For some time now I’ve been trying to figure out why liberals like Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald hate Sam Harris.
There is obviously significant points of disagreement. Harris in broad strokes has advocated in favor of things like torture, banning Muslim immigrants, more military action in the Middle East, and profiling Muslims. Of course with many caveats in each case. He has also defended the United States’ foreign policy as benign, if not always efficacious, while liberals like the aforementioned Chomsky and Greenwald see US foreign policy as the root of all or most of the evil in the world.
But pointing out those differences only raises the further question of why it is that Harris views the world so differently than many other liberals.
Now we know that Harris is an atheist but so are Chomsky and Greenwald. But maybe Sam is blinded by his “religion” of atheism and therefore more likely blame people of other religions. But again why would he be blinded in this way when others are not? Or conversely why is he able to see the truth so clearly while Chomsky and Greenwald and other liberals are blind to the truth?
Either way, why the huge gulf in difference between their views and why the incredible animosity that has played itself out over the blogosphere and social media over past several years or so?
I think I know the answer, but first a short digression regarding how I came to the conclusion. I saw in my facebook feed numerous videos and blog posts about how Sam Harris said in a recent podcast that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky, given the way they both understand the crisis of violent extremism we currently face. So, I had to listen to this podcast. I found the podcast and it was with Douglass Murray. I wasn’t familiar with his work so I read a link Sam had provided. It was on the European immigration crises. I found it very similar to the right wing political propaganda I’d been hearing from politicians here in the United States. Murray was obviously a conservative. I wasn’t aware of this at the start. And he certainly doesn’t hide the fact. Sam discussed Murray’s conservatism on the podcast.
So, as I’m listening to this conversation between Sam Harris and the conservative Douglass Murray it finally just hit me: Sam Harris is a conservative. Sam Harris is a conservative! That’s it! That’s the real kernel of disagreement and the real reason debates between Sam and his detractors are so heated.
A bit more background. I’m a social psychologist who does research into the psychological foundations of morality. I’ve been significantly influenced by the world of Jonathan Haidt on the psychological foundations of liberal, conservative, and libertarian political orientations. I believe the research shows that there are distinct psychological profiles associated with each of the above political orientations. So, I believe a person’s political orientation is significantly influenced by basic features of their psychology.
Harris considers himself a liberal. But I suspect he largely identifies himself that way more in contrast with American right wing conservatism than in affiliation with other liberals. Hearing the conversation between Harris and Murray it was obvious they were both conservatives. They were obviously in agreement through out the entire conversation, they clearly enjoyed talking to each other, they clearly shared a similar worldview and similar view regarding how to deal with violent extremism. Sam found Douglass’ jokes funny. He clearly had an appreciation for Murray’s rhetorical style. They were like two peas in a pod. For god’s sake, Sam endorsed Ted Cruz’s immigration policy and Ben Carson over Noam Chomsky for President! He is clearly a conservative, albeit a somewhat confused conservative.
This feature of the podcast was particularly salient for me because I found Murray’s jokes offensive rather than funny and found his style to be grating and obnoxious. I’m about as liberal as they get. And find myself largely in agreement with someone like Noam Chomsky’s assessment of world affairs, the United States role in causing violent extremism, and how we might go about beginning to fix the problem. So, Sam’s affinity for Murray and Murray’s views struck me as quite strange, which lead to the insight that Sam must be a conservative.
I’m not saying that Sam is evil because he is a conservative. That’s not the point of identifying him as a conservative. The point of this discussion is really just clarity on an important issue. If we can understand the disagreement there might be some hope of progress in settling it. I certainly don’t think conservatives are bad people. But I do think they view the world much differently than liberals. And that is half of the Sam Harris puzzle.
The other half of the puzzle is why liberals dislike Sam so much. I think part of it is that he’s a conservative. Liberals’ default position is to dislike conservatives and conservative’s default position is to dislike liberals. Of course it goes way beyond dislike and into hatred and moral condemnation. That is just the way we are wired, unfortunately. Our basic evolutionary psychology is tuned to helping us survive as part of a small tribe of hunter-gatherers, and much of that has to do with our ability to be part of our tribe’s morality or religion and band together to defend our tribe against predators and other tribes and attack other tribes when the opportunity arose. As Jonathan Haidt likes to say morality “binds and blinds” us. But I think Sam draws out a special form virulent hatred and disdain from the liberal tribe specifically because he claims to be a liberal and is critical of other liberals. He claims to be a true liberal, maybe not directly that is what is implied by his claims. He refers to liberals who disagree with him as “the regressive left,” implying that he is the true progressive. Which on the face of it is a strange claim considering he disagrees with basically every progressive out there. Most tribes and religions have a special brand of vitriol, and often violent punishment, reserved for the traitor, for the apostate. Sam Harris is a liberal apostate.
If he were a right wing commentator on Fox news liberals wouldn’t care nearly as much about his views on religion, Islam, terrorism, torture, or anything. It is because he claims to be a liberal, while espousing conservative views on broad range of issues, that makes him such a lightning rod for criticism from the left. He attacks progressives for being regressive while advocating for a worldview and a set of policies that would make the most die-hard conservatives proud.
If it wasn’t obvious that Harris was a conservative before he came out in support of Ted Cruz’s call to halt Syrian immigration it should be obvious now that he is a conservative. Every liberal intellectual and every liberal I know is one side of the debate and Harris is on the other side with every other conservative intellectual and every conservative I know. Right or wrong on this particular issue there is no getting around the obvious fact that Harris is a conservative. And that is without even mentioning Sam’s claim that Ben Carson has a better understanding of the situation in the Middle East than Noam Chomsky!
It is worth noting more broadly that the “new atheists” are probably more conservative than other atheist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Glen Greenwald, which would explain their emphasis on personal responsibility i.e. seeing people as rational actors rather than victims of circumstance, their defense of U.S. and European foreign policy, their fear of terrorism, their worldview that pits “us” against “them,” and the similarities in their worldviews between religious fundamentalist of various kinds.