Is Sam Harris Sexist?

I recently wrote about League of the South’s Michael Peroutka’s denial that he is racist. The organization he says taught him everything he knows openly promotes secession and the creation of a white Christian South, but because it also eschews racial hatred Peroutka is aghast at the charges of racism. In fact, he has accused those charging him with racism of playing a “cynical, dishonest race-card-smear game.” It was this situation that my mind was drawn back to as I read Sam Harris’s recent post, “I Am Not the Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.”

At issue is this bit from a recent Washington Post article:

I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists—and many of those who buy his books—are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.

It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.

“I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

Not surprisingly, female atheists took issue with Harris’s statements. In a response, Harris doubled down while trying to explain what he meant:

My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.

Shortly before this paragraph, Harris clarified that he was talking about active atheists, i.e. those who go to conventions, etc. But it’s not just women who are underrepresented at conventions, it’s also people of color. Would Harris suggest that black and Hispanic men, too, have a “nurturing, coherence-building, extra estrogen vibe” that makes the angry tone of Harris’s atheist activism off-putting? Presumably not. Presumably Harris understands that there are a variety of reasons for the underrepresentation of people of color, including both casual racism in the organized atheist community and cultural specifics in the wider society, none of which have anything to do with any sort of underlying psychological differences. And yet, when it comes to the underrepresentation of women in organized atheism Harris chooses not to consider either casual sexism in the organized atheist community or the cultural landscape women live their lives against. Instead, he jumps straight to presumed psychological differences between men and women.

We can have plenty of long conversations about whether there are innate psychological differences and the extent to which culture shapes our psychology. I’m not going to get into these questions right now, except to note that they’re nowhere near as clearcut as Harris suggests. What I want to point out is simply that Harris looked at a significant gender imbalance in organized atheism (he suggests it’s 70/30) and the only explanation he could think of—not only in his original comment but also in his long response post—was psychological differences between men and women. In my book, that is what was sexist about his comment.

But the real point of Harris’s response was not so much to explain his comment as to explain that he is not sexist, no no, not one little bit! He recounts saying this to a woman who called out the sexism in his comment:

Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife. If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s actually an honest statement about my psychological biases. I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.

He goes on:

I knew that this honest (and admittedly desperate) confession could be cynically viewed as a version of the “Some of my best friends are black!” defense. (It isn’t. I’m not saying that my fondness for certain women proves that I’m not sexist. I’m saying that I actually respect women more than men by default. Again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily good; I’m saying that it is a fact.)

No. No, no, no. Having a mother and daughters and female editors does not make you exempt from sexism—and believe it or not, nor does respecting women more than man by default. I grew up in a subculture that purported to respect women a great deal—and even to hold women above men (because men were to protect women with their lives, of course). In the Victorian era, women were placed on a pedestal as especially pure and worth of protection and respect even as they were denied the right to vote or own property. Frankly, this “I respect women more than men” thing makes me cringe. Please stop essentializing me.

But there’s another problem here. As I noticed in the beginning of this post, in denying being racist, Michael Peroutka made it very clear that he did not know what racism was. Harris appears to have the same problem—he does not know what sexism is. He makes that clear, too:

I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

It seems Harris is unaware that women make disproportionate sacrifices for their families because of sexism. And again, he repeats the bit about psychological differences. Only 1.2% of Fortune 500 companies have black CEOs, but I would hope that Harris doesn’t think that’s because of psychological differences. Why, then, does he feel the need to bring up psychological differences between men and women to explain the gender imbalance in Fortune 500 CEOs, instead of understanding the disparity as the result of structural reasons and both overt and covert sexism?

Merriam-Webster offers two definitions for sexism:

1:  prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially :  discrimination against women
2:  behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

Do you see what I mean when I say Harris doesn’t understand sexism? It’s not just overt discrimination based on sex. It’s also “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” Sexism is the reason there are more stay-at-home mothers than stay-at-home fathers. But Harris would likely object to that statement, given that he believes women have a “nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe” that presumably explains the imbalance in stay-at-home parents. And you know what? That makes him sexist.

Sexism does not require malice. If one had to hate women to be sexist, very few people would be sexist. I worry that when people like Harris hear “that’s sexist” what they actually hear is “you hate women.” And then, of course, rather than actually listening they simply object—because they don’t hate women.

I want to draw attention to one final thing from Harris’s response:

As readers of my blog will know, I often write about violence, self-defense, guns, and related matters—much to the bewilderment of my fellow liberals. As it happens, I tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view.

There’s only one problem with that. Women are consistently more likely to support gun control. That’s not surprising, given that women are seven times more likely to be murdered in domestic violence if a gun is in the home. But even gun control something Harris has argued against passionately. It seems Harris does not in fact “tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view.” It seems he thinks he can get inside women’s heads and know what we want and how we see the world when he can’t. It would be akin to a white person claiming to look at force and violence from a black person’s point of view while advocating for more militarization of the police force.

Sam Harris appears to be more interested in denying that he is sexist than he is in trying to understand why people are telling him he’s sexist. This seems like a case of seriously misplaced priorities.


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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.