Atheist horseman Sam Harris has denied being a sexist pig.
Having to defiantly declaim against a position you purport not to hold rarely ends well. In fact it’s usually a sign that things have started pretty badly and are only going to get worse (cf. 98% of all sentences ever composed which begin “I’m not racist, but”). And considering the umpteenth resurgence of interest, over the past week or so, in what a clusterfuck of prejudice and tribalism some corners of the atheist movement have turned into, you could be forgiven for expecting the worst.
But I don’t think this is anything like the train-wreck it might have been. I said on Twitter that I was around 85% in agreement with Harris in that post, and a day later I think that stands. He doesn’t seem to believe anything outrageous, and his stated position seems level-headed and pretty reasonable. I have a huge problem with the snide dismissiveness I’ve seen directed at people who disagree with this assessment and take greater issue with Harris’s words, but that hasn’t seemed to come from Harris himself. His cause is done no favours, though, by certain of his supporters, including the occasional “big name” of atheism who really should have learned to handle these pseudo-controversies more humanely and communicatively by now (naming no names, Professor).
One point on which I’m not wholeheartedly in support of Harris is his closing jabs against “a well-known feminist-atheist blogger” with whom he’s had some recent private correspondence over this matter. Now, it’s possible that he’s not talking about Greta Christina, but given her own public comments about engaging with him, it seems a reasonable bet. As I type this, she’s not had time to respond to Harris’s post in full, but has tweeted a link to this old post of hers as a relevant collection of thoughts in the meantime.
The piece is about the (apparently) common social justice slogan, “Intention is not magic”. This refers to the idea that, if you’ve caused somebody harm or offense, the simple fact that you didn’t intend to do so doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility for the harm you did, in fact, cause. “It wasn’t deliberate” is only a partial excuse, and that’s as true for, say, using a term you weren’t aware was a slur against a minority, or naively parroting a false and derogatory stereotype, as it is for accidentally crushing someone’s toe.
It’s an important point, worth remembering when people try to excuse blatant sexism and racism as harmless banter. All too often, people get haughty and defensive when it’s pointed out that they’ve caused offense, and attempt to hide behind the magic of their intent.
But intent’s not the only thing that isn’t magic. And, in this case, something else seems worth remembering:
Your immediate gut reaction to someone else’s words isn’t magic either. And nor is the unfavourable interpretation you instinctively place upon them when you take offense.
Both these “not magic” rules have to be applied discriminately. Some things are viscerally appalling at first glance for very good reasons; obviously complaints of offense are often legitimate and should be taken seriously. But it’s not out of the question that someone saying “I don’t think I have anything to apologise for” is basically in the right. (Many atheists will have experienced religious folk being outraged and “offended” that they dare to assert their own lack of belief; even if my saying “God doesn’t exist” upsets you, I don’t think I owe you an apology.)
And as much as the sincere apology format that Greta suggests probably should be a much bigger part of general discourse than it currently is, it’s not automatically the only acceptable response to an accusation of harm or offense being caused. We’re not magically obliged to bow and scrape our way through an “I didn’t mean to, I’ll try and do better next time” every time someone else reckons we were out of line. And, in this case, I’m not at all convinced that Sam Harris is the prejudiced, hate-filled, unrepentant monster some folk really are making him out to be.
The world in general could surely use a good deal more honest contrition, of the kind that really listens to our interlocutor’s concerns, and doesn’t mentally put them into a box as “someone on the other side of the argument and who I will therefore always be in dispute with”. Even if this isn’t a case where that’s the best way to fix things, you won’t have to go far to find another where it will.
Try not to let these disagreements divide the way you see the world into teams, though. I’m not on Team Anyone here. I spent a while being wary and uncomfortable with a couple of good atheist bloggers because they were coming down on the wrong “side” of a Rebecca Watson-centric debate (I forget which one), and that was a ridiculous way to behave. Greta’s still cool, and you should read her book.
Dawkins is kinda just turning into a dick, though.