Sam Harris is a racist and other thoughts on the future of Humanity

Posted on Posted in moral psychology, Politics


In 2014, despite thousands of years of civilization, racism is one of most basic and fundamental obstacles to worldwide peace, prosperity, and basic civil liberties. The United States has a serious problem with racism. Just one symptom of that is the constant stream of police violence against black men.

But we are not alone, most parts of the world do. Our problem has to do with our history of slavery and the legacy of slavery that manifests in such disproportionate levels of wealth, income, education, health, and incarceration rates between current white and black citizens.

In Israel and Palestine it is of course the relatively modern history of violent conflict, which in some sense has its roots in the anti-semitism of Europe. In the broader Islamic world it is conflict between Shia and Sunni. In Indian and Pakistan it is Hinduism and Islam.

Of course it is not just racism. Nationalism and political ideologies have fueled massive conflicts in recent history. Marx claimed that history was the history of class struggle, and certainly class struggle has always been a part of history, but I think history is the history of tribal struggle, warring tribes fighting for power, wealth, land, resources, and survival.

You can take human out of the tribe but you can’t take the tribalism out of the human.

Humans evolved to be loyal to their group and to fight and die for their group. The survival of their genes depended on it. We wouldn’t be here  today without the ancient tribalism coursing through our veins. Critics of religion like Sam Harris blame religion for violent conflicts in various part of the world without realizing that religion is just one of the divisions that lead to violence and conflict. Ironically by blaming religion, especially certain religions, like Islam, they fall into the same trap of tribalism and end up blaming a tribe for the problem rather than seeing that tribalism is the problem.

Currently there is a great deal of discrimination is against Arabs and those who practice Islam. What I find particularly obnoxious about this form of discrimination is that a) it is indulged in some liberals and b) the people who engage in this kind of racism are the ones who are specifically responsible for creating what they condemn.

One of the arguments used by Sam Harris (sorry to pick on you Sam I know there are others but it’s just the way it is), and the Israelis is that Hamas is evil, barbaric, and ought to be destroyed. The charter of Hamas and the behavior of terrorists is used as a justification of continued violence against entire countries, races, and religions.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Finance and the head of Yesh Atid, Israel’s second largest political party said this about Hamas in a recent piece on Huffington Post:

The betrayal of the intellectuals was especially noticeable during the days of the operation in Gaza. Ostensibly, there should be no question as to who enlightened people should support; on one side of the conflict stands a western democracy, governed by the rule of law, which warns civilians before striking legitimate terrorist targets. On the other side stands an Islamist terrorist organization, homophobic and misogynistic, committed to killing Jews, which does all in its power to murder innocent civilians and hides behind its own women and children when carrying out its vicious attacks.

In a similar vein Sam Harris had this to say:

The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. . . So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here. You have one side which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land. There’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas.

These are grotesqe examples of what basically amounts to racism.

Although the charter of Hamas it is absolutely not acceptable, it is  frankly a very predictable response to the situation the Palestinians find themselves in.

The really important thing to note is that Hamas was founded in 1987!  Hamas was founded in 1987! After decades of war and occupation. Given they way they have been treated it is not surprising they would have as their goal to kill all Jews. It is morally right? Absolutely not! But it is not surprising given the course of events in Palestine. And given how recently it came into existence it is obvious that Hamas is a response to the events of the preceding decades. Palestinians weren’t sitting around plotting how to kill Jews in the early 20th century or at any point in time before that.

The way Harris and others tell it Arabs are a kind of inferior species incapable of rational discourse and action. This become clear when they say really strange things that are totally ungrounded in reality like this:

I am simply recognizing that they (Israel) are not the primary aggressors in this conflict. They are, rather, responding to aggression—and at a terrible cost.

And this:

And again, you have to ask yourself, what do these groups want? What would they accomplish if they could accomplish anything? What would the Israelis do if they could do what they want? They would live in peace with their neighbors, if they had neighbors who would live in peace with them. They would simply continue to build out their high tech sector and thrive. Some might argue that they would do more than this—e.g. steal more Palestinian land. But apart from the influence of Jewish extremism (which I condemn), Israel’s continued appropriation of land has more than a little to do with her security concerns. Absent Palestinian terrorism and Muslim anti-Semitism, we could be talking about a “one-state solution,” and the settlements would be moot.

Israel would like to to live in peace and is only taking more land out of security concerns, and if they had their druthers they would just go about their merry way developing their high-tech sector. That is really a twisted version of reality. To understand this we just need to take a historical perspective on Islam.

Islam has a long history of religious tolerance, intellectualism, and scientific advancement. While Europe was in the dark Ages it was the Islamic civilizations that preserved philosophy and science. Without Islam we would have lost the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and with it the intellectual foundation Western culture.

In a similar period of history Constantinople, Turkey, went from being controlled by Europe to the Ottoman Empire and Spain fell under the control of Europe. Guess what happened? The Christians and Jews in Constantinople were left perfectly alone. The Muslims in Spain? Murdered, Tortured, and persecuted.

The crucial question is how can we  move forward into a future that looks very different. How can we as a species come to view all persons as members of the same tribe? How can we move beyond purely selfish and tribal concerns to a truly global cosmopolitan view of ourselves and our neighbors?

What is astounding is the power of tribalism to turn ideologies that are supposed to be against tribalism into merely another tribe. I mentioned Sam Harris earlier. But religion itself contains powerful anti-tribal messages. The very essence of all the worlds major religious traditions is transcending tribalism. Helping the person from another tribe. Seeing all persons as children of God, as moral and spiritual equals. From a sociological and historical point of view that has been the very function of religion. It has allowed humans to live together in ever larger groups. To transcend tribalism to greater and greater degrees. The most basic principle of religion, and philosophical ethics, is that all persons are equal. But no ideology has been fully successful in this role.

Some liberals have dreamed of creating a new non-sectarian religion that could unite members of society. Contemporary atheists imagine the path to utopia is eliminating religion all together.

But tribalism isn’t going anywhere. Humans haven’t experience any significant genetic change in at least several million years and I don’t see any help on the horizon from evolution anytime soon. Does that mean that all is lost? Are we doomed to tribe based war for the forceable future?

We may not be able to change our genes but we can change our socio-economic structures. And the thing about tribalism is that the worst elements of tribalism on “kick in” or become activated under certain circumstances. In places where there is abundant material resources and a reasonable amount of socio-economic inequality tribalism is pretty harmless. It looks like this:


It may not be the high point of humanity but it is okay. It is more than okay. It’s great! As the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says it is a way for humanity to exercise one of our most primal instincts.

The challenge is that there is a positive and a negative feedback loop of tribalism and violence. Racism leads economic inequality and oppression which leads to violence and more racism which leads for more economic inequality and oppression.

And on the positive side when we are somehow able to create an inclusive society that grants equal rights and equal opportunities to all persons we create a society in which concerns of tribe and race become less important.

Unfortunately to date there has never been a truly egalitarian society. The United States while declaring the equality of all citizens was founded upon genocide and slavery. Western Europe is still tainted by the legacy the global oppression upon which it was founded. And contemporary Western European states, while largely egalitarian within their own borders, fail to exist in a state of moral equality with the rest of the world, which is of course even more true of the United States and the rest of the developed world. We shouldn’t limit our discussions of economic inequality merely to persons. Just as it is not fair for some people to be insanely wealthy while other lack basic necessities it is not fair that some countries are insanely wealthy while other countries suffer in extreme poverty.

Is there any hope? I think there is, and I think surprisingly the hope comes in the form of the current ecological climate crisis that the world faces in which all parties truly have to work together to survive.

Will self-interest finally succeed where all other attempts have failed? Hopefully.


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