Recently, I have been following the misfortunes of another of my favourite authors, Sam Harris.
Harris is commonly described as one of the “Four Horsemen” of “New Atheism”, along with Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and the infamous Richard Dawkins. His published works include the End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, the Moral Landscape, and his latest book, Waking Up.
Until recently, Dawkins was considered to epitomise everything that was supposedly wrong with the New Atheism, and Harris was just someone you got into once you finished the God Delusion and thirsted for more vituperative antitheism. Now, however, Harris seems to have eclipsed Dawkins due to controversy over his views on Islam, which culminated in a row between him and Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time”.
Sam Harris singles Islam out as being particularly dangerous, mainly because of the doctrines like Jihad and the fact that the Qur’an is supposed to be the literal and perfect word of God, whereas the Bible is easier to rationalise if you really want to cherry pick it to make it compatible with liberalism. He goes on to argue that this is reflected in opinion polls which consistently show that alarmingly high percentages of Muslims – if not always majorities – support actions and viewpoints that would shock those of a more liberal persuasion. He also points out that groups like ISIS behead people, cite the passage of the Qur’an that admonishes Muslims to “smite the unbelievers upon their necks” as justification for doing so, and declare at the top of their lungs that they are doing all of this in the name of Islam. The thrust of Harris’ argument is that the specific doctrines of Islam, rather than geopolitical concerns, are at the core of the problem.
Apologists for Islam, such as Murtaza Hussain, Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan and now Ben Affleck(!), respond to Harris’ arguments by attemping to smear him as an Islamophobe/racist via two methods:
1) Quote mining passages from the End of Faith in which he countenances the use of torture, or nuclear weapons, and claiming that this shows he is a genocidal maniac, even though these quotes deal with the hypothetical scenario of an Islamic fundamentalist regime that possesses nuclear weapons and is impervious to secular reasoning.
2) Claiming that Harris is wrong about Islam merely because Islam purports to be a religion of peace and most Muslims they know are not fundamentalists, which doesn’t change the fact that significant proportions of Muslims do hold these views and that there is a clear, logical pathway leading from the words of the Qur’an to the behaviour of the individual believer.
Harris has written article after article attempting to clarify his position on this and demanding that his interlocutors cease misrepresenting his arguments, but none of it ever makes a blind bit of difference. Recently, he appeared on the Young Turks to discuss the issue, and the host, Cenk Uygur, asked him to consider how his views might “come across” to people and thus understand why he gets the reaction he gets.
The elephant in the room here is political correctness.
Political correctness is a term that gets bandied about a lot without really being defined. I will attempt to define it here as follows: an excessive concern with tact and sensitivity towards purported victim groups that takes precedence over truth and logic.
The problem Sam Harris faces is that he does not merely have to be concerned with saying what he means and meaning what he says. He does not merely have to be concerned with the literal interpretation of his arguments. Rather, he has to be concerned with how his views could be misunderstood by someone who doesn’t have the intellect or inclination to take note of their nuances and caveats. He has to be concerned with how his words could lend support to an Islamophobe who wanted to take them out of context and use them as a cloak for their genuine bigotry.
I have personally encountered this problem in debates about feminism, when I have been expressly told that I should not say what I am saying – not because I am actually wrong, but because my words could be construed in a way that sends the wrong message.
Once, I was on a martial arts forum’s “self defence” section. Many martial arts classes these days teach avoidance and de-escalation strategies in addition to physical fighting techniques. With this in mind, I started a thread in which I critiqued a common feminist claim: that rape is about power, not sex, therefore it is wrong to ever insinuate that women can influence their chances of being raped (e.g. by controlling how they dress or how much they drink), and anyone who disagrees commits the cardinal sin of “blaming the victim”. Hence we have simplistic slogans like “don’t teach girls to avoid rape, teach boys not to rape”.
The starting point for my critique was that the “power not sex” claim cannot be correct as a matter of fact. The legal definition of rape under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 consists of three elements: (1) penetration; (2) a lack of consent to that penetration from the victim; and (3) the finding that a reasonable person in the position of the penetrator would have realised that the victim did not consent. This third element is the critical problem here, because it means that you can actually commit the crime of rape by accident! It is not necessary for you to use overt force, or even to realise that your victim does not consent. Simply being stupid/oblivious to the lack of consent is enough. The “it’s about power not sex” argument could be one explanation for deliberate rapes in which the victim is literally forced by a cackling brute, but not accidental rapes in which the rapist genuinely does not realise that the victim doesn’t consent. Sure, the latter type is still a serious crime and presumably horrifying for the victim, but it doesn’t fit the feminist script. In short, you can’t insist that rape is an act of intentional violence but then use a definition that encompasses accidental offences. In fact, I sometimes wonder if feminists really do think that all rape is deliberate and forceful, and they cynically pushed for a more expansive definition to try and procure more convictions, thus vindicating their ideology.
Even if we did define rape as “forced sex”, it still wouldn’t necessarily follow that rape is about power rather than sex. Sure, you can cite some instances of this happening, e.g. in times of war, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only reason why it happens. If we know that bad men will sometimes use physical force to get things they are not entitled to, why do we assume that they would not use force to get sex? And if it were always an act of intentional violence against women, wouldn’t violence against women be higher than violence against men across the board, not just in sexual offences?
So on this forum, I went on to argue why the distinction matters. I argued, as I will here, that clinging to the feminist theory of rape not only misses the point but presents serious practical problems for dealing with rape that actually make things worse for women. There is a line between blaming the victim and offering pragmatic advice. It’s a fuzzy line that people don’t always tread, but it’s critical. This is a point we readily acknowledge when it comes to other crimes, because we accept that we don’t live in a perfect world, but in the name of sensitivity, we throw it out of the window when it comes to rape and domestic violence. The observation that rape really is about sex implies that women have some power to influence whether or not it happens by taking certain precautions, but that is not the same thing as saying that those women morally deserve to be raped by failing to take those precautions. It’s no different to how men like me might be well advised to avoid certain rough pubs, or dark alleys in bad parts of town. For as long as you refuse to acknowledge the real reason why a problem occurs, you will stupendously fail to address that problem.
The counter-argument was that, however well intentioned my argument may have been, and however valid it may have been, it could be construed as victim blaming by people with sinister motives. So, much like Sam Harris, I found myself in a situation in which tact and sensitivity towards victims was considered to be far, far more important than actually preventing women from falling victim to rape. Apparently, we shouldn’t give women practical advice on how to protect themselves against nasty people who exist whether we like it or not; we should instead pretend that they are utterly powerless, lest our advice be conflated with victim blaming.
To my mind, political correctness poses a genuine threat to our liberal society and to our personal safety. It is nothing less than the sacrifice of reason on the altar of sensitivity towards the downtrodden. The logic seems to be that the general public cannot be trusted with the plain truth because they are too stupid to appreciate its nuances, therefore it is better to spread propaganda that we *hope* will lead to a positive outcome and attack those who dissent. Welcome to 1984.