, always.

More and more, I get the sense that on these points I am arguing against very simple people who hold a comic book version of the world of villains and heroes.  America has acted villainously, thus its opponents must be somehow virtuous. But, the human heart is a dark enough device to allow for enough villainy for everyone. Bush was an evil man for invading Iraq. British Muslims who fight for ISIS are evil. These two sentences are not incompatible. America must find a more humble foreign policy, become less obsessed with the idea of war as a passe-partout for every problem that confronts it, and must develop a less xenophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic nation. Those Muslims who hold unenlightened views on women, gays, non-Muslims, free speech, and sexual liberation must change their ways and beliefs on these counts. Again, these sentences are not incompatible.

The fiercest fights are often internecine ones. Both Sam Harris and Ben Affleck are liberals of slightly different stripe. Affleck has taken a standard position of defending the oppressed, marginalized and downtrodden.  He hates the idea of xenophobia, and fears that simplified versions of Islam can lead to a broader unthinking Islamophobia.  These are good and noble impulses, but improperly applied to the present situation.  The argument isn’t that *all* of Islam is flawed or evil, but rather it has reached a tipping point wherein enough people within that population hold enough power and adhere to enough terrible ideas that they cannot be allowed to hide from severe and pointed criticism and demands that these elements change. And, to take the next step, it is reasonable for all Muslims to feel the need to bring their wayward brothers into line.

In some ways, it’s been a very disappointing week. The things that Sam Harris is concerned with are genuine problems, and the miscasting of what he said has largely been intellectually dishonest and lazy. In almost every case, what I’ve read and heard from people on the left has reinforced the notion that liberals are just as prone to simple-mindedness, unthinking dogmatism and willful ignorance as are the conservative troglodytes they (we) attack so frequently. That they often knowingly cloak this particular brand of malignant idiocy as a defense of minority rights is demonstrably disingenuous and for many people outside this hermetically sealed world, this sort of sloppy thinking has the nasty side-effect of making them think that tolerance of others must come necessarily at the cost of important universal values and human rights.

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