Intellectual Honesty and Sam Harris

Sam Harris recently spoke of intellectual honesty:

It’s a slightly misleading phrase because it’s not quite the same thing as honesty. It’s not to say that every instance of intellectual dishonesty is a case where somebody is lying. When you are saying that somebody is being intellectually dishonest, that’s not the same thing as calling them a liar. It’s often misinterpreted as that.

This is a good point, as the phrase is unfortunate.  When someone is being intellectually dishonest, it doesn’t mean they are being deceptive or sneaky.  It simply means they are not being truly intellectual. They are not adopting a truly intellectual approach.

Harris does a good job capturing a key element of intellectual honesty:

To be intellectually honest requires that you apply the same standards to your own thinking that you would apply to others’. You’re holding yourself to the same standards of reasoning and consistency and evidence-based thinking that you hold others to. You’re not pointing out fallacies in other people’s arguments that you don’t notice or are unwilling to see in your own. So it’s a consistency across the board in how you judge the merits of arguments. It’s the only way of thinking about the world that scales and becomes universalisable, and it’s the only way of thinking about the world that’s not dependent on you being you and me being me.

and

So it’s intellectually dishonest not to deal with the best version of your opponents’ arguments that they will sign off on. If you’re actually arguing against someone you have to be arguing against a version of their case that they agree with, and so often that test is not being met. You are arguing with a version of somebody’s world view that they don’t recognise and never endorsed themselves, and that’s not successful communication and it’s certainly not a way of winning a debate.

The problem for Harris is that he has never, as far as I can tell, taken an intellectually honest approach concerning the topic of the Christian religion.

When it comes to Christians and Christianity, he has consistently violated the very principles he outlined above. I have never seen him argue about Christianity while representing Christian belief as something I would sign off on.  To him, Christianity can be quickly and flippantly dismissed as an “iron age philosophy” dependent on a “magic book.”  And that’s precisely how he became popular as a New Atheist leader. It would be intellectually dishonest, in a most profound way, to argue that the New Atheist movement took an intellectually honest approach to the question of religion.

So why is someone with a history of intellectual dishonesty suddenly concerned about intellectual honesty?

It’s that you are attacking the person rather than the evidentiary or logical claims being made as though that were a surrogate for having a better argument against your opponent. Just calling someone a racist is not an argument, right? It’s not even proof that they’re a racist, and it’s certainly not an argument against whatever they’re claiming about the dangers of immigration or having an open borders policy, right, in Europe, say, or whatever the case may be.

So intellectual dishonesty is very often a case where pseudo-argument and just mere stigmatizing of certain views or smearing of certain people is standing in successfully for real arguments about facts.

I see.  Given the various times the Left has attacked Harris as a racist, he  raises the issue of intellectual honesty as some type of personal shield.  It’s okay to take an intellectually dishonest approach to religion.  After all, it’s just an “iron age philosophy.”  But once Harris himself is on the receiving end of the very approach he has long used, suddenly it is time to be concerned.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Intellectual Honesty, Sam Harris, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Intellectual Honesty and Sam Harris

  1. Dhay says:

    First, a comment on the <Independent newspaper interview of Sam Harris, taken as a whole. It’s long, very long at 6930 words; this is not because the interviewer took much part (546 words, 7.8%) but because Harris effectively monopolised the, er, conversation (6384 words, 92.2%.)

    Harris makes his living by presenting himself as a ‘public intellectual’ and the ‘public intellectual discussion’ circuit is evidently taking off as a big money-spinner for Harris and the other participants. Like an author plugging his book, in this interview Harris is plugging that circuit from which he derives a chunk of his income. This one’s going to be especially lucrative:

    We sat down ahead of the biggest live event of his career – his upcoming show at the O2 Arena … to talk intellectual honesty, the crisis of meaning, and how public intellectualism became the new rock and roll.

    What a surprise that Harris — on his own volition or as arranged by the event’s publicity manager — should be plugging something so lucrative, something that’ll apparently make Harris a “rock star.”

  2. Ilíon says:

    This is a good point, as the phrase is unfortunate. When someone is being intellectually dishonest, it doesn’t mean they are being deceptive or sneaky. It simply means they are not being truly intellectual. They are not adopting a truly intellectual approach.

    The phrase is not unfortunate at all. And, pace Harris, to claim that someone is being intellectually dishonest is, indeed, to claim that they are lying. But, intellectual dishonesty is a special kind of lying — plain old mere lying is episodic, whereas intellectual dishonesty is systemic. Put another way, the mere liar is lying about some fact or other, but an intellectually dishonest is lying about the very nature of truth and of reason.

    Intellectual dishonesty is far worse than mere lying.

  3. TFBW says:

    There’s intellectual dishonesty, and there’s sophistry.

  4. Dhay says:

    From Sam Harris’ interview/’come see my event’ plug:

    I blame the left in large measure for the ascendance of the right wherever it’s ascendant, and I think Trump’s presidency would be unthinkable without the left and its failures.

    Ah yes, and why’s that?

    Just on a single point the left’s failure to honestly talk about Islamism and jihadism and what Barrack Obama and Hilary Clinton didn’t say in a reasonable vein about jihadism, that alone determined Trump’s presidency.

    Gosh, that alone determined Donald Trump’s presidency (and conversely Hillary Clinton’s non-presidency.) I note that a lifelong Democrat, Jerry Coyne, repeatedly stated his reluctance to vote for Hillary Clinton (though he reluctantly did vote for her); funny how her public stance on jihadism never seems to have featured in Coyne’s multi-pronged objections to Clinton — just enter “Hillary” in Coyne’s blog’s Search box, then view his posts from the pre-election period. I’d guess that Coyne disagrees with Harris’ claim that Clinton’s public stance or silence on jihadism was at all important, certainly it was not important enough for Coyne to mention.

    “… that alone …” says Harris. Yet in the next sentence and breath we discover “Quantum Harris” in action again, that “that alone determined” in one breath is followed by “overdetermined, impressively overdetermined” in the next:

    Trump’s victory in the election was overdetermined, impressively overdetermined. It was a narrow victory, but there 4 or 5 things that won him the crucial extra 70,000 votes that got him into the white house, and one of those things certainly was that Clinton seemed unable to utter a single honest sentence about Islam.

    ‘Overdetermined’ is not a word I have used myself, ever, but I find it means there were multiple causes:

    Overdetermination occurs when a single-observed effect is determined by multiple causes, any one of which alone would be sufficient to account for (“determine”) the effect.
    [Wikipedia]

    It’s both “that alone determined” and “4 or 5 things” determined that Trump got into the White House. Is it intellectually honest to flip between claiming one and only one cause and claiming several.

    *

    Harris is the guy who wrote an 18 August 2016 blog post entitled What Hillary Clinton Should Say about Islam and the “War on Terror”, where he kindly helps (or patronises) Hillary Clinton by writing for her “part of a speech that I think Hillary Clinton should deliver between now and November”. I’d say it has the hallmarks of him intending it to be a media article, the media wouldn’t touch it, he was forced to self-publish it on his blog.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/new-atheisms-obituary/#comment-14254

    It is not clear to me what message the right-wing and notoriously Islamophobic Harris was trying to give his fans — whether to vote for Clinton, vote for Trump, or to vote for Clinton only if she took Harris’, er, advice that she should become a mouthpiece for Harris’ views. The message Harris gave me was that Harris is arrogant, patronising and Islamophobic.

  5. Dhay says:

    Harris considers himself to be unfairly attacked; and often, indeed “fairly uniquely” often; with an “extreme degree” of unfairness:

    One constant has been that I, to a degree that seems fairly unique, manage to encounter opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent my actual views. … it seems to me that this happens to me to an extreme degree.

    It’s a big world out there, even in academic circles and the overlapping non-academic “public intellectual” circles; pundits abound and Harris is one of many such; were misrepresenting their opponents’ actual views a standard strategy of pundit-opponents to pundits, Harris would be encountering the strategy in something like the usual frequency and to the usual degree; oh, and many other pundits would have similar complaints to Harris, both regarding frequency and severity of misrepresentation.

    Strangely, Harris tells us he encounters opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent his actual views, encounters them fairly uniquely often, and he’s misrepresented to an extreme degree. If the frequency of attacks on a pundit by misrepresentation fall on a bell curve (as one would expect), Harris is telling us he’s a far outlier; and if the severity of attacks on a pundit by misrepresentation fall on a bell curve (as one would expect), Harris is telling us he’s a far outlier: which seems statistically highly unlikely if Harris is just another ordinary pundit guy.

    Just why would someone misrepresent another’s views? Sheer malice is one option, accidental misunderstanding is another; there’s probably more, but I’ll look at these two and wonder why ever should Harris, fairly uniquely often and to an extreme degree, attract malice? Or why should Harris, fairly uniquely often and to an extreme degree, be misunderstood? (Likewise whatever other options you conceived probable or possible.) If it’s happening to Harris fairly uniquely often and to an extreme degree, it’s on Harris’ own admission not happening much to his peers. Why, fairly uniquely and to an extreme degree, why just Harris?

    I reckon Harris has to be fairly uniquely and to an extreme degree responsible for how he is treated. Harris’ ‘poor little me, innocent and misunderstood’ looks rather implausible.

  6. Dhay says:

    Another ‘poor little me, innocent and misunderstood’ is Richard Carrier. In that Vox interview Sam Harris complains:

    One constant has been that I, to a degree that seems fairly unique, manage to encounter opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent my actual views. … it seems to me that this happens to me to an extreme degree.

    Carrier also describes his many opponents as misrepresenting his actual views, indeed he likes to give the impression that if only his critics would read and properly understand what he’s already written, they couldn’t possibly have a single criticism or point of disagreement. But Carrier has to deal with a stream of many “cranks”; or here, in “More Asscrankery from Tim O’Neill” this particular critic is an “asscrank”:

    How he responded to being caught lying and screwing up basic facts of history illustrates why he is an asscrank, a total tinfoil hatter, filled with slanderous rage and void of any competence and honesty …

    Phew, in the Introductory paragraph Carrier’s instantly feet-first into raging vitriol.

    In the following paragraph Carrier arguably describes himself as a “crank”:

    How to Detect a Crank

    Cranks tend to be obsessively wordy whiners who obsess over insults and personal honor, and thus respond to being challenged with elaborate slanders. When you catch them lying and screwing up, they build massive word walls devoid of relevance expressing only rage and anger and ad hominem speculation and excuses, consisting only of libelous insults, before or even in lieu of addressing any substantive facts of the matter. Which exactly describes his response article: O’Neill opens it with over 2000 words of childish whining and slander. Nothing substantively relevant, all ad hominem, hardly anything accurate or even true. He rage blogs, rather than reasons or attends to evidence or truth.

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/14324

    Carrier is not at all self-aware; if you can be bothered to read his massive word wall — his nearly 4000 words of childish whining and slander in his ad hominem rage blog response article — you will probably judge that Carrier’s method for identifying “cranks” identifies Carrier.

    *

    By Harris’ standard:

    To be intellectually honest requires that you apply the same standards to your own thinking that you would apply to others’. You’re holding yourself to the same standards of reasoning and consistency and evidence-based thinking that you hold others to. You’re not pointing out fallacies in other people’s arguments that you don’t notice or are unwilling to see in your own. So it’s a consistency across the board in how you judge the merits of arguments.

    By Harris’ standard, Carrier is intellectually dishonest, an exemplar of double standards, someone who berates his critics for shoddy intellectual behaviours which he displays himself.

  7. Ilíon says:

    Sometimes, when people complain that their expressed views are being misrepresented, the complaint is accurate. Other times, the complaint is *really* that the alleged misrepresenters are representing the views all-too-well.

    Remember, “He who says ‘A’ must say ‘B’” — That is, if some proposition ‘B’ logically follows from some proposition ‘A’, then he who asserts ‘A’ has also and simultaneously asserted ‘B’.

    Sometimes, a complaint of being misrepresented is really a complaint against the public airing of a logical entailment of what one has said.

  8. Dhay says:

    Anyone noticed the change of tack? It used to be, “Sam Harris, neuroscientist”: now, you can take your pick of a couple of alternative self-designations, neither of which includes “neuroscientist”, which I assume has been quietly de-emphasised.

    H/T PZ Myers, we find that Sam Harris is on the Editorial Board of the Evolutionary Psychological Science journal, where he is designated — either self-designated or designated by some admin and he hasn’t considered it worthwhile to correct it — as “Sam Harris, Independent Scholar”.

    https://www.springer.com/psychology/personality+&+social+psychology/journal/40806?detailsPage=editorialBoard

    Quite apart from wondering what expertise in evolutionary psychology Harris has — none, so far as I can tell — I confess to being puzzled regarding what Harris might be or is independently studying — nothing, so far as I can tell.

    And “independent scholar” puts me in mind of this quote by Tim O’Neill about Richard Carrier:

    … For those who aren’t aware of him, Richard Carrier is a New Atheist blogger who has a post-graduate degree in history from Columbia and who, once upon a time, had a decent chance at an academic career. Unfortunately he blew it by wasting his time being a dilettante who self-published New Atheist anti-Christian polemic and dabbled in fields well outside his own; which meant he never built up the kind of publishing record essential for securing a recent doctorate graduate a university job. Now that even he recognises that his academic career crashed and burned before it got off the ground, he styles himself as an “independent scholar”, probably because that sounds a lot better than “perpetually unemployed blogger”. …

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/new-atheist-scholar-raked-over-the-coals/

    A lot of that surely applies to Harris. Though I suppose Harris might with good reason refer to himself as a “perpetually self-employed chat show host and participant”, which podcast route bloggers are increasingly turning to.

    But despite the claim on the EPS site that Harris is an “independent scholar” — an academic, in other words — in the interview linked in the OP Harris declines “academic” in favour of “public intellectual”:

    There is definitely a lionisation of the super well-known academics underway at the moment. Do you accept the term ‘academic’ to describe yourself?

    There’s an even more pretentious term to describe me, I guess, which is ‘public intellectual’. Which is at least more accurate in a sense that I’m not affiliated with a university, I’m not a professor. So I guess I’m not an academic. Even though much of my writing and speaking may sound pretty academic to people.

    While describing oneself as a public intellectual can sound kind of pretentious, I think this is a role that we recognise in society that we want to value and validate and it’s often filled by scientists who are trying to communicate science in as broad a possible way to the public. So having the mode of being educators, but it also puts them in the mode of debating public policy when relevant.

    Much of my work has been talking about the conflict between religion and science, and so the generic term ‘public intellectual’ is probably the best we’ve got.

    Harris says, “public intellectual” is an even more pretentious term to describe himself than “academic”; then says, “public intellectual” is just “kind of pretentious”; then he embraces the term, it is his self-designation.

    The less pretentious term is “intelligent layman”, but I suppose that lacks the PR cachet of “public intellectual”. And “chat show host and participant” fits nicely.

    *

    I am minded of the discussion of a radio chat show’s panelists some years back, in which each was named, together with what distinction fitted them for the role: Lionel Blair was acidly described as “famous for being famous”.

  9. Dhay says:

    In that Vox interview Sam Harris complained:

    One constant has been that I, to a degree that seems fairly unique, manage to encounter opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent my actual views. … it seems to me that this happens to me to an extreme degree.

    In his post, “Sam Harris’ Horrible Histories”, the historian Tim O’Neill quotes in full, and dissects, a section of Harris’ recent discussion with Ben Shapiro on the latter’s Show; neither know their history, but Harris is particularly bad at it, spouting an extended series of what I will call ‘atheist historical meme’ howlers; which O’Neill corrects in a very thorough and scholarly way:

    In the course of their conversation Shapiro argued that western values are derived from Judeo-Christian roots. Harris disputed this and, in doing so, presented a sustained six minutes of total pseudo historical gibberish. …
    [Long post, do read, learn history …]
    … But Harris knows nothing of all this. Just as Harris knows nothing of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Or the place of science in the Islamic world. Or the complexities and nuances of the Galileo Affair. Or medieval universities. Or … anything much about history. … when [atheist scientists] opine about history they usually have little idea what they are talking about, and that is even if they are not labouring under Harris’ clear ideological biases. His near total ignorance coupled with those crippling biases means what he has to say on these and most other historical subjects is mostly complete garbage.

    https://historyforatheists.com/2018/08/sam-harris-horrible-histories/

    Some of what O’Neill writes is new to me; much, though is but added detail adding to those refutations of the ‘atheist historical memes’ — particularly the ‘Galileo Affair’ meme — which I have seen time and again, and which are (or should be by now) common knowledge. If Harris was not deliberately lying, he was not just ignorant but culpably ignorant.

    And if Harris was, as O’Neill believes, “labouring under [his] clear ideological biases”, Harris is pig-ignorant.

    How would Richard Carrier put it (see quote in the response three above)? Ah yes, Harris has been “caught lying and screwing up basic facts of history.”

    And whether Harris was lying or not, he plainly doesn’t hesitate to distort and misrepresent; he plainly doesn’t hesitate to claim knowledge where he is ignorant; he plainly doesn’t hesitate to bullshit.

    I am minded of that sentence by Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra: Not only are they liars who speak contrary to their knowledge, yet more so they who speak contrary to their ignorance.

    *

    Anyone want to claim O’Neill misrepresented Harris’ actual views as quoted verbatim; or that Harris actually meant the correct, accurate “basic facts of history” as presented by O’Neill, “basic facts of history” that were quite different from the, er, “basic facts of history” that Harris actually alleged? Anyone want to claim that “it’s a major part of [O’Neill’s] strategy to misrepresent Harris’ actual views.”

  10. Dhay says:

    I reflect: if Sam Harris is so ready to assert contrary to his ignorance of “basic facts of history”, spouting ignorant bullshit as fact … is this a reliable indicator that he is as likely to assert contrary to his ignorance of many other subjects.

    In this case, Harris came up against someone who could call him out, and back up why. Are we really to believe that Harris is a brilliant polymath who can opine knowledgeably on the wide range of topics covered in his podcasts and guest appearances. He might well fool his audience, dazzled by the new ideas they are being exposed to, but that’s because they are more ignorant than Harris is, and because someone speaking confidently and as if they were an authority on a subject will, well, dazzle.

    I ask, is it intellectually honest to bullshit, is it intellectually honest for Harris to present himself as knowledgeable about subjects he is ignorant of or ill-informed about.

    *

    Pages 142-144 of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith are interesting. He opens by fantasising about hypothetical “perfect weapons” – “weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property” – weapons which would cause no collateral damage, kill no bystanders, fantasy weapons quite unlike any we actually do have. Yep, he’s engaging in a fantasy.

    What would we do with such technology? he asks. But it’s a rhetorical question only, to which he promptly supplies the answer: George Bush would have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq without sanctioning the injury or death of even a single innocent person. What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons, he asks? What would Hitler have done, he asks? Harris answers that they would have used them rather differently, insinuates they would have used them murderously.

    But I don’t think Harris has bothered to think this one through.

    Everybody and anybody with access to such a weapon would have used them differently to everybody and anybody else; we know that different people make different decisions because, well, they’re different people; only in the simplest scenarios will all choose the same. Then there’s all the complicating factors which have to be factored into anyone’s decisions about use or non-use: there’s ability or inability to accurately identify the targets; ability or inability to locate the targets; ditto ability or inability to accurately identify and locate non-targets to be excluded from the “perfect weapon’s” attack – note that any “perfect weapon” is part of a weapons system involving imperfect people who, when faced with ambiguity or lack of time to pick and choose will probably kill indiscriminately – it gets horribly complicated and gets very difficult to be “perfect”.

    Then there’s the question of who is or isn’t an “innocent person”, not a single one of whom would be harmed: the Iraqi conscript drafted unwillingly into Hussein’s army facing ‘Desert Storm’, yes or no; the Palestinian schoolkids playing football on the beach, yes or no; the Yemeni schoolchildren whose bus was recently targeted because it was allegedly heading to a cemetery, and as everyone in military targeting apparently knows, cemeteries are where schoolchildren get indoctrinated to become jihadist terrorists, don’t they, yes or no? Or add your own examples of trigger-happy targeting of people possibly innocent, possibly not.

    Then there’s cost of use, numbers of weapons available, the time taken to replace those expended, that’s lots of scenarios; the enemy faces the same questions, so that’s the scenarios doubled. The question of what Bush, Hussein, bin Laden and Hitler might each have done with hypothetical “perfect weapons” probably has as many hypothetical answers as String Theory.

    Harris seems to be portraying these as rhetorical questions with obvious answers, glib answers which his readers will glibly supply; I rather think his readers will supply those obvious and mindlessly simple answers only if they are mindlessly simple; a thinking person finds a morass of complication; a thinking person who has been to military collage will no doubt add many more considerations and complications.

    Is it intellectually honest of Harris to portray something very complicated as no-brainer simple?

  11. Dhay says:

    Pages 142-144 of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith are interesting. En route to highlighting how eeeeEEvil those nasty benighted Muslims are, he continues by giving us a Harris-level history lesson:

    It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. We might even conceive of our moral differences in just these terms: not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth. Many things contribute to such an endowment. Political and economic stability, literacy, a modicum of social equality — where such things are lacking, people tend to find many compelling reasons to treat one another rather badly. Our recent history offers much evidence of our own development on these fronts, and a corresponding change in our morality. A visit to New York in the summer of 1863 would have found the streets ruled by roving gangs of thugs; blacks, where not owned outright by white slaveholders, were regularly lynched and burned. Is there any doubt that many New Yorkers of the nineteenth century were barbarians by our present standards? To say of another culture that it lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own in social development is a terrible criticism indeed, given how far we’ve come in that time.

    That’s a lot of words, and just to insinuate that modern Muslim morality and social development “lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own”. (Harris doesn’t distinguish the very Westernised modern Bosnia from tribal Eritrea, but it would spoil his argument and his flow of rhetoric to do so.)

    I am unclear where Harris finds any Muslim countries where “the streets [are] ruled by roving gangs of thugs; blacks, where not owned outright by white slaveholders, [are] regularly lynched and burned”, which I presume Harris, having decided that 150 years would do as a nominal figure, looked up in some history book. But there’s no obvious direct correspondence with any – let alone all – Muslim countries, so the only evidence offered by Harris that Muslim morality and social development “lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own” is … is that Harris insinuates it’s so.

    Insinuates, so that Harris can continue:

    Now imagine the benighted Americans of 1863 coming to possess chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. This is more or less the situation we confront in much of the developing world.

    The parts of the developing world which Harris fears because they might come to possess, or do possess, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, those parts are the Muslim parts; oh, and Hindu India, pointing them back at Muslim Pakistan. Panic, panic, panic: you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die; stop the eeeeEEvil Muslims NOW.

  12. TFBW says:

    The main problem with Harris in this regard is that this view of superior morality seems to be based firmly in cultural and chronological chauvinism. That is, he sees his “here” and “now” as being the pinnacle of human goodness, by which all other times and places are judged. It’s not like he has an independent standard by which he compares the “here” and “now” against other times and places. Granted, even if you have such an independent standard, one could still be accused of “chauvinism” with respect to that standard, but if you want to claim that the “here” and “now” is better than the “there” and “then”, it’s ludicrous to use the “here” and “now” as the standard by which everything is judged. That, however, is exactly what he’s doing when he says, “many New Yorkers of the nineteenth century were barbarians by our present standards,” and such like. Well, duh: it’s also the case that he’s a degenerate infidel by Muslim standards. Why prefer his particular late 20th century “Hollywood elite” standards over that? He seems to have no basis other than his accident of birth, and no better argument than appeal to similar prejudices in others.

    I note that Dawkins also takes a progressive view of morality, with “here” and “now” as the pinnacle so far, but he quite happily dismisses religious affiliation as mere accident of birth. I take this as further evidence that Dawkins is basically a prejudiced moron when it comes to philosophy, but Harris is supposed to have some measure of competence in that area, so perhaps it’s more intellectual dishonesty on his part, rather than simple incompetence. Somehow, I doubt that “brutal honesty” is a characteristic feature of late 20th century “Hollywood elite” moral standards.

  13. Dhay says:

    Pages 142-144 of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith are interesting. Having insinuated how utterly benighted Muslims are, he continues by giving us another Harris-level history lesson; the thrust of these pages is to insinuate a contrast between those benighted Muslims, whose culture allegedly – Harris says it does, Harris alleges it – “lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own in social [and moral] development” – those benighted Muslims and the wonderfully civilised West, whose leaders, if given “perfect weapons”, would win wars without killing a single innocent person.

    Harris illustrates how wonderfully morally and socially advanced ‘we’ – the US, by the look of it – have become only a century after those 1863 New York street gangs, the lynchings, etc, and how wonderfully morally and socially advanced ‘we’ are than those 150-years backwards benighted Muslims – Harris illustrates how wonderfully morally and socially advanced we are, by using the massacre at My Lai as his glowing example of our advancement:

    Now imagine the benighted Americans of 1863 coming to possess chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. This is more or less the situation we confront in much of the developing world.

    Consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968, at My Lai:

    Early in the morning the soldiers were landed in the village by helicopter. Many were firing as they spread out, killing both people and animals. There was no sign of the Vietcong battalion and no shot was fired at Charlie Company all day, but they carried on. They burnt down every house. They raped women and girls and then killed them. They stabbed some women in the vagina and disemboweled others, or cut off their hands or scalps. Pregnant women had their stomachs slashed open and were left to die. There were gang rapes and killings by shooting or with bayonets. There were mass executions. Dozens of people at a time, including old men, women and children, were machine-gunned in a ditch. In four hours nearly 500 villagers were killed.

    This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving. But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military. Even at the time, U.S. soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their comrades. One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they would not stop killing villagers. As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

    [You’ll also find this quote, originally on Pp 143- 144 of Harris’ 2005 book, The End of Faith, reproduced verbatim Harris’ May 2015 blog post “The Limits of Discourse”, it’s part of his spat with Noam Chomsky – so Harris still “owns” this illustration after all these years.]

    By “much of the developing world”, Harris evidently means the Muslim world: for example, when did you last read him or hear him railing against China?

    How wonderful: “what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.” It appalls us today; the soldiers in that company weren’t appalled at all, they’d done it before, it seems their behaviour, appalling to us now, had for them become unremarkable routine behaviour:

    By March, 1968, murder, rape, and arson were common in many combat units of the Americal Division—particularly the 11th Brigade, in hostile Quang Ngai Province—…

    (newyorker.com/magazine/1972/01/22/i-coverup)

    How wonderful: “The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military.” The shame seems to have started when it came to public attention; the cover-up started immediately to try to ensure it wouldn’t:

    When the assistant division commander, George Young, informed General Koster of Hugh Thompson’s allegations that Captain Medina’s men had murdered civilians at My Lai, both focused on the pilot’s confrontation with Lieutenant Calley. Focusing on the argument between Mr. Thompson and Lieutenant Calley, General Young and General Koster skirted directives from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam that accusations of war crimes be forwarded to the staff judge advocate in Saigon. …
    When assigned to investigate the actions of his own men, Lieutenant Colonel Barker wrote a superficial report that cleared Charlie Company of wrongdoing.

    (nytimes.com/2018/03/16/opinion/the-truth-behind-my-lai.html)

    I think we can discern the military-mentality thinking which prompted that strange focus: what an out-of-order pilot (Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson) that was, confronting Calley like that, he had no authority to do so, and to threaten to machine-gun your own troops is unheard of, investigate Thompson for a disciplinary charge.

    How wonderful: “Even at the time, U.S. soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their comrades.” Er, which U.S. Horror-struck soldiers were those, exactly? With a few exceptions all the ground troops and officers involved seem to have been enthusiastic horror-inflicting comrades, doing what they regularly did:

    There were really only three Americans who behaved heroically that day. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was flying a small scout helicopter with two crewmen, Glenn Andreotti and Lawrence Colburn. They witnessed the massacre from above. When they saw American troops advancing toward a group of old men, women and children, Thompson landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the civilians and ordered his crewmen to shoot the Americans if they opened fire on the civilians. He called other choppers to evacuate the civilians. For that, Thompson was shunned by fellow officers for years afterward.

    (theconversation.com/my-lai-50-years-after-american-soldiers-shocking-crimes-must-be-remembered-93516)

    That bears repeating: “Thompson was shunned by fellow officers for years afterward.” Looks like Thompson’s fellow pilots were horror-struck that he had intervened to stop the massacre. And if “the investigating officers focused on the pilot’s confrontation with Lieutenant Calley” (see quote above) it looks like those officers too were more horror-struck by Thomson’s intervention than by the massacre.

    How wonderful: “One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they would not stop killing villagers.” Harris seems to insinuate that the moral courage and humane behaviour of this one pilot, Thompson, one moral person in a sea of evil, somehow makes the US not at all like those eeeeEEvil 150-years morally backward Muslims. What. Utter. Bollocks.

    How wonderful: “As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.” Ah, Americans are exceptional:

    The darkest side of American exceptionalism is the belief that somehow we are more moral than others and that our troops would never slaughter innocent civilians. Americans need to understand that in every war in the history of humankind, soldiers commit hideous acts. Even our troops.

    (theconversation.com/my-lai-50-years-after-american-soldiers-shocking-crimes-must-be-remembered-93516)

    That 50th anniversary article uses “is”, not “was”.

    *

    It’s not as if the US public were unaware of horrors being inflicted: carpet bombing, Agent Orange, ‘burn-em-alive’ napalm – these were the antithesis of Harris’ fantasy “perfect weapon”. And everybody knew about them, and about their use.

    *

    US officers were not “dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their” officers and men, they covered it up, pretended it had not happened, that everything was (sadly) normal. So how about Civvy Street, were US editors “dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their” military, were they keen to publicise this horror so it would never happen again? Apparently not, says the reviewer of Hersh’s memoir:

    Instead, there was a surly lesson: the truth, however doggedly procured, does not guarantee publication. His story, which would eventually win him the Pulitzer prize in 1970, was rejected not by one or two but three magazine editors. Hersh, understandably, was “devastated by the amount of self-censorship” he was encountering in his profession. Indeed, he would find a lawyer before he would find a publisher, and the latter was Hersh’s 23-year-old next-door neighbour.

    (theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/06/reporter-a-memoir-seymour-hersh-review)

    Not exactly welcoming, were they.

    If we adopt the British convention that adulthood begins at age 18, (and assuming that “latter” is not a typo) Hersh’s publisher was not, at 23, some senior editor of a major national magazine but a stripling barely five years out out from being a child; and on the reasonable assumption that the stripling went to university, was only two years out of finishing education.

    *

    I understand the culture of cover-up: the army has a culture of ‘You will do what I say, any criticism or dissent or questioning of my orders or actions is insubordination and subject to disciplinary action so you’ll shut up; and I’m in the same position so I’ll shut up, too; if you complain about your colleagues’ bad behaviour you are betraying them, they will see it that way and shun you (as the pilot was shunned); if I open my mouth there goes my promotion or career; if my service is brought into disrepute by your complaint, it’ll cost us funding and we all lose face, you have betrayed us, it’ll hurt you.

    Publish that article, you’re not a patriot.

    It’s the same in any institution which has a strong interest in maintaining its public image and prestige, where it is very important to avoid bad publicity. That’s how NHS bad practice and blunders get covered up and whistle-blowers get demonised and victimised; that’s how the use of child prostitutes by charity aid workers in Haiti gets blind-eyed and covered up; that’s how sexual harrassment by Doctors Without Borders officials gets blind-eyed and covered up until the harrassees don’t bother reporting it; that’s how sexual predators and harassers kept podium and leadership positions in atheist organisations; that’s how Harvey Weinstein got away with his behaviour until this year, that tacit conspiracy of silence about ‘what everybody knows goes on’ (the ‘casting couch’ was a by-word in the 1950s!); and so it goes on, example after example after example.

    Note: these examples of how morally and socially advanced we are, they’re not from one hundred and fifty years ago, at the time of street gangs and lynchings, they’re not from fifty years ago at the time of that wonderful example of US morally and socially advanced rectitude, My Lai, with its one hero pilot – these examples are from today.

    *

    Close-quarter massacres like My Lai are so last-century, though I rather think Admiral Lord Fisher got it right in the 1910s: “The essence of war is barbarity.” Here’s from a recent ‘stderr’ blog post entitled “The American Way of War”:

    As expected the wars in Syria and Iraq have devolved into a horror show of human tragedy. And, to exacerbate it, you’ve got America’s fondness for saturation bombing civilians with high explosive.

    https://freethoughtblogs.com/stderr/2018/08/17/the-american-way-of-war/

    How happy Harris must feel at the advances ‘we’ in the West have made in the last one hundred and fifty years. Nowadays ‘we’ can massacre at long range, without risk to ourselves, which is what a modern near-“perfect weapon” actually does. It must make Harris’ heart glow to know how morally and socially advanced ‘we’ in the West now are, how much better than those eeeeEEvil 150-years morally backward Muslims ‘we’ are killing. Today. In a so much more morally and socially advanced way, of course.

  14. unclesporkums says:

    The postmodernist idiocy that is in this latest “Emergent Church” heresy reminds me so much of the crap Harris has talked about regarding his Buddhism, meditation, etc. Here’s a keyed up part of a documentary where they talk about that. https://youtu.be/Fu-YePuRlps?t=1h17s

  15. Dhay says:

    I spot this snippet from my response last year to Sam Harris’ Meme #7, which Meme says: “We will embarrass our descendants just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress” ~ Sam Harris – The Waking Up podcast.:

    Would people of 1850 or [insert year] say of today’s commonplace abortion-seeking that that is moral progress — or would they be not just embarrassed but appalled.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/sam-harris-promotes-sam-harris-memes/#comment-17935

    Let’s insert “New York in the summer of 1863”, shall we. Arguably those eeeeEEvil 150-years morally and socially backward Muslims — Harris insinuates that’s so — are so much more advanced morally and socially than many of Harris’ ‘we’ in the modern West.

  16. Dhay says:

    I see that in their extended critique of Sam Harris in Current Affairs, “Being Mr. Reasonable”, Eli Massey and Nathan Robinson pick on the same passage in The End of Faith that I did three above, about Harris’ claims that the My Lai massacre demonstrates Americans are exceptionally moral — there’s blindness for you — and subject the claim (and Harris) to similar criticisms to mine but in greater depth and at greater length.

    It’s a very, very long article, so search for “My Lai” unless you want to read the whole of a very good article.

    https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/10/being-mr-reasonable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.