On Sam Harris’s Reply to Feminist Critics

On Sam Harris’s Reply to Feminist Critics September 16, 2014

Monday, I wrote a post on Sam Harris’s controversial remarks about women quoted in The Washington Post. Moments after I posted, I was alerted to Sam’s explanation of himself. In this post, I give my thoughts about his follow up post.

I was recently interviewed onstage at George Washington University by Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post. The next day, Boorstein published an article summarizing our conversation, in which she excerpted a few quotations that made me appear somewhat sexist. I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading.

So first thing, Sam rightly admits that the few quotations make him “appear somewhat sexist”. Actually, he wouldn’t have even had to go that far for me. I personally wouldn’t infer from the quotations that he sounds somewhat sexist but that he said something with somewhat sexist implications. Here Sam seems to disagree with defenders of his original remark who insisted his words were a non-issue. (Unless Sam thinks sexism is a non-issue.) I think it’s clear that if I said something in an interview that I thought made me sound somewhat sexist, I would think that was a big deal and I would feel eager to correct the record. I wouldn’t be telling any feminists complaining that their concerns were pointless. I would be saying, “Yes, I know how it sounded, I apologize for that, it came out wrong, here’s what I think” in a detailed blog post. Which is what it looks like Sam is doing. But the problem is that he already tweeted the following on Saturday:

So, when feminists responded to his sexist sounding remark, he didn’t say, “I am sorry I sounded somewhat sexist in the interview. I’m apologizing and explaining in my next post.” He framed their concerns as “pointless controversy”. Because somewhat sexist remarks from high placed people are pointless to get upset about? Is sexism not a big deal? This didn’t merit a blog post until after he was mocked with the hashtag. Which means, even though he thinks he was misleadingly quoted to sound like a sexist, this didn’t matter to him until his hand was forced by the feminists who took umbrage.

Why are feminists not supposed to take umbrage at somewhat sexist remarks?

It is a measure of the ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness that in the second it took me to make that joke about my sex appeal, I worried whether my assuming that most women are heterosexual would offend some number of lesbians in the audience. And though the phrase “extra estrogen vibe,” spoken in a tone that acknowledged its silliness, also got a laugh, Boorstein surely knew that setting it down in print would make me look stupid. (If further evidence of her intentions were needed, her announcement of the article on Twitter read: “@samharris on why chicks don’t dig atheism.”) It’s very difficult to speak the way one writes, but this unpleasant encounter with direct quotation gives me further impetus to try. On the upside, however, one of my critics coined the hashtag #EstrogenVibe, and many have savaged me with it to delightful effect.

Yes, Boorstein should have indicated that he was speaking with a hyperbolic tone of voice and indicated (as she did with the sex appeal line) that this was received with laughs. And, to be fair to Sam, it must not at all be fun to have your words you meant to be lighthearted turned into a critical hashtag to make it so maybe you won’t be able to live them down. That willingness to risk turning one infelicitous phrase into something that haunts someone risks escalating the situation and pushing someone to dig in their heels. And maybe that partially explains Sam’s acerbic tweet to “fans of pointless controversy”. He was being goaded. And Boorstein’s own unprofessional well-poisoning tweet (selling the article as “@samharris on why chicks don’t dig atheism.”) is disappointing. That is some willful escalation that may be responsible for some undue heights of acrimony that turned Harris more defensive than he needed to be in his tweets. As a journalist you don’t put sexist words in someone’s mouth like that. That’s a serious sandbag. (And such contemptuous treatment of atheists by journalists is unbelievably common in my experience.)

To his credit, he’s good natured about the hashtag. He says they savaged him to “delightful effect” and he ends the post with it. (Although that could look defiant to some of his critics.)

But, for all this, the problem is that “estrogen vibe” was a joking way to reinforce something that still had sexist implications without the attempt to be funny about it. What I mean by that will become clear by the end. (UPDATE: Now I’ve seen video and in a follow up post I explain that I think Sam is being unfair trying to deflect the criticism to Boorstein.) 

Let me be clear about what I was trying to say (and actually do believe):

1. I started by claiming that my readership seems more male than female. And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.

Yes, that’s what I took his meaning to be. This is an answer to the statistics Greta highlighted about there being roughly equal numbers of atheists worldwide.

2. Although I share the common perception that there is a gender imbalance among active atheists, I don’t actually know whether this is the case. I used to joke that my average “groupie” was a 75-year-old man. Happily, my audiences are now filled with young people, but I still encounter many more men than women. I wouldn’t be surprised if the split were 70/30. I would be very surprised if it were 50/50. Again, I am talking about active atheists. I have no idea whether there are more male unbelievers than female.

The divide among activist atheists seems to be lessening. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm about how everyone perceived the Reason Rally to be gender equal. There’s lots of discussion about the dramatic shift closer to gender parity at The Amazing Meeting. And it’s hard not to see women everywhere in prominent positions in the movement. Amanda Metskas at Camp Quest. Sarah Morehead at Recovering From Religion. Annie Laurie Gaylor at Freedom From Religion Foundation. Amanda Knief at American Atheists. Debbie Goddard at CFI. Sikivu Hutchinson at Black Skeptics Los Angeles. Maryam Namazie at One Law For All. Amanda Brown at Atheists Giving Aid. Linda LaScola at the Clergy Project. Among authors there are people like Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Valerie Tarico, and Rebecca Goldstein. Freethought Blogs gets more gender equal in bloggers’ ratio year by year. Patheos Atheism can do better by a lot. But one of our biggest traffic blogs is Libby Anne’s Love Joy Feminism. I could go on and on listing vital women who are genuine leaders in the movement. Of course it doesn’t mean rank and file numbers are quite there yet but the key question is why that is.

3. 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.

Yes, in my original post I took this to be his intention but it was woefully not explicit in his remarks and it would help if he explained why his actual words were so problematic because not all his defenders seem to get that. He didn’t say women were more fond of a perceived style of religion bashing. He said that they didn’t like the “criticism of very bad ideas”. But women demonstrably love that. Hello, #estrogenvibe hashtag, anyone?

The elephant in the room is that many potential activist atheist women are siphoned off by straight up feminism instead. They’re more passionate about that because it affects them more directly and they see the point of it more viscerally. And whereas women might like criticizing bad ideas generally, it might matter to them psychologically when the big 4 faces of atheism in the media were four old white men. This is why diverse faces at the forefront of the movement is so important. There is a way to harness a lot of feminist enthusiasm for the purposes of atheism.

Anyway, I am glad he didn’t mean to say that women weren’t that into critical thinking (which I never thought he meant to say) and has rejected that outright.

When he says, “Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture” that’s very good. I think what I would like to see his defenders acknowledge is that even insofar as the cultural factors inhibit women, figuring out which ones are culture and how to remedy them should be at the forefront of our minds when discussing these issues. What disappointed me is that I expect him, as a humanist who defends women’s autonomy in the Middle East so vigorously, to be more conscientious about encouraging a “how can we fix this?” mindset towards sex disparities that wouldn’t fall into “blame biology” explanations as the first emphasis.

Also, when talking about what’s innate, it’s more complicated than “innate vs. cultural”. Also what is innate can be shaped in different ways culturally to drastic effect. And we need to remember when studying what’s innate or not that sexism can influence us to look in some places we expect innate differences and not in others and it can encourage leaping to superficial readings of innateness where other explanations are better.

More specifically what I would like to see him show understanding of, and explain to his readers, is the problem of stereotype threat. It would help if he acknowledged how his specific words (by infelicitously implying to many listeners that women were not as interested in critical thinking for biological reasons) could be an instance of it. That was the thing he needs to understand to really show he “gets it”. I think it’s vital to understanding why it wasn’t a pointless controversy but a big deal and why it needed to be addressed and the record scrupulously corrected.

Last on this point, after writing my response to Harris’s original controversial quote I went back to see what I had said in response to a remark from William Lane Craig about apologetics being a guy thing. Craig in his blog post follow up to an extemporaneous comment just went full sexist. In my reply, I too thought that through whatever combination of biological and social factors, women were turned off to philosophy when it was carried out as pissing contests. In my own remarks, I was stressing over and over that socialization played a big role in this, as I think is clear. But, yes, in my own explanations of why a rationalist area of life was failing to recruit women, I too had speculated that a more collaborative and less directly confrontational mode of discourse made a big difference. So, I am sympathetic to Harris’s top-of-the-head response here.

But there are multiple caveats here. 1. In rooms where women are already outnumbered by men, they might be shutting down precisely because it’s harder to relate and easier to feel ganged up on. 2. In environments where men outnumber it’s awkward because it increases odds of a disproportionate number of men taking interest in you romantically and sexually. 3. Spheres already dominated by men may have the effect of stereotype threat on the women looking around and getting the subconscious message “this is mostly a guy thing”. 4. Years of typical socialization in which men are reared to be more aggressive and women less confrontational can make women especially averse to showdowns with aggressive men (and atheism and philosophy can attract many such men).

Add it all up: uncomfortability with male aggressiveness as a female, socialization to avoid the conflict, lifelong messaging that “girls can’t do this”, socialization that does not permit interrupting, being confronted by interrupting men, seeing mostly men dominating the visible landscape, being vastly outnumbered overalland, in this context, being frequently hit upon because you’re the novel woman there, and yeah, it seems that women wouldn’t like to be part of those confrontational environments.

But feminism is such a vigorous, conflict-embracing field of activism and one obviously dominated by women. And women of course engage in conflict in all sorts of other areas of life. So, how much testosterone’s aggression raising potential is really the issue is really really unclear and, honestly, should be our last concern. Our concern should be, “hey, women love criticizing bad ideas as feminists (no matter where they stand in intra-feminist controversies), they love building groups, they’re as talented as men, so how do we minimize the socialization problems and the off-putting ‘only men need apply’ vibe to our atheist and philosophy settings?”

4. I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.

Anger hasn’t stopped women from joining feminism. Women have reasons to be angry with theistic religions (quite more than men do even–given how patriarchal most religions are).

Nonetheless—and again not necessarily entirely for biological reasons—since women are at least socialized to be the primary nurturers in their families, addressing their needs as nurturers absolutely matters. Like, making child care available. Like, having the social support network for single mothers that many churches provide. A lot of women’s greater religiosity as opposed to men comes down to the social services they provide. Supplemental education of the children in values. Help for the financially struggling (and women make less on average and often wind up the ones raising kids alone).

But this stuff isn’t about nurturing forms of “discourse”. It’s about addressing women’s disproportionate nurturing responsibilities in our culture and helping them with them. In discourse, this might mean more writings about parenting and character formation.

5. However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.

I appreciate Sam’s honesty, but why hasn’t he spent even five minutes thinking about how to reach more women with his writing or speaking style if he thinks it’s alienating them? They’re half the population. So much of his work revolves around women’s lack of autonomy in Islam. Why doesn’t he care whether women, of all people, are responsive to his message?

Feminists charge atheists of using women’s needs when they’re convenient for bashing religion but not caring about them when they’re not. Here best selling atheist author Sam Harris admits to not thinking about how to address women. Can Sam Harris possibly be bothering to read feminist writers? I don’t see how he can if he has been this indifferent to whether his writings have the ability to reach, inspire, and empower women.

The complacency is dispiriting.

6. As I said onstage, I don’t think of myself as primarily an “atheist” figure (or a “figure” at all). And while I am probably one of the most vocal critics of religion on earth, I don’t spend any energy advocating atheism as a political identity.

He probably should have just stressed that he is not really in touch with the atheist community and can’t answer those questions. But, even so, it would be nice if he took some responsibility for his outsized influence upon atheists, acknowledged that they constituted his de facto base, and prepared himself to represent us more knowledgeably knowing the media would inevitably asks him questions about us. It’s frustrating when one of our primary voices heard in the mainstream media is so out of touch with us.

Then he describes an encounter with a feminist on line for the book signing. After some stuff about Sarah Palin they had this exchange:

She: […] What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.

Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

Of course there are some observed differences. Where the feminist emphasis is, and Sam’s emphases aren’t, is in the following. We have had millennia worth of systematic disempowerment of women in some areas (and men in others). It was justified and reinforced by rationalizing appeals to biology. Conservatives regularly argue for complacency about empowering women in some areas and men in others by this kind of appeal to biology. Our first focus should be on not falling into this disempowering legacy. And, because of stereotype threat, phrasing discussions of biological influences on gender in essentialist in form (like Harris’s “to some degree intrinsically male”) can have a self-fulfilling prophetic effect that disempowers women and gives succor to sexists.

Since both men and women are in principle capable of developing our abilities across the spectrum more than traditionalist gender roles allowed, our first priority, before conceding we’re helpless before the power of biology, must be examining anything we can change culturally to unlock as much of that potential presently being wasted as possible.

That’s why I think feminists were right to make a big deal out of these words. They are a huge teaching opportunity about how to talk about the problem and how not to. Few deny all biological influences. It just matters that the essentialist language is the old language of oppression that led to rationalization of social iniquities as biologically fated. Such language breeds complacency, reinforces sexists in their myths about women’s inherent inferiority, encourages reactionary conservatism, and (maybe worst of all) functions as stereotype threat.

So, when this language has this long terrible history and still functions on the right wing this way and still hurts women who internalize broad gender essentialist stereotypes as their fate, you need to talk about the role of biology differently. You should be scrupulously asking “how can I explore this in a way that doesn’t risk being heard in the traditionalist’s way that it’s been said for millennia, but instead in a way that encourages research into how to change gender disparities and empower women to their full potential”?

And when a feminist hears the old, damaging, ideology in your word choice, the onus is on you to take some responsibility for that (especially when, as in this case, you’ve now admitted you “sounded somewhat sexist”—even if just by accident). Acknowledge it, apologize, put your emphasis on your interest in making sure every social barrier to women’s empowerment is removed and no biologistic complacency holds women back. That’s the most morally salient issue here.

She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.

Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.

She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.

Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.

That’s not fair. I hope my explanation above makes clear why she hung in there, still fighting. If your word choice sounds, even accidentally, like conservative biologistic sexism that disempowers women via stereotype threat, you should take responsibility for the effects of your words (especially now that they’re in the newspaper!) rather than accuse those offended of just being oversensitive. (Which, by the way, when dealing with a feminist, is a standard line of sexists. Instead of really hearing out their reasons it’s easy to call them “just oversensitive”.)

She: No. You’re just totally unaware of how sexist you are.

Me: 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.


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.) However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman. Her expression of disdain for me couldn’t have been any more intense had I said, “Listen, honey. I go to strip clubs every week. I love women—especially when they’re covered in oil.”

I hope it’s clear from my explanations above why his actual chosen expressions (and omitted emphases) echoed meanings that many women are on high alert to as much as “Listen, honey. I go to strip clubs every week. I love women—especially when they’re covered in oil.”

The appeals to numbers of close women in one’s life misses the point. The “most of my best friends are black” thing is a thing for a reason. The real question here is whether you’re paying attention to relevant women thinkers who write about the issues you’re addressing.

But I will say this—I feel bad about teasing him (in my previous blog post) about running his article by his mother. I since learned his mother is not just his mother (someone who would be more likely to be partial to him by parental bond) but TV writer and producer Susan HarrisShe created the wonderful feminist comedy The Golden Girls, worked on Soap (the show to have the first starring character to be gay), and even wrote for All in the Family a couple times. I was also a fan of her shows Benson and Empty Nest too. Basically, I grew up watching one show or another of hers my entire childhood and teen years. And I admire her work greatly, including for its pioneering portrayals of women and gays.

However, in the wake of Boorstein’s article, I’ve been attacked as a sexist bigot by several atheist bloggers and their many fans.

I think the emphasis of everyone should have been that he said something sexist, not that he was a sexist or a bigot.

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.

Again, the point is not that feminists are saying sexism is the entire cause. What they’re saying is that if we’re morally conscientious people, it’s a moral priority to investigate whatever extent it might be a cause and proactively counter it. We live in a millennia old context, continuing through today, where whatever sex-based psychological aspect may be there is regularly leaped to in order to justify the situation by those who are not interested in empowering women but who are interested in rationalizing the status quo instead. That’s the lazy, disempowering thinking that you should be more deliberate about making sure you’re not accidentally supporting when you talk about these things. It’s too easy to fall complacently into saying things that give sexists undeserved ammunition.

And it would make sense that sexism plays a role when such vastly greater numbers of women wind up making career sacrifices for their family than men. It’s not obvious that the sacrifices always need to be so severe or so gender disparate. And psychology related to preferences here don’t emerge in a vacuum.

Finally, he talks about how his defense of gun rights is significantly motivated by a desire for women to be able to even the playing field with respect to force with men who are (on average) stronger. He talks about viscerally trusting women when they say a guy creeps them out. And finally he cites his concern for women’s autonomy motivating his attacks on Islam’s treatment of women.

Personally I think gun violence is a greater threat to women than gun control is. I think a less violent culture is something more conducive to women’s safety (and all of our safety, really). And gun culture has the potential to promote toxic kinds of masculinity dangerous to everyone. And since domestic violence is such a scourge, I fear for every relationship with domestic violence where guns are literally on the table.

Insofar as his remark about trusting women in areas of creepiness and harassment potentially signals a willingness to listen to women in vital issues surrounding sexual harassment and rape, that’s most welcome.

I think his passion for women’s oppression under Islam is most sincere and courageously backed up (even if his overall criticisms of Islam are too unnuanced).

Insofar as his stated preference for professional insights from women is an endorsement of their reasoning skills, that’s great.

But ultimately, listening to women in the moral and sociopolitically necessary sense means listening to more than your (admittedly rock star awesome) mother and your trusted professional colleagues. Respecting women’s intelligence in the sense relevant to these discussions involves paying attention more to women thinkers who are relevant to the issues at hand than his blind spots about the implications of his language (and its seriousness) indicate he does. Not to mention his forgetfulness of feminism when guessing that women must not like angry criticism just because they may not like him. The weekend should make that gloss harder to make in the future!

Your Thoughts?

As a follow up, I have now posted the video that’s come to my attention of the event and analyzed reasons that Sam Harris was really wrong to blame Boorstein for the foolish way his words came off. See the video for yourself and read my analysis.

Also, my original criticism explaining the sexist implications of the words themselves (regardless of his intentions) in detail is Sam Harris, The Criticism of Bad Ideas, and Sexist Appeals to Biology.

And I noted the irony of Sam Harris arguing against literalism in the opening few paragraphs of my post On Criticizing Your Own Side Without Being A Traitor.

"Demonization, in the name of a purity of ideals, is just another way of rationalizing ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"Agreed 100%, these types are so far left of liberalism yet still have the temerity ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"Nods--I know my daughter is using it that way. I think women are doing men ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"You are most probably right.An interesting discussion on late nigh Woman's Hour BBC R4 last ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."

Browse Our Archives