Sam Harris is routinely the target of unwarranted criticism from those who fail to adequately represent his views. As a consequence Harris’ positions become caricatures with philosophical musings and their conclusions presented without context, or with context reassigned, as a clear demonstration of the man’s obvious insanity. It’s quite easy to do.
In a possibly futile attempt, at least in the eyes of his critics, Harris sat down with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks for a marathon 3 hour interview to clarify common misunderstandings. The final 10 minutes pin down the cause of the problems: deeper philosophical and ethical thought often requires the exploration of dangerous or apparently absurd ideas to obtain solid foundations.
The example given was the notion of eating babies. Harris posed, ‘Why can’t we eat babies? What’s wrong with eating babies? If we’ve got extra babies around that nobody wants, why can’t eat them?’
The purpose of posing these questions is to understand the exact rationale behind the value of a human life. It doesn’t suggest that he wants to eat babies and is reaching for the salt to prepare some tasty baby crackling (some cannibalistic tribes refer to humans as ‘long pig’ due to the similarities of the meat and our elongated limbs). These considerations are but a thinking tool. Asking the question reveals nothing of his views on the topic, which likely wouldn’t differ from your own.
The usual response by the unscrupulous is to overlay the quote on a portrait with unflattering lighting, or outsource the task to their minions on social media, like so:
This is then forwarded to millions and the slander is complete. ‘Harris can’t figure out why we can’t eat babies. What a monster!’
Others are not so clearly disingenuous. This applies to Uygur.
The maxim of ‘never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence‘ suggests it may be too combative to assume the worst. Yet even when evidence is presented, caveats are explained, distinctions are highlighted and finer details are clarified; the overly simplistic assessment often remains making it considerably more difficult to grant offenders the benefit of the doubt.
So perhaps there is something more sinister at play.
Alternatively, there is a third option which bridges the gap between incompetence and malice. They could even consider their actions noble.
Often times I wonder if people deliberately misrepresent others out of fear an idea could be misinterpreted. So they cut out the middle-man and pretend the perversion was the intent in order to thoroughly denounce the misinterpretation. This ploy necessarily, but justifiably (in their mind), sacrifices the reputation of the source in the process. In effect, the aim is to protect the public from misunderstanding potentially dangerous ideas. A white lie for what they deem to be the greater good.
Uyger voiced this concern towards the end of the discussion, ‘You’re not in a philosophy seminar, you’re in a world where people are influenced by your ideas … I’m worried that it’s going to have ramifications and consequences.’
Whether or not his worry influences his misunderstanding, and whether or not that possible influence is conscious or unconscious are the unknowns. It may be unfair to accuse offenders of intentional misrepresentations.
The rush to judgement may be granting too much intellectual credit as it appears the confusion is genuine. This assessment is lent credence by the applicational inconsistency of the ‘white lie’ rationale.
For my attempted apology to hold, offenders would have to be knowingly deploying this deceptive tactic in defence of religion, which is perhaps the ultimate example of a dangerous idea in the history of our species, and the one most befitting its use.
It would appear they are ignorant, or at best confused and misguided. Which is disconcerting given these media representatives wield considerable clout in the circulation of ideas and remain the public’s primary source of information.