Sam Harris, The Criticism of Bad Ideas, and Sexist Appeals To Biology

Sam Harris, The Criticism of Bad Ideas, and Sexist Appeals To Biology September 15, 2014

This section of a recent Washington Post article has caused a lot of controversy in the atheist community this past weekend:

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 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 instrinsically 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.”

So, at first blush, this sounds like the latest in a long series of demeaning gender essentialist claims in the movement that explain women’s lesser visible roles in the movement as a matter of women being just naturally disinclined towards critical thinking (with a possible implication that they’re also not good at it on account of their being women). We all should know that criticism of bad ideas is a good and vital thing. This good and vital thing is “intrinsically male” and a turn off to women. That doesn’t sound good at all. And I’ll explain in detail below why indeed it isn’t good at all.

But, first, a little charity towards Harris. I think in context what he’s attributing to being more masculine is more willingness to engage with angry criticism. When he says “that critical posture is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women”, the that refers to a specific kind critical posture. The one that seems angry. So the point didn’t seem to me that “only men engage in rational criticism”, it’s that generally women are turned off to angry judgmental pissing contests and in most people’s imaginations that’s the kind of criticism of religion Harris engages in. An angry pissing contest. He was saying that women respond more to collaborative framings of things.

And I’ve seen feminists argue similar things. That women, for example, make more collaborative and constructive legislators than more conflict-oriented men. I have also seen arguments from feminists that what makes philosophy departments so unpleasant (and explains the terrible gender gap in our field) is the competitive/conflict-oriented/bloodsport approach to argument that many among the predominantly male profession are prone towards. Some feminists argue that a more collaborative approach to philosophical discourse would attract more women. (And I would personally argue that that would actually make for better philosophy, no matter whether done by women or men.)

I also think that one of the reasons that women have responded well to my own philosophy classes is that I deliberately run the discussions in a way that reduces interpersonal conflict. A lot of women will just shut down rather than enter a pissing contest with a man but will open up and argue vigorously if everyone can just speak their mind without it being confrontational. That’s not to deny the existence of women who enjoy bloodsport or respond to anger. It’s not to say this is all unchangeable nature and not nurture that’s the cause. And it’s doubtful that it’s a matter of estrogen and it’s certainly not because Women’s Inherent Place In Nature Is As The Nurturing Sex, etc., etc. Dubious biological rationalizations aside, many feminists argue that, whatever the causes, modern western women tend to be put off by pissing contests and empowered by collaborative frameworks to problem solving.

And I have plenty of experience with people conflating all criticism of religion with a bullying and invasive sort of angry judgmentalism–a sneering prying into vulnerable people’s most intimate feelings about the world to nitpick them—and wanting to shut down all anti-theist discourse on this kind of ground. So, is it plausible that Harris might wind up with a lot of women prejudicial against his work from the outset because they assume it’s not only cruelly and indiscriminately judgmental to religious people but that it is aggressive in a distinctly off-putting masculine way that they’re averse to because they don’t like domineering men? Yes. He might have a point there. This might not be the only deterrent to some women reading him, but it’s a plausible part of the matrix.

One does have to pause though and note the contradiction between women’s reputations as conflict averse and feminists’ reputations as angry. Could it be that our prejudicial expectations of women to be more conflict averse than men makes it so that angry women are seen as greater outliers than they are and as somehow defective women rather than just angry people no different than their equally aggressive male counterparts?

But this provocative possibility aside. Even if we assume my charitable reconstruction of his meaning, his wording of the point was awful and harmful and a serious issue for several reasons. He betrayed gender essentialist assumptions and attitudes that are not only false but harmful. That’s not just poor word choice at that point, it’s a hint of a set of frustratingly retrograde categories operative in how he looks at the world. And it’s all the worse if he does not see that in retrospect and fix it but instead doubles down. And that’s what we’re seeing on Twitter—dismissiveness towards the mere suggestion hat he could have even accidentally done anything remotely wrong with his wording. He’s indicating that in important philosophical, ethical, political, and scientific matters he’s not up to speed and doesn’t have any inclination to investigate the substance of the charges against his words. And since in the public mind he is unduly taken to speak for atheists generally, that’s something we need to speak up if we see what’s wrong with this.

Now when I made remarks like this on Facebook, my denunciation of his use of dubiously gender essentialist language was accused of being a matter of “hostility to biology”. And this is where a lot of anti-feminists pat themselves on the back as “scientific” and pride themselves on overcoming “political correctness”. There’s this insidious attitude that morality and politics are merely emotional matters or merely about desires. Or that what is moral and politically desired is really a matter of prejudice in some other way. And there’s the assumption that of course nature might be filled with, what Nietzsche liked to call, wicked and dangerous truths.

So not only feminists but moral philosophers more generally face an annoying uphill battle. There are assumptions that an unpleasant possibility is more likely to be the unvarnished truth and a claim about reality that “conveniently” tells us what we would “like” to believe about morality (or what some unrealistically idealist group of reformers would like to believe about reality) is prima facie more likely to be wishful thinking. So, a lot of people will seize on the slightest hints of subjectivity and relativity and indeterminacy in moral reasoning to argue that “the hard truth is morality’s just not objective” and assume that anyone defending a conception of objective morality is just doing it out of moral prejudices. The conception of reality that frustrates our moral desires has the presumption of truth just for being unpalatable. And the preferability of morally inclined creatures such as ourselves to believe in real morality is precisely itself a reason to doubt its legitimacy.

I am intimately familiar with this mindset. Arguably no philosopher regularly employs rhetoric that conflates unpleasantness with likelihood to be fearfully true and pleasantness with likelihood to be prejudicially false more than Nietzsche, who I’ve spent the bulk of my academic career studying.

And so feminists have an uphill battle. We’ve passed the era of unquestioned hierarchies of men over women. The vast majority of Western people would affirm full equality between the sexes as a moral and political ideal. In this context, when the old sexist biases about how “Nature makes women Simply Different than Men” emerge they have this sheen of counter-cultural truth to them. These are “politically incorrect” ideas that moralists are going to reject for being immoral but brave thinkers, who answer only to truth, accept. We’re a dimorphic species. So maybe that means that whether we like it morally, women just are “different” cognitively in such a way that actually does make them “naturally” less good at all the tasks we see them doing less of in our society. “Maybe” that’s just the uncomfortable biological truth and a brave truth-teller accepts that rather than makes up sociological excuses for the “politically correct” and “moral” truth we may desire. Heck, let’s just leap all the way from “maybe” to likely!

What all this overlooks is that our biases, demonstrably, run the other way. We may say that men and women should be morally equal but we are still inheritors of cultures that disparaged and subordinated women for millennia. And we grew up in a culture with countless real live ideological sexists casting themselves as brave resisters to the fascist feminist inversion of all reality. All of us grew up with plenty of sexist messaging side by side with whatever pro-feminist messaging we had. The bias we have in looking at what’s just “objective nature” is that we don’t come from some neutral set of assumptions. Our cultural assumptions are already against women, irrespective of our moral platitudes.

The sexist theistic version of this is well known. We live in a social order in which men and women are socialized a certain way and in which, on received values, they have different moral duties and perceptions and roles placed upon them. The sexist theist tendency is to simply look at this order and say, “well, this must be God’s will” and reinforce these stifling orders as unchangeable. GOD made Nature this way for a Reason. This is simply the Way of Things and none of your liberal fantasies can mess with Biology or God’s Moral Law.

But it’s not just conservative theism. Even liberals over and over prove ourselves prejudicially disposed culturally towards the false dichotomy that gender differentiations in society must, on the default assumptions, reflect an unchangeable natural order which moral idealism and emotionalism is trying quixotically to change. It is very easy for all humans to conflate their own society with The Natural Way of Things. It takes an extraordinary critical distance most people are incapable of to truly internalize the powerful data of cultural variation from anthropologists and realize just how much of what seems like couldn’t be otherwise “by nature” is plastic and malleable for humanity.

Locke’s blank slate argument is often misunderstood and undervalued for how it represented a radical liberation of thought. Sure, we’re not total blank slates. There are some biological determinants that are going to be cross cultural and inevitable. But how they are realized is going to be extremely open to plasticity. And what feminist and Lockean resistance to appeals to nature do is shift the burden of proof. For too many centuries appeals to nature have been used to justify the social order, however unjust. Under unjust social orders, indefensible norms and intolerable outcomes hinder groups of people’s potential to flourish in ways that we have every a priori reason to believe is possible were conditions different. It is only rational to investigate the social roles in creating those disparities and to put the emphasis of our reasoning process towards how to change those social orders that disempower people.

When instead we lazily rationalize that social order by inscribing it in nature itself, we attribute to injustice the force of unquestionable and unmalleable nature and prejudice people against even the possibility of change and set them learning to deal with the status quo best they can. So arguing this way, as a first resort, demonstrates little concern for the groups of people tangibly hurt by these rational mistakes. Just saying, “well, we’re a dimorphic species” is not an empirical proof. It takes specific evidence to show which aspects of our ideas or practices are rooted in cross-cultural universals and which are socially constructed and how it all might be malleable or not. It is too lazy to assume that most of what we see correlating along gender lines is simply that way because of the natural differences between the sexes and the massive amount of cultural machinery that structures our biology is merely biology’s servant. More evidence is required. And this is especially so when it’s glaringly obvious that the sexes have been treated differently in numerous irrational ways that are at least equally (if not much more) likely to prima facie account for those differences.

Feminism is not just an emotionalistic kind of moral idealism, it’s a more rational position than its competitors. It’s one that looks at women’s potential and says, “Women actually and demonstrably have more abilities than just those required to be mothers and wives and, therefore, it’s only best for them, and for an overall culture, that women be maximally empowered according to their abilities.” Why shouldn’t people with aptitudes in a range of skills be encouraged to thrive according to all that potential? How does it benefit them not to? How does it benefit society to arbitrarily waste potential because it happens to reside in women, rather than men? There’s nothing rational about that. It’s only logical to say that a being’s good is in maximizing her potential in her abilities. It’s only logical for a society to take a vested interest in empowering its members to perform as many of their abilities as well as they can if they are going to maximally benefit from the abundant resource of human potential within a society. These are rational positions even before looking at the empirical situation.

Then, when looking empirically, it should be obvious that millennia worth of demonstrable subordination of women socially and mentally would have deep cultural impact. It’s obvious that denying a group of people equal access to education and political power and religious power for millennia is going to shape society and its biases in ways that implicitly perpetuate disadvantages to that group of people. All that cultural, linguistic, political, and mental anti-woman structure won’t just vanish into thin air just because we now mouth some new words about equality and change the formal law to be different. Only when there is a root to branch transformation of all our personal and institutional assumptions, habits, practices, etc. could all this social structuring of our reality get out of the way of women’s demonstrable, biological, natural potential.

Until that happens, there shouldn’t be an a priori assumption that men’s disproportionate successes in numerous areas are owed to “natural differences”. Such assumptions are not unvarnished, politically-incorrect truth-telling. They reflect an irrational bias towards the cultural status quo as natural fate. When we know that in principle there’s no reason women cannot be far more equally successful in outcomes than men are, when we see that they’re not coming out as successful our focus should be on how we can proactively change the culture.

So what’s sexist about what Harris said is not that he hates women. I don’t think he hates women. It’s not that he meant to say women are incapable of equal rationality. I doubt he meant that with what he said. It’s that his impulse was to reach for a biologizing solution to what should clearly be seen as a question of social injustice and proactive need for social change. It was his ignorance (or indifference) to how statements about the supposedly intrinsic masculinity of critical thinking have an ugly, millennia old, legacy in our culture. Those conscientious about empowering women are educated about that history and loathe to repeat it and eager to actively change it. It was his ignorance (or indifference) to how stereotype threat serves to make false ideas about women’s inferiority with respect to rational endeavors into self-fulfilling prophecies. Girls have empirically been shown to perform equally to boys when not exposed to prejudicial messaging about which are the “masculine” and which are the “feminine” kinds of reasoning and horrifyingly worse when exposed to such messaging.

On top of all this, he then goes and shows contempt for both empirical science and feminist philosophy, sociology, and activism by snidely remarking on Twitter that he will publish his response to his pointless feminist critics with a piece that he will vet by running by his mother, his wife, and his copy editor. Because three random women close to him are sufficient judges of what sexism is or is not. It’s not like a serious issue for serious moral philosophy, political philosophy, social science, or natural science. The test is whether three women emotionally close to him are going to judge that he’s not a sexist. (By the way, this is a good place for me personally to make an announcement. I’m writing a series on my “Empowerment Ethics” moral philosophy. I believe in intellectual rigor, so I want to confirm for you in advance that my mom thinks it’s brilliant and I’m the smartest philosopher on the planet. Oxford University Press was interested in considering a book deal when I let them know about this highly coveted endorsement.)

Harris can’t set himself up as a leader on moral issues and a spokesperson of the atheist community itself and then be treated with kid gloves when his language uncritically expresses a whole set of false and disempowering ideas that humanists and educated people everywhere should be fighting. He can’t set himself up as a humanist advocate for women’s rights if he has contempt for all the philosophical and social science scholarship behind feminist ideas. I’m not saying he has to agree with it all. I’m saying he has to actually treat it seriously enough that he realizes that it is a better testing ground for his ideas than the opinions of whatever women happen to be in his inner circle. I’m also pointing out that he’s incredibly out of touch with the numerous discussions in the atheist movement that have brought these issues to the fore. Many women have had powerfully valuable contributions to the discussion and there have been many tangible steps towards improvement. Either he’s too ignorant of the movement’s internal discussions to be a spokesperson for this movement or he’s been too dismissive of the feminist arguments made in the movement to even do them the justice of a nuanced reply or let them make the slightest dent on his language use.

There’s more specifically wrong with Harris’s initial remark. For one crucial thing he doesn’t say, as I charitably reconstructed for him, that the problem is his criticism of religion (which is unfairly seen culturally as just angry aggressiveness). He made a far broader and less justifiable inference that women were not into “criticizing bad ideas”. The problem is that that’s something fundamental to reasoning itself. And in saying that it’s “intrinsically male” he ignores countless instances of women criticizing bad ideas in many areas besides religion. Women are unambiguous leaders in the charge to criticize bad ideas about gender relations and about LGBT and race issues. Harris shows himself incredibly dismissive of (or thoughtless about the very existence of) all that woman-driven confrontation of bad ideas (and all the conflict women embrace in doing it).

And since for a decade he has set himself up as a defender of Muslim women forced under the burqa, this is doubly egregious. It terribly erases the many vital voices of Muslim and ex-Muslim women themselves who engage in this very criticism of bad ideas about the burqa. It’s troubling for a male defender of women’s autonomy to be able to forget those women and their own (often very brave) autonomous struggle to defend themselves against “very bad ideas” and say that criticizing bad ideas is “intrinsically male to a degree”.

His lazy appeal to biology also evinced an implicit indifference to figuring out how to get more women to make such criticisms of religion. Even if he was non-culpably ignorant for some reason of all the women leaders in the atheist movement, he didn’t seem vexed at all about that supposed problem. He didn’t say “we need to do better”. He chalked it up to biology. Which won’t motivate anyone to fix the problem but instead send the message to countless low information readers of The Washington Post that atheism’s not for women. Rather than starting with a baseline assumption—not a mere “feminist desire” but a rational presumption—women are as capable critical thinkers as men by nature, instead he looks at women not engaging in one field of critical thought as visibly to the media or to his own myopic vision as much as they should be and he says essentially that it is just biology and that it must be intrinsically male to criticize bad ideas.

And regardless of his intent, that sounds way too indistinguishable from “it’s intrinsically male for the man to run the household with his superior reasoning skills given by God, or any of countless other reflexive rationalizations for gender inequality.”

Finally, going back to why women generally do more criticism of very bad ideas in other areas than atheism. Even though there’s a long list I can rattle off of plenty of women not just in the atheist movement but at its forefront, to the extent that there is a gender divide in women’s focus, there are eminently more logical explanations. First and foremost, sexism hurts more women more directly and tangibly. Even many of the great women atheist writers and other leaders are especially excellent at making critiques of religion that are feminist in nature. Atheism and feminism can, and should, go hand in hand swimmingly. Because feminist considerations are excellent reasons to be an atheist and the atheist rejection of the entire religious framework that has historically rationalized women’s oppression and which makes it harder for women to articulate their own equality within the resources of religious traditions, can be an asset to feminism.

Analogously, I have always intuitively understood why black scholars might be inclined to choose sociology over philosophy. Not to excuse philosophy’s culpably terrible track record with recruiting women and minorities, but it’s always seemed logical to me that were I a morally and socially inclined black academic I might personally be more tempted to work out my theoretical program in a more immediately applicable context of sociological research that could serve the black community’s pressing needs in a profoundly racist and oppressive culture than in an often more remote and less immediate impact field like moral philosophy—which institutionally tends this last century to be focused more on general moral form than urgent moral problems.

And I currently think a lot of women do philosophy not only under the explicit banner of Feminist Philosophy but also under the auspices of Women’s Studies, Feminist Literary Studies, and Sociology. In those fields they’re working with genuine philosophical distinctions and making genuine advances, despite sometimes being outside the institutional reach of the Gatekeepers Of Philosophy. Many professional philosophers readily prove themselves embarrassingly more philosophically ignorant and outright retrograde about gender than the average feminist on the blogosphere who has no particular academic philosophical credentials. That’s not to say more women doing feminism in philosophy wouldn’t be necessary also (or that no explicit feminist philosophy is not being done that is crucially aiding feminist work outside philosophy departments). And it’s not to say women intrinsically have no interests in, or need for, philosophy beyond feminism and that there shouldn’t be more women in all specializations (ditto all these caveats for blacks). Rather, my point is that just as I, as an ex-Christian, am more passionate about doing philosophy in the atheist context that reflects my personal frustration with a particular set of harmful bad ideas and mass deceptions, I think it would be perfectly logical if academics who personally belong to marginalized groups are disproportionately interested in addressing issues related to their oppression in their scholarship. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

In my own philosophical journey, there’s been a remarkable congruence between the best critics of bad ideas in philosophy and the best women philosophers inside and outside of philosophy. When I read feminists for the most part they add depth and application to a wealth of ideas I personally got from Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and countless other formal philosophers. To me the idea that it’s just intrinsically male to criticize very bad ideas, when I see so many of those philosophers’ richest ideas better developed by the average woman feminist blogger than by professional academic male philosophers, is a joke.

Your Thoughts?

UPDATE: While I was writing this post, Sam Harris posted his response to the criticisms he’d been receiving throughout the weekend. And, second update, I have written an analysis of his reply and a follow up post to that with video of one of the offending remarks and my rejection of his attempt to blame the journalist in his reply. And I also answered critics of this post in my post On Criticizing Your Own Side Without Being A Traitor.

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