In his 2012 keynote speech at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, neuroscientist and ethicist Sam Harris attempted to lend context to the vast inequalities we see in the world.
Giving an address titled Death and the Present Moment, he said: “We have barely emerged from centuries of barbarism. It’s not a surprise that there are shocking inequities in this world. It is hard work, to climb down out of the trees, walk upright and build a viable global civilisation when you start with technology that’s made of rocks and sticks and fur.
“This is a project and progress is difficult.”
There was a time in the recent past when such an observation would have deeply offended me, eliciting a ferocious emotional response. His insistence that human exploitation, in a capitalist system, was the result of anything but a rigged economy, gamed by elites, would have provoked anger and disdain from me. My revulsion at his apparent lack of moral courage would likely have inspired countless rants and caused me to view everything else he’d ever said – or would say in future – with similar disgust.
For how could he be trusted to think clearly on any issue at all if he was capable of such a lapse in integrity in another?
Evil Sam Harris: the poverty apologist.
In left-wing circles, Harris is not highly regarded, despite considering himself a liberal. In his book The End of Faith – his reflections on the 11 September, 2001 attacks – he pondered the possible outcome of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of an Islamist regime.
Harris’s comments remain, to this day, provocative. He writes: “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?”
Left-wing activist, journalist and author Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for the New York Times, claimed in 2008 that “Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world”. Harris certainly asked the reader to consider something, as all thinkers do, but it’s arguable Hedges was taking liberties by implying Harris was literally calling for the Arab world to be nuked. Nonetheless, Hedges repeated this throughout the year and before the context of Harris’s comment was even established, it was reframed as Islamophobic “secular fundamentalism”.
Harris has been recoiling from this accusation ever since.
Of course, it’s perfectly fine for Hedges to make that claim, given he had read the book, and perfectly fine to try to assail Harris on the public stage. But a lot of people just took Hedges’ opinion and ran with it, without truly considering either the initial comment or the context for themselves.
Whatever you think of a person’s comments, on any given topic, our individual interpretation of what someone appears to say or write can reframe everything else they say from that point forward.
The question I want to pose is simply: is that always sensible?
Ironically, much of Harris’s work is concerned with the very topic many on the left, like Hedges, appear to have a great deal of interest in: morality.
Harris argues, in his book The Moral Landscape, that a moral claim is really a scientific claim, contending that moral claims are about the well-being or suffering of conscious creatures, the truth of which can be measured, thus making morality quantifiable. He analyses the topic of human morality, how it emerges neurologically, evolves socially and how it manifests culturally and politically.
You’d think we on the left, primarily concerned with ideas of fairness, equality and social justice, would be interested in a theoretical framework for truly understanding and applying moral truth to society. For surely, if what is and isn’t moral can one day be established as a point of fact, it would be a massive stride forward, not only in our own politics, but in our social evolution as a species?
But because Harris holds opinions many of us disagree with, we become less likely to consider what he has to say about everything outside of that.
It appears that the problem lies in the lack of tolerance many of us have for those who view pressing issues from different angles, through different lenses and at different scales. Especially when our ears are trained for certain words or phrases that kindle those familiar feelings of revulsion and disgust that drive so much of our activism.
Many who have dismissed Harris, or thinkers like him, are likely unaware of these other illuminating areas of his work. And even if they do have legitimate issues with him – as I do – does that warrant a blanket dismissal of everything else he has to say?
Ultimately, is this a sensible way to conduct ourselves? May we be missing an opportunity to open our minds to new ways of seeing problems or the great swathes of moral overlap between seemingly irreconcilable perspectives?
Don’t people like Harris, who explore contentious issues, often clumsily, have the right to misspeak, to not have all the answers and even the right to be wrong, without being condemned as if he they had committed an immoral act themselves?
Don’t we all?