Thursday, 9 August 2012

Messiahs Versus Naughty Boys: Sam Harris and His Detractors

Sam Harris gets annoyed at his critics (extensive critique after the jump):
Anyone familiar with my work knows that I have not shied away from controversy and that many of my views defy easy summary. However, I continue to learn the hard way that if an issue is controversial, and my position cannot be reduced to a simple sentence, my critics will do the work of simplification for me. Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. Anything can and will be said at your expense—or falsely attributed to you—today, tomorrow, and years hence. Needless to say, the urge to respond to this malevolence and obfuscation can become irresistible.
The problem, however, is that there is no effective way to respond. 

There's certainly no need to deflect every drop of bile that comes your way; Richard Dawkins, for instance, refuses to debate creationists and I doubt Hugh Trevor-Roper debated holocaust deniers. Then why does Chris Hedges warrant a response, but Theodore Sayeed doesn't? The latter's piece is far more measured and makes some points worth responding to - the main one being that Harris is an apologist for the crimes of the Bush Administration, which given the equivocation about the moral superiority of the US and 'perfect weapons' in The End of Faith, seems to be a not entirely unfair charge to make. I dug out my old copy of The End of Faith after reading Sayeed's piece and whilst I can understand a guy who is ostensibly a leftie like Harris being angry at being called Rumsfeld's Rottweiler, the fact is that amidst the decent stuff - easy targets like My Lai, the genocide of the Native Americans, stating that the US should sign the Rome Statute, etc. there are some passages which look an awful lot like neocon apologia. If nothing else, a writer should respond to areas in which he or she feels they've been misread, but Harris unfortunately doesn't do that in his piece, he just says that engaging with Sayeed's piece would give it 'greater currency.' On the contrary, the charge that Sam Harris is worryingly enthusiastic about Bush-era imperialism is quite a widespread one and I would have found it refreshing to hear a nuanced and detailed explanation of his views on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Usually when he's talking about these things he seems more eager to condemn what he understands to be the tribal practises of Muslims rather than advocating any serious policy options or solutions that don't involve bombs and guns.

This is a big problem with Harris' writing. If faced with criticisms he claims to have been misrepresented, but as readers we're unsure exactly which parts of his writing it is he claims people have misunderstood. If Sayeed's piece is so ridiculous as to not warrant a measured response, why mention it at all? On a related note, Harris seems to have misunderstood the definition of an internet troll. A troll is someone who posts deliberately provocative material in order to provoke a response. They aren't people who engage in pages of critique of your work which largely consist of quotes from your own book.

If Harris is upset with people who criticise his work, he hardly holds his own critique of others to such high standards. A now-infamous passage in The Moral Landscape (2010, p.197) refuses to engage with the works of academic philosophers because readers would find it 'boring', but if you're claiming to have found a solution to the is-ought problem, as Harris does, it's just poor scholarship to deliberately not mention the literature for the sake of a witty quip at the expense of a few academics. Elsewhere, Harris criticises an article in Nature written by Ziauddin Sardar for 'simply declaring' Islam to be intrinsically rational. I dug out Sardar's piece, (Nature, Vol. 448) and here's what it says:
It is tempting to blame Islam itself [for the decline of science in Islamic cultures]. There is something in the teachings of Islam, the argument goes, which does not allow science to take root in Muslim societies. This suggestion not only belies history but also the basic teachings of Islam, which proclaims itself as an intrinsically rational world view.
There are some 800 verses in the Qur’an that invite the reader to think and to examine the
material world, using reason to understand nature. The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reinforce these teachings, emphasizing that understanding comes through scientific
endeavour. “An hour’s study of nature is better than a year’s prayer,” the Prophet declared. He
directed his followers to “listen to the words of the scientist and instil unto others the lessons of science”. And the Prophet made an essential distinction: the Qur’an, as well as his
own teachings, were an invitation to reason and study what exists and can be discovered
— not scientific pronouncements in and of themselves.
Whatever this is, it's not 'simply declaring' that Islam is intrinsically rational, it's supported by sources which Harris doesn't even try and refute - he simply ignores them. Sardar then goes on to argue that if Islamic society was a centre for scientific development and education 1,400 years ago and isn't now, then it stands to reason that Islamic practise is what must have changed, since the teachings are exactly the same. Nowhere in Harris' Huffington Post article is there an attempt to engage with this argument, it's just simply attacked as being apologia for death cults. Amidst this ignorance of Sardar's thesis is the charge that Sardar argues that Islam's 'current wallowing in the violent depths of unreason can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism'. It's unclear what Harris is arguing here - is Harris saying that colonialism has nothing to do with the decline of Islamic cultures' investment in science? If someone made such a claim, would we take them seriously? Anyway, such a charge against Sardar is at best a misrepresentation, because Sardar goes on to say this:
However, I don’t think we need to be so pessimistic. The solution to any problem begins with a diagnosis; this diagnosis has already begun. The realization is growing that science is important not just for the prosperity of Muslim societies, for economic development, for misplaced political vanity or for acquiring nuclear weapons — but that it matters because it is vital for the recovery and survival of Islam itself. This is the main message of the 2003 Arab Human Development Report on ‘Building a Knowledge Society’. It admits frankly that Muslims cannot merely continue to blame everything on colonialism and the West. Muslim states have failed, by their own Islamic standards, the challenge of independence. The report blames authoritarian thought, lack of autonomy in universities, the sorry state of libraries and laboratories, and under-funding in the Arab world. (Emphasis added).
Here, we see that Harris isn't holding himself up to the same standard he holds his critics to, since in his article he's either deliberately or carelessly misrepresenting the work of an expert  in order to further his argument about Islam. But what of Harris' own writing? Is he really so misunderstood? Another issue on which he constantly asserts people get him wrong is that of torture. He's written a lot about this, mostly in response to people who have criticised him on a few sentences in The End of Faith, but unfortunately his responses have only made his thinking less clear. Here's what he has to say:
I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, this is not a comfortable position to have publicly adopted. There is no question that Abu Ghraib was a travesty, and there is no question that it has done our country lasting harm. Indeed, the Abu Ghraib scandal may be one of the costliest foreign policy blunders to occur in the last century, given the degree to which it simultaneously inflamed the Muslim world and eroded the sympathies of our democratic allies. While we hold the moral high ground in our war on terror, we appear to hold it less and less. Our casual abuse of ordinary prisoners is largely responsible for this. (Emphasis added).
The people housed at Abu Ghraib were detainees in the war on terror and the Iraqi insurgency, not 'ordinary prisoners' as Harris suggests (who qualifies as an 'extraordinary' prisoner?) Anyway, the offshoot of this is that torture is not what's morally wrong, but simply torturing the wrong person. In another attempt to clarify his position, Harris states:
My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: if you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “ water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden)...
Some people believe that, while collateral damage may be worse than torture, these are independent evils, and one problem does not shed any light upon the other. However, they are not independent, in principle. In fact, it is easy to see how information gained through torture might mitigate the risk of collateral damage. If one found oneself in such a situation, with an apparent choice between torturing a known terrorist and bombing civilians, torturing the terrorist should seem like the more ethical option.
Very telling that there's a backtrack here, that Harris is willing to accept the consequences of 'abusing' the wrong person who 'just happens to look like Osama bin Laden' if it means getting the right guy on other occasions. This sort of thinking is the essence, the beating heart, the ne plus ultra of totalitarianism and despite Harris' protestations that he doesn't endorse the practises at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in any way, those sorts of practises and much worse are simply the consequences of being willing to torture the 'wrong' guy a couple of times in order to get the 'right' one - to ignore this is to not think seriously about torture. And whilst Harris only mentions waterboarding as a form of torture which he advocates, if we follow his arguments to their logical conclusion, they actually advocate for any kind of mistreatment, however brutal or depraved, since his argument is that it's not as bad as death. Surely, then, all forms of torture are okay? If not, why not? It would be interesting to see how one advocating for torture in a ticking-bomb scenario would draw the line at waterboarding, since the sole thrust of the argument is that one person has to suffer to save thousands or millions. Then why does the degree of suffering matter? To the ethically consistent pro-torture advocate, of course, it doesn't. Let's stop for a second, then, and consider what forms of activity might be permissible in a ticking-bomb scenario:
The applicant alleges that, on arrival at the gendarmerie headquarters, she was separated from her father and her sister-in-law. At some stage she was taken upstairs to a room which she later referred to as the "torture room". There she was stripped of her clothes, put into a car tyre and spun round and round. She was beaten and sprayed with cold water from high-pressure jets. At a later stage she was taken clothed but blindfolded to an interrogation room. With the door of the room locked, an individual in military clothing forcibly removed her clothes, laid her on her back and raped her. By the time he had finished she was in severe pain and covered in blood. She was ordered to get dressed and subsequently taken to another room. According to the applicant, she was later brought back to the room where she had been raped. She was beaten for about an hour by several persons who warned her not to report on what they had done to her. (Aydin v Turkey)
Why not go all-in? Here's a description of some of the acts Ted Bundy performed on his victims:
Shortly after midnight on 4 January 1974, Bundy entered the house of Joni Lenz, an 18-year-old student at the University of Washington, and bludgeoned her with a crowbar while she slept. Bundy also removed a bed rod from Lenz’s bed and used it to sexually assault her. She was found the next morning, in a coma, lying in a pool of blood. Lenz survived the attack, but suffered permanent brain damage.
 Bundy’s next victim was Lynda Ann Healy, a senior at the University of Washington. On 31 January 1974, Bundy broke into her room, knocked her unconscious, maticulusly [sic] removed her clothes and dressed her in jeans and a shirt, foled [sic] her night clothes, wrapped her in bedsheet, and carried her outside. A single hair would be found at the crime scene which did not belong to the victim. A year would pass before her decapitated, dismembered remains were found.
For the ethically consistent pro-torture advocate, what is unethical about Ted Bundy's acts are not the acts themselves, but his reason for doing them. For those advocating torture who are honest about the implications of their beliefs, if we insert a passage at the beginning of the story saying "Ted Bundy, a security official working for the CIA, found out that two women matching the description of Joni Lenz and Lynda Ann Healy had set a nuclear bomb to go off in New York City and set about finding the culprit", then immediately Ted Bundy's actions become not just morally justifiable, but ethically necessary if they lead to information which would result in the bomb being disarmed. Of course, I am not saying that Sam Harris is advocating the rape and murder of innocent women, I am saying that thinking of even the most depraved, inhuman acts as not just justifiable, but required by circumstance is a logical consequence of an ethically consistent belief in the efficacy of torture in a ticking-bomb scenario and that Harris hasn't clearly thought through the ethical implications of his position, opting instead for a misleading appeal to common sense which states that torture is less bad than death and therefore is permissible if we have to choose between the two. Here's a long quote from Dr. Yuval Ginbar, whose book Why Not Torture Terrorists? is just about the best outlying of the case against time-bomb torture I've ever read and I would encourage everyone to read it:
Anti-torture absolutists would claim that the overwhelming strength of the 'numbers' in the torture-justifying argument is also its moral downfall. This is apparent even in the arguments of the torture-justifying ethicists - they do raise other, qualitative arguments, such as the terrorist's responsibility for his own suffering under torture and the need to distinguish between torturing a terrorist and torturing an innocent person. However, the 'disastrous consequences' argument is so powerful that, like the moral equivalent of a tsunami, it destroys all before it, so the consistent among these ethicists wind up conceding that if the catastrophe to be avoided is horrendous enough, the torture of innocent persons, such as members of the terrorist's family, would also be justified as a way of forcing the terrorist to disclose the life-saving information. This means you, me, her brother, his daughter are, potentially, either inflictors or victims of justified torture.
Even, however, when it is 'only' the terrorist who is being tortured, it is difficult for many of us to read the accounts of unimaginable cruelty inflicted by one human being on another and consider them to be, under certain circumstances, morally justifiable, and the torturer as possessing the characteristics of a moral person. After all, this aspect of morality is essentially about what you would and would not do to yourself and to your neighbor, including your vicious neighbor, in one situation or another.  
Having said all that, would we not prefer the kind of neighbor who tells us: 'In hard times, I would do anything possible to save you'? The trouble is, those justifying torture in a [time-bomb scenario] cannot in good conscience (or good logic) say this. At best they can say: 'In hard times, I would do anything possible to save you, providing that you are one of the many would-be victims', which is somewhat less heart-warming, let alone comforting, especially if you think, in addition, of the kind of atrocities your neighbor is morally capable of committing in the process. Moreover, the neighbour has stepped unto a 'slippery surface' which forces that person to also say: 'I would do unto anybody - yourself and myself included - the worst things imaginable to save many innocent people.' The [time-bomb scenario], in all likelihood, will not reach your neighborhood, but you are stuck with a potential torturer living next door.
 In essence, the torture-justifying view creates (to use another metaphor) a moral black hole, one that may be small in diameter, admitting only one or two victims at a time, but the depths of inhumanity which it allows and justifies are unfathomable - enough to swallow our morality, our humanity, whole.
In contrast, a neighbour opposing torture absolutely, believing that morality necessarily involves some limits (beyond numerical ones) on human behaviour could tell you: 'In hard times, I would do anything humanly possible to save you.' (2008, p. 90-91)
This is just about as strong an argument against the supposed morality and ethical rightness of torture as I can think, since it considers all of its possible implications not just for the person being tortured, but for the torturer him/herself and its potential victims. From this we see that we're not simply weighing up death vs. torture in some kind of crude calculus, but asking ourselves what moral position torture forces us to occupy, and that such a position forces us to accept infinite depravity as long as no lives are lost. In seeking to avoid being seen to advocate legalised torture, Harris advocates a regime whereby torture is still illegal, but that interrogators are still nonetheless willing to break the law on occasions where it might save innocent lives, but this is actually a much worse scenario since it provides no oversight on who it is who's being tortured, merely leaving it up to the discretion of the interrogator and his judgment as to whether or not the person being interrogated warrants the illegal thumbscrews. This is why Alan Dershowitz has proposed a limited legality to torture in the form of judicial warrants, as opposed to a nightmare scenario whereby prisoners live under constant fear that they may well be the victim of some discretionary law-breaking at the hands of their interrogators. Put simply - Harris' defense of the ethical necessity of torture is what we in Britain would call 'wonky' and his attempts to clarify his thinking haven't adequately addressed the issue.

If Sam Harris is annoyed that people are misrepresenting his views or not engaging with his work thoroughly enough, he should do others a similar courtesy and not deliberately obfuscate their work, either. Unfortunately, Harris is often guilty of doing just this. In a debate with Scott Atran, for instance, Harris seemed more interested in asserting religious teaching as the most important factor in the decision-making of suicide bombers than engaging with Atran's research and arguments, even when Harris was factually incorrect - such as his assertion that there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers, when in fact there are. Or that all suicide bombers are religious, despite Robert Pape's research demonstrating that the majority of suicide bombers are in fact secular, but Harris dismisses Pape for 'skewing his data with the Tamil Tigers' - how is including a statistically relevant subset of suicide terrorism in your research on suicide terrorism 'skewing' your data? Surely ignoring the Tamil Tigers would be the intellectually dishonest thing to do? Anyway, from the video of the Harris/Atran debate it's quite clear that Harris hasn't read any of Atran's work, but he should because it's interesting and some of it is even sympathetic to parts of his thesis:

...[This does not mean that] the behavior of Muslim jihadists has nothing to do with their religious beliefs. In our own interviews and experiments with militants, we have found overwhelming support for the idea that suicide bombing is an “individual obligation” (fard al-ayn) for any Muslim when the society around them fails to fight off the perceived onslaught of infidels (this notion of jihad against infidels as the “sixth pillar of Islam”— on par with the five traditional pillars of belief in God, prayer, alms for the poor, fasting at Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca—is considered heretical by most religious Muslims). 
But then goes onto say.
But such radical religious commitment arguably has less to do with traditional and institutionalized forms of religious learning and teaching than with the sacralization of political aspirations into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment.
This is corroborated by Marc Sageman's work, which points out that most jihadis and jihadi leaders especially tend to come from a secular, scientific, education as opposed to a religious education (Leaderless Jihad, 2008, p. 59). The point here is not that science turns people into terrorists, but that the evidence fails to demonstrate a causal link between religious belief and terrorism that can be used as a predictive model. The glaring difference between Atran and Sageman's work with Harris' work is that Harris is merely supposing that there is a causal link between the religious views and teachings of jihadists and deliberately ignoring evidence to the contrary, whilst smearing the work of those who are arriving at separate conclusions and offering nothing in the way of research of his own. Though he writes eloquently about the need for scientific endeavour and rational inquiry, he seems unwilling to question his central claim that all we need to do to understand the barbarism seen in some Middle Eastern societies is to read the Qu'ran. What, then, of Jeffrey Kaplan's excellent book about the rise of tribal-based African terrorism? Is that also explicable by a simple recourse to reading religious texts? If Harris is worried that his work is being misunderstood and caricatured by others, he might also worry that maybe, just maybe he is doing unto others as they are doing unto him.

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