There used to be a time I clung to books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith as gospel. I would listen to debates involving Christopher Hitchens with fanatic glee, and parrot points Sam Harris made in interviews during my online disputes over the existence of god. I regarded the words of these three men in *particular as essential antitheist canon in my war against religion.
That said, I also used to sing in the church choir and believe in ghosts.
A few weeks ago, Sam Harris interviewed neoconservative author Douglas Murray on his Waking Up podcast. In this episode titled “On the Maintenance of Civilization,” I stumbled across several red flags.
While I still respect some of Harris’ opinions about theistic religious traditions, I don’t support many of his stances concerning political and social issues. And though his views on Islam is often eerily similar to statements made by conservative ideologue Michelle Malkin, there’s a specific matter I want to focus on apart from his lofty anti-Muslim bigotry and specious appeals to regressive liberalism.
I’ll skip over the part (26:00-27:00) where he bizarrely conflates concern for racialized scrutiny of Muslims and Muslim-presenting people with apologetics for Islamism. I’ll also skip over the part (27:00-30:00) where he and his guest share a chummy exchange referring to students who seek safe spaces as narcissists, moral and psychological invalids, and useless (for context on this issue, see here and here). The issue I found particularly disgusting was what followed after the 30-minute mark when Murray began saying,
“This whole thing of the weirdo, sexual obsession, transgender, trans-poly-gender, identify cis, ‘I’ve gotta penis but I can still win Glamour Women of the Year award. Not only do you have to respect me as a woman, if you say I’m not an entire woman despite the fact I’ve got a penis still, you’re a bigot.’”
Murray continues making disparaging remarks about Caitlyn Jenner and wrongly asserting that people are of the belief that if one doesn’t find Caitlyn attractive that they’re a bigot as well. He then suggests these are the kinds of issues we’ll be dealing with when we’re attacked by Islamists.
Yes, because we totally can’t challenge specific forms of discrimination and oppression (e.g., **transantagonism) that marginalize groups of people for fear of it interfering with counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts.
Throughout Murray’s cissexist rambling tirade about trans and genderqueer people, Harris…giggled, even outright laughed in some spots. Further, when his guest finally finished his verbal onslaught that declared having to recognize the humanity of those who don’t conform to gender norms and stereotypes as “a breakdown of our society,” Harris had only one reply: “That’s hilarious.”
That wasn’t the last of this dismissive commentary, and I implore everyone to listen for themselves as Murray went on to state ideas such as homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia are a part of a political agenda concocted to enforce what he imagines to be the social tyranny of political correctness. Unsurprisingly, Harris agreed with this assessment, even referring to it as anti-intellectualism.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a congressional task force was launched in response to what’s been termed an “epidemic of violence against the transgender community.” At least 23 trans women have been murdered this year that we know of. But sure, transantagonism isn’t a thing because someone who doesn’t personally experience the social context of intolerance, ignorance, indignities, and ostracism declares it so. And Harris gives a tacit nod to all this.
Even once he posted an addendum to the podcast to clarify points people took him to task for (to him, they were all mistaken, which is his typical go-to response to any criticism)—there wasn’t a single word on Murray’s odious rhetoric or his own position concerning transgender and genderqueer issues.
Someone who objects to what Murray said about trans people and gender nonconformity would have spoken up. Someone who is at least hesitant and uncomfortable with what was said would have made an attempt, however marginal, to distance themselves from those pitiful comments. Harris laughed, moved onto other subjects without flinching, and hasn’t mentioned the problematic commentary since.
For those who aren’t preoccupied with admiring every word that falls out of Sam Harris’ mouth and are familiar with the way privilege dynamics work, it really isn’t all that surprising. Sam Harris benefits from social class, white, straight, cis, and male privilege. Murray’s in a similar boat, the only difference being he’s openly gay.
Privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages and benefits associated with being a part of an in-group. Said benefits exist, whether or not one has earned them or consciously vied for them. Almost universally, privilege is something bestowed upon someone without them having any say in the matter. Thus, when announcing the existence of privilege, it isn’t about shaming anyone or pointing an accusatory finger. It’s about raising awareness and deflating inequality.
Privilege is insidious in the way it obstructs our judgment. Because people like Murray and Harris aren’t subjected to the frequent messages and mistreatment certain marginalized groups undergo on a daily basis, they are utterly detached from those experiences. This is how white people are inclined to deny racism and white supremacy exists and see no problem with cultural appropriation (e.g., the Yale situation cited earlier). This is what motivates men to heckle mentions of patriarchy and the ways patriarchal beliefs and behaviors degrade women. And this is why Murray had no difficulty denigrating trans and genderqueer people. It’s also why Harris saw no reason to speak up.
I can hear the horde of Harris-acolytes heading for the comment section now shrieking, “But Sam Harris didn’t make the comments! You’re just assuming! Reason and logic, reason and logic!”
Yeah, three words: Silence is complicity. If you’re in the presence of unjust words or actions and you choose to say or do nothing whatsoever that conflicts with the revealed prejudice, you have sided with the wrongdoing. Thoughts mean nothing in these situations if you do not act in some way to oppose the injustice.
This is why Ginetta Sagan (human rights activist) said, “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.” This is why Elie Wiesel (political activist) said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” This is why Albert Einstein (theoretical physicist) said, “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.” This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (social justice activist) said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
Why else are U.S. citizens so concerned with all Muslims condemning acts of terror committed by a small fraction of Muslims who embrace radicalism? Because they are of the belief that if you don’t speak up you are complicit. Ironically, those same people are generally silent when it comes to recurring acts of domestic terrorism committed by non-Muslim whites who share beliefs with a huge chunk of this society.
But I digress.
Nobody is above criticism. Certainly not me. Not the Pope, not the President, not the god hypothesis. Not even Sam Harris. There are many things I disagree with Harris about, but most of those issues I think he strongly believes are necessary to combat harmful religious beliefs, protect this country, and make a more peaceful world. So be it. I highlight the trans and genderqueer issue because what was stated was harmful, incredibly mean-spirited, and a gross misunderstanding of the subjects talked about.
Harris’ muteness, as well as Murray’s (also an atheist) expressed contempt, reflects the general tenor of “mainstream” atheist attitudes. There are widely accepted views in our culture, as well as the subculture of the atheist community, that preference certain issues over others. This leads to a continuation of diminishing the importance of confronting interpersonal and systemic inequalities.
Vocal atheists tend to contend with religiosity adversely affecting legislation and abstract debates over invisible, intangible, and inaudible god entities. At the same time, there’s a continued trend of unconcern for social issues that affect minority groups. There’s a firm belief that “religion poisons everything,” and that if religion (a generalized, non-nuanced view of religious belief) is dismantled, that would somehow alleviate most or even all of our social ills.
But as Christopher Hitchens loved to say, “You’ve still got all your work cut out for you.”
It’s more than possible to care about scientific literacy and religious bigotry as well as issues that are separate from those discussions but nevertheless significantly affect the everyday lives of countless people who look differently or act in ways that deviate from what’s normalized in our society.
Sam Harris, being such a well-reasoned individual, would have no problem embracing intellectual honesty and acknowledging he can do better understanding social realities he’s disconnected from…right?
*Yes, I know Daniel Dennett is also considered a part of “The Four Horsemen of Atheism,” however, I didn’t read his work until after my one-dimensional and obsessive period with pulp mainstream New Atheism media.
**The term transantagonism is used in place of transphobia because a phobia is an anxiety disorder that sufferers do not choose and cannot necessarily control. People who oppress marginalized groups are not clinically suffering from an anxiety disorder whatsoever. They freely choose to act in calloused and malicious ways and can stop at any time, assuming they are disabused or otherwise rethink and evolve from their bigoted mindset.
A.N. 1: For information about the trans community, please visit here.
A.N. 2: Please review all the links provided before making comments that display unawareness or willful ignorance about things explained in the information linked.