Everyone Has An Identity, Even Sam Harris

Last year, Sam Harris devoted an episode of his podcast to interviewing Charles Murray. Murray is a conservative writer most infamous for The Bell Curve, a book which argued that black people are genetically predetermined to be less intelligent than other races, and that we should massively cut social welfare programs aimed at helping them out of poverty because it will just be wasted dollars. Worse, it will give them an incentive to breed and spread their inferior genes, dragging down society as a whole.

Murray’s eugenicist arguments are rejected as factually false by most reputable scientists, and his conclusions can’t be described as anything other than deeply racist. Yet Harris gave Murray a sympathetic, friendly interview and, far from challenging him, agreed with most of what he had to say and cast him as the victim of “a politically correct moral panic”.

When the website Vox published an article debunking Murray’s claims and criticizing Harris for giving him a platform, Harris blew up. He called it a “disingenuous hit piece”, and challenged Vox’s editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, to a debate.

When he failed to get the satisfaction he sought, Harris published their private e-mail correspondence as a gesture of spite. But he was nonplussed when the majority opinion, even among his own readers, was that it didn’t show any wrongdoing on Klein’s part and that this petulant act only made Harris look worse: “Many people seem to have judged from his politeness that Ezra was the one behaving honestly and ethically. This is frustrating, to say the least.”

Finally, Harris grudgingly agreed to have Klein on his podcast so they could hash out their differences. You can read the transcript of that here, and I recommend you do. It’s long, but it offers some amazing glimpses into Harris’ mindset, as well as insights into why the atheist movement has unfortunately been as susceptible to the racist “alt-right” movement as it is.

It’s central to Murray’s facade that he has no racist or hateful intentions, that he’s just a dispassionate intellectual calmly surveying the data and then drawing the conclusion that’s best warranted. Sam Harris swallows this argument without an ounce of skepticism, leading him to conclude that Murray’s critics are the ones being dishonest about their motives.

Ezra Klein said something that I think cuts to the heart of why this is:

I think you have a deep empathy for Charles Murray’s side of this conversation, because you see yourself in it. I don’t think you have as deep an empathy for the other side of this conversation. For the people being told once again that they are genetically and environmentally and at any rate immutably less intelligent and that our social policy should reflect that. I think part of the absence of that empathy is it doesn’t threaten you.

I think it’s exactly right that Harris sees himself more easily in Murray: a white person who often draws criticism and protest and fears it will knock him off his exalted perch of “public intellectual”. The idea of being a person of color, whose course in life is constricted by politics like Murray’s, is something so far outside Harris’ ken that he’s never seriously contemplated it or imagined himself in that position.

To be clear, it’s not a sin to grow up as a privileged white guy. But it tends to give rise to a narrowness of viewpoint that can only be counteracted by a deliberate effort to seek out other people with different life experiences and different perspectives, and this is something that Harris hasn’t put in the work to do. In 120+ episodes of his podcast, as Klein pointed out, he’s only interviewed two black people.

What’s more, this isn’t just an oversight, it seems to be deliberate. In another post, Harris implies that it’s very hard to find a black guest who isn’t “contaminated by identity politics“, and describes Ta-Nehisi Coates, probably one of the most important black intellectuals in America today, as “not intellectually honest”. Presumably, people with opinions similar to Coates’ would also be ruled out.

But if Harris is so strongly against “identity politics”, why isn’t he an equally fierce opponent of Charles Murray, who explicitly proposes forming public policy on the basis of race? Somehow, in Harris’ mind, paying reparations to victims of racism is the bad kind of identity politics, but Murray’s ideas about discriminating on the basis of genetics aren’t.

Sam Harris displays the same muddled thinking as the deeply confused fellow who insisted that atheism shouldn’t be an “ideology”. It goes like this: I am the rational one in this conversation. It’s everyone else, those Other People who want something different than what I want, who are polluting our movement with “ideology” and “identity politics”. They’re all stuck in the mud, while intellectuals like Sam Harris float above them on a luminous plane of pure rationality, immune to such gross earthly flaws.

Straight, white, American, male, atheist, Christian, wealthy, upper-class: these are all identities! They influence how you move through the world, how you interact with others, what you view as normal and what you treat as unusual. Everyone has identity politics because everyone has an identity. The only difference is that, for members of the group that occupies a dominant position in society, we don’t call it that. Everyone advocates for their own interests, but we only call that “identity politics” to the extent it diverges from the assumed white, male (heterosexual, Christian, etc.,…) mainstream.

Klein made this point repeatedly, to no avail:

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward… I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is.

Harris isn’t a stupid man, but he seemed literally unable to grasp this point. He’s deeply invested in the idea that it’s impossible for a white guy like him or like Murray to have his own identity-based politics. That led to another amazing exchange:

Sam Harris
I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein
You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris
Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein
Well, that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris knows he’s not thinking tribally. He just knows it! Presumably he asked himself, “Self, am I thinking tribally?” and his deeper self came back with, “Of course not!” And if that answer is good enough for a super-smart person like Sam Harris, well, it ought to be good enough for the rest of us as well.

These great skeptics ought to consider that the entire edifice of science – double-blind experiments, replicability, statistical significance – is built on the foundation that we can all deceive ourselves and no one can be the judge of their own biases. Harris insisting that he’s immune to tribalism is like a scientist saying, “Other people may need to make their experiments double-blind, but I don’t, because I’m a rational person and I know I won’t fool myself.”

If Sam Harris is in the position of that overconfident scientist, what evidence is he overlooking? In any simplistic attempt to link IQ to genes, there’s a massive confounding factor: hundreds of years of systemic racism in America and throughout the developed world.

Intelligence is partly genetic, but also partly environmental. And since before its inception, America has been doing almost everything in its power to starve the minds of its black citizens. We made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. We segregated schools so that black children’s schools could be given the worst of everything. We segregated neighborhoods and put toxic dumps, polluting factories and smoggy power plants in communities of color so that people who lived there bore the brunt of pollutants like mercury and lead which decrease intelligence. Even today, black people tend to be poorer due to a long legacy of housing and job discrimination, and studies find that severe financial stress causes a drop in apparent IQ.

Under this heavy weight of historical discrimination, it would be astonishing if some black people didn’t have lower IQs than privileged white people who’ve enjoyed every educational and economic advantage.* But that tells us nothing about what their average IQ would be if all these burdens were removed. As Klein said, one common criticism of Murray is that “he often looks at indicators that reflect inequality and uses them to justify inequality.”

Incredibly, Sam Harris insists that none of this matters!

Ezra Klein
I have not criticized you, and I continue to not, for having the conversation. I’ve criticized you for having the conversation without dealing with and separating it out and thinking through the context and the weight of American history on it.

Sam Harris
The weight of American history is completely irrelevant to —

Ezra Klein
It can’t possibly be irrelevant on something that even you admit is environmental!

This goes to the heart of why Harris invited Murray: his belief that Murray’s eugenic prescriptions for public policy are some politically incorrect truth that he’s bravely speaking in the face of persecution. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Klein said, it’s been the majority view for much of our history:

Whatever the future holds, the idea that America’s racial inequalities are driven by genetic differences between the races and not by anything we did, or have to undo, is not “forbidden knowledge” — it is perhaps the most common and influential perspective in American history. It is embedded in our founding documents, voiced by men with statues in their likeness, reflected in centuries of policymaking. It is an argument that has been used since the dawn of the country to justify the condition of its most oppressed citizens. If you’re going to discuss this topic, that’s a history you need to reckon with.

I’d suggest it’s because Sam Harris considers himself such a fierce opponent of identity politics (by which, again, we mean non-white identity politics) that he believes he shouldn’t have to think about any of this. He’d prefer to consign all of that to the past, which is messy and irrelevant, whereas the present is neat and clean and can be understood solely through IQ tests.

But racism isn’t an ancient memory, it’s a present reality. Centuries of bigotry aren’t wiped away overnight even with the best intentions, and our society is far from having the best intentions. If people of color have to band together, it’s because they’ve learned through painful experience that society treats them as a group even if they don’t, and sometimes collective action is the only way to defend their own interests. Because Harris has likely never had the experience of being categorized in that way, he’s oblivious to it.

And here’s the other problem: when you rail against identity politics so loudly, or defend eugenicists as victims of overzealous political correctness, or call for profiling anyone who “looks Muslim”, you can’t control who will take encouragement from that message. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted a survey on a white supremacist forum asking users what led them to alt-right ideology. Of 74 users who responded, 4 credited Sam Harris. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the most common answer got only 14 votes.

I’m sure Harris would insist he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. Nevertheless, actual racists are taking his proclamations as a message of aid and comfort. Ironically, in an attempt to be objective, he’s giving life to the most virulent and harmful form of identity politics there is. His blind spot is an object lesson in how refusing to examine your own biases doesn’t make them cease to exist; it just allows them to run wild.

* As you’d expect from an environmental difference, the IQ gap isn’t fixed or permanent. In recent decades, it’s been closing as black Americans’ IQs rise faster than white Americans’ IQs. As this article puts it, “the IQ gap between black and white people today is only about half the gap between America as a whole now and America as a whole in 1948.”

Image: This is also identity politics: A 1959 protest against school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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