Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sam Harris: Final thoughts on Chomsky

Sam Harris

...I tried to have a civil conversation on an important topic with a very influential thinker, and I failed. I published the result because I thought the failure was instructive—the whole purpose was to extract something of value from what seemed like a truly pointless exercise.

But that’s not the lesson many readers took away from it. Many of you seem to think that the conversation failed because I arrogantly challenged Chomsky to a debate—probably because I was trying to steal some measure of his fame—and that I immediately found myself out of my depth. And when he devastated me with the evidence of my own intellectual conduct, my ignorance of history, and my blind faith in the goodness of the U.S. government, I complained about his being “mean” to me, and I ran away. Well, I must say I find this view of the situation genuinely flabbergasting. 

Many of you seem to forget that I published the exchange—you must think I’m a total masochist, or just delusional. Now, I know that some of you think the latter...Anyone who thinks I’ve lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do or why, seeing that my attempt at dialogue was a total failure, I bailed out. I really was trying to have a productive conversation with Chomsky, and I encountered little more than contempt, false accusations, and highly moralizing language—accusing me of apologizing for atrocities—and weird evasions and silly tricks. It was a horror show.

I concede that I made a few missteps: I should have dealt with Chomsky’s charges that I misrepresented him immediately and very directly. They are, in fact, tissue-thin. I did not misrepresent his views at all. I simply said that he had not thought about certain questions when I should have said he had thought about them badly. 

Those of you who have written to tell me that what I did to Chomsky is analogous to what has been done to me by people who actually lie about my views are just not interacting honestly with what happened here: I did not misrepresent Chomsky’s position on anything. And, insults aside, he was doing everything in his power to derail the conversation. The amazing thing is that highly moralizing accusations work for people who think they’re watching a debate. They convince most of the audience that where there’s smoke there must be fire. For instance, when Ben Affleck called me and Bill Maher “racist,” that was all he had to do to convince 50% of the audience. I’m sorry to say that it was the same with Chomsky.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from who think that he showed how ludicrous and unethical my concern about intentions was, for instance—he’s dealing in the “real world,” but all my talk about intentions was just a bizarre and useless bit of philosophizing. But think about that for a second: our legal system depends upon weighing intentions in precisely the way I describe. How else do we differentiate between premeditated murders, crimes of passion, manslaughter, criminal negligence, and terrible accidents for which no one is to blame?...

Chomsky seems to think that he has made a great moral discovery in this area and that not intending a harm can sometimes be morally worse than intending one. Now I’m pretty sure that I disagree, but I would have loved to discuss it. I wasn’t debating him about anything, I was trying to figure out what the man actually believes. It’s still not clear to me, because he appeared to be contradicting himself in our exchange. But in response to my questions and the thought experiments I was marshaling in an attempt to get to first principles, all I got back were insults.

But worse, many people seem to think that these insults were a sign of the man’s moral seriousness. Many seem to think that belligerence and an unwillingness to have a civil dialogue is a virtue in any encounter like this, and that simply vilifying one’s opponent as a moral monster, by merely declaring him to be one, is a clever thing to do.

Now, despite what every Chomsky fan seems to think, there was nowhere in that exchange where I signaled my unwillingness to acknowledge or to discuss specific crimes for which the U.S. government might be responsible. The United States, and the West generally, has a history of colonialism, slavery, collusion with dictators, and of imposing its will on people all over the world. I have never denied this. But I’m now hearing from people who say things like, “Well, of course ISIS and al-Qaeda are terrible, but we’re just as bad, worse even, because we created them—literally. And through our selfishness and ineptitude, we created millions of other victims who sympathize with them for obvious reasons. We are, in every morally relevant sense, getting exactly what we deserve.”

This kind of masochism and misreading of both ourselves and of our enemies has become a kind of religious precept on the Left. I don’t think an inability to distinguish George Bush or Bill Clinton from Saddam Hussein or Hitler is philosophically or politically interesting, much less wise. And many people, most even, who are this morally confused consider Chomsky their patriarch, and I suspect that’s not an accident. But I wanted to talk to him to see if there was some way to build a bridge off of this island of masochism so that these sorts of people, who I’ve been hearing from for years, could cross over to something more reasonable. And it didn’t work out. The conversation, as I said, was a total failure. But I thought it was an instructive one...

Harris responds to critics here and here.

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