Tone Deaf Atheism and Context

by | October 13, 2014

I’ve been relucant to enter the fray with regards to Affleckgate, because I didn’t really see anything new in it, just the same old talking past each other bickering that in some quarters passes for debate. But since the genocide card has been played… I figure it’s time to get muddy.

Harris’ defenders are correct, he did not ‘advocate genocide’. The context of the quote clearly shows he was merely contemplating homicide… as an ‘ethical’ solution to a… hypothetical problem. What is a bit disturbing to me, is that this final solution is directed not at an actual crime, but at thought crime, a crime of belief, that may at some time in the future lead to a ‘real’ crime. He is essentially saying that a thought crime is evidence enough to execute someone for a ‘future crime’, that has not yet occured, but which we might find it inconvenient to prosecute. Ends justifies means. Rolling down that moral landscape at quite a clip aren’t we?

Now, I’ve had debates with people on all sorts of subjects, and examinging ideas is a good thing, even if they fly in the face of fundamental human rights, our modern legal system and basic common sense. But… there is a larger context here that makes the quote, with context, even more ominous.

What Harris contemplated, is actually happening in the muslim world. The US government believes it is ethical to launch killer drones into the general vicinity, or even neighborhood, of those accused of crimes, or who might commit crimes…. and you know blah blah blah…. collateral damage.

Sort of the ‘stop and crispy’ of the muslim world, if you will.

The liberals… who are acting really badly are the ones in the whitehouse.

But… hey… its only the muslim world, launching killer drones in Canada would be terrorism, but not the muslim world, that other planet orbiting between Venus and Mars.

This brings me back to where this kerfuffle started….

There has been much talk lately about the Harris/Maher/Affleck showdown, and what it means, who was right, and who was left… or.. not liberal enough.

I’ve started watching the video a couple times, but never seem to get past the first minute or so before my annoyance gets the better of me. I feel like I’m rubbernecking a slow motion atheist car crash.

So….whose side am I on?

That is such an utterly stupid question.
And in fact, I believe that is the problem that keeps resurfacing.
There is no critical thinking in merely ‘choosing sides’.

I think Affleck over-reacted, but I can totally see why.
I sympathize with Harris/Maher when it comes to people who ignore the hard choices that must be made every day…. but guys quit being so obtuse.

Context….this ‘debate’ starts with two smug middle-aged white guys talking about “liberals” and the problems “in the muslim world”, with that last phrase echoing back and forth. You can’t really throw that kind of sweeping generalization around and retain any intellectual honesty, especially when you speak from a comfy chair in a western country.

The reality of the ‘muslim world’ is in many ways a result of hundreds of years of western meddling, for religious, colonial, and natural resource reasons. And the results have been dramatically different from one geographic region, of ‘the muslim world’, to another.

No, you cannot talk about the ‘muslim world’ without historical context. There are good reasons ‘liberals’ are loathe to lecture muslims on how to live. Harris said:

“We have been sold this meme of islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of islam gets conflated with bigotry towards muslims as people”

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize. It does mean we should stick to specifics and take into account context, instead of just hurling inflammatory rhetoric and then acting surprised when people call us on that very thing. It does mean that we shouldn’t blithely blog about racial profiling as if its an entertaining notion, and it means understanding that a white guy contemplating the murder of specific muslims, is probably not going to go over well with your average muslim.

Affleck: “So you are saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing?”
Harris: “I’m not denying that certain people are bigotted against muslims as people, and that’s a problem”
Harris: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas”
Affleck: “Of course we do”

It’s amazing how much, in such a short space of time, they actually agreed upon, but then continued to talk past each other. And then this…

Harris: “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas”
Affleck: “It is an ugly thing to say”

And this is where I completely agree with Affleck (even though I think he should probably avoid debating… and stick to what he is good at, acting and directing, mostly directing.)

Motherlode of bad ideas? Are you fraking kidding me?

Here are a few bad ideas that have nothing to do with Islam: World War 1, World War 2, The Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Atlantic Slave trade, the cold war, elective plastic surgery, native reservations, assault weapons for home defense, the war on drugs, SUVs… NFL football and the fucking Crusades.

We in the western world, have done many great things, but if you want a ‘motherlode of bad ideas’, Mr. Harris, you are sitting in it… up to your neck. And you can’t blame the Christians for all that stuff. There are lots of self-righteous atheists, like yourself, contemplating horrible ideas.

Kristof: “The picture you are painting is to some extent true, but hugely incomplete”

Exactly true, bigotry is not just about ‘hatred’, but can be as simple as people who should know better making ignorant generalizations… and ignoring the broader context.

I am an atheist, in a strict dictionary sense, which means I don’t think it implies any sort of moral compass. Nature is brutal and cruel, and any ethics we have, we must invent. The Quran is one such invention. It comes from us, from human beings. There is no god, no other world to blame for it. It is us. There is no other motherlode of bad ideas…. Just us. And just one world in which we all live.

Time to grow up boys. All of you.

11 thoughts on “Tone Deaf Atheism and Context

  1. Eric

    Why do people insist on misrepresenting what was said whenever they delve into this topic? Harris did not say “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas”. He specifically said Islam “at this moment” was the motherlode of bad ideas. Are there unpleasant things going on in the world right now that don’t have to do with Islam? Sure. But World War I and the crusades aren’t among them.

    “There are lots of self-righteous atheists, like yourself, contemplating horrible ideas. ”

    This completely misses Harris’ point. Whether individual muslims or athesists believe horrible ideas or good ones is irrelevant. The question is what kind of behaviour is encouraged by the ideology itself.

    People have no problem criticizing the ideology of Catholicism for opposing contraception and promoting abstinence-only eduction, even though plenty of Catholics have reasonable views on those things. Yet for some reason pointing out that Islam opposes freedom of speech and promotes the death penalty for leaving the religion results in precisely that kind of “not all muslims are like that” defense.

    1. Joe Post author

      At this moment… Only increases the ridiculousness of his comment, in my view.

      And not all Christians are literalist fundies… Atheists do need to be reminded of this at times.

      And not all Muslims too… That is important to say because there is bigotry against Muslims in our culture… Atheism, Chrstianity and Islam are not monolithic. None of them are.

  2. Tim Underwood

    Very good analysis. Very intriguing disagreement by agreement. (attitudes perhaps)
    Fighting for secularism is involving more actual fighting.
    The same is true for atheism. Who said that the Middle East has to be ruled by the religious? We have to be ready to fight for the right to give atheism an equal voice over there in that oil rich dustbowl.
    Of course the same is true over here in our schools, city counsels and hospitals.

  3. KC

    As Eric notes he said “mother lode of bad ideas at the moment”. Even that may be a stretch–the idea that we should establish a system of global capitalism where cheap labour is exploited as a “comparative advantage” is arguably worse.

    A couple points re: your “tone” argument:

    1. Couldn’t the same “tone deaf” argument be applied with equal force to your (and my for that matter) views on modern feminism? Why are you concerned about tone deafness there and not here or am I missing some sort of distinguishing factor?

    2. If white guys like Sam Harris and Bill Maher can’t talk about this problem who will? Muslim discourse on these issues is disappointingly sparse–at least in the English media–and usually falls into the opposite trap of some atheist discourse in attributing the “backwardness” of many Muslim countries SOLELY on that legacy of imperialism (which I think is overstated vis-a-vis the Muslim world but lets not go there today). It seems to me that the few non-white people who do attempt to engage the problems of Islam such as Irshad Manji and Maajid Nawaz are dismissed as summarily by apologists as the likes of Harris and Maher.

    1. KC

      One thing to add: One thing I would REALLY like to see some of these more prolific atheists acknowledge is the reality of anti-Muslim bigotry. Sam Harris goes there but his statements are incomplete. Too often when people talk about prejudice against Muslims the discussion gets bogged down by atheist rejection of the easy-to-conflate term “Islamophobia” and the need to point out there is a difference between race and religion.

      While both of those are true I think I don’t doubt that there is something akin to “racism” that we see directed towards Muslims. In some circles “muslim” is not unlike the word “paki”. Its a loosely defined slur for “people over there” who I dont like because they are different from me. You see this type of anti-Muslim bigotry from the likes of Pamela Gellar, that Koran burning pastor from Florida, opponents of the “ground zero mosque”, and the EDL.

      The type of discourse you see emanating from these types is very blanket, hyperbolic and unfair. You rarely hear the former type acknowledge that there are good Muslims, or that Muslims are the primary victims of Islamic extremism. They also advocate conspiracy theories about Muslim take over, call for exclusionary immigration policies, demonize even the most liberal Muslims, and distort Islamic theology.

      The problem is when that is conflated with what Sam Harris or Bill Maher does which is much more nuanced, targeted, measured and reasonable.

      Unfortunately people like Ben Affleck and Glenn Greenwald seem to lack the ability to tell the difference.

      1. Joe Post author

        >Muslims are the primary victims of Islamic extremism.

        This. It annoys me when atheists say things like ‘moderates are worse than fundies’. It misses so many points at once.

        And although I think Harris and Maher can be nuanced…. When they try to be… It’s things like the mother lode comment that cause people to stop listening.

        1. KC

          I think part of the problem is the format. Verbal discussions rarely present a meaningful opportunity to incorporate nuance and attach the necessary caveats and qualifications (particularly when you have a provocateur like Ben Affleck shouting over you).

          In that context there will always be a tendency to slip into generalities that will be latched on to and quote-mined.

          It is clear to me from the totality of their material that Harris and Maher are far more nuanced on this subject than that segment implied. Maher is typically a harsh critic of much of US foreign policy and recognizes the political fallout from that.

          Harris is definitely capable of nuance in his writing–often to his detriment because I think the average human mind is only capable of digesting so much of it. He also has an unfortunate tendency to muse about issues at a philosophical level without regard to the real world political implications that many draw–i.e. like when he muses about the ethics of racial profiling that people will interpret his comments as an endorsement of the practice. My father would accuse me of having the same tendency.

          I still think their critics are unfair. A lot of the criticism is them being accused of things they didn’t say and ignorance of the things they do. You are charitable enough to chalk this up to “tone”, which implies to me that you give them the benefit of the doubt about what they actually believe and their failure is in the delivery. Tone or not, Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan should know better.

          1. Joe Post author

            I try as a matter honour… heheh… to err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt. Seriously, enemies are too easy to come by, otherwise.

            That’s the thing though, I don’t really see Affleck as anything but confused and angry.
            Maher is a comedian, and has built a career on provocation. He was pushing buttons very intentionally, that is where he lives, so he got what he paid for. The danger in that is, you see everything as a game. And I think he gets too caught up in that.

            Harris might be naive, but my impression from reading his moral landscape is that his problem is more egotism and over reliance on his own intuition. He spends too much time trying to justify his preconceptions with anecdotes and cherry picked evidence.

            Nuance might be the problem in this particular case, with regards to Affleck, but I don’t expect much more from an actor. And Maher and Harris are often belligerent in their opinions. Intentionally. And they do no one any favours by playing the victim after they spew inflammatory rhetoric.

            I don’t know anything about Aslan or Greenwald, but this reaks of a childish twitter fight. Twitter is, as far as I can tell, about gossip and flamewars. Retweeting nonsense is just redundant, imo.

          2. KC

            In fairness Maher hasn’t really played “victim” since the airing. He’s defended his position but I think he has pretty thick skin.

            Harris on the other hand has played the “poor me” card but mostly in regards to being yelled over by Affleck (which is contrary to the usual format of the show) and some rather disingenuous twitter flaming by Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan.

    2. Joe Post author

      I think feminists have made good points about tone deafness within the atheist community. I am by no means immune, and I’m certainly no paragon of morality or ethics. I also have a minimum of natural empathy, so I am happy to accept criticism…. But I will assess its value on a case by case basis.

      Where I part company with them is with regards to their safe space censorship, obsession with patriarchy as THE oppression, and their often inflammatory rhetoric… Not to mention ad hominems.

      I think Harris/Maher were being tone deaf to an extreme. Feminists are often guilty of that themselves when they play victim Olympics.

      And… No… White guys should talk… And keep talking. But making broad generalizations about Muslims and the liberals… And then acting surprised when it offends… Pfft.

      If I offend someone I want to know why… Both so I can avoid unintentional offence and so I can let them have both barrels when I think it’s appropriate .

  4. Pingback: Islamophobia-phobia in New Zealand | Heather's Homilies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.