Some Clarifications on the Mythology Springing Up Around My Recent Twitter Exchange with Sam Harris

Some very strange mythology is springing up around the recent Twitter exchange I had with Sam Harris. I’m getting tired of repeating the same clarifications again and again, so I’m going to post them here and just link to them.

Two key points:

1: No, I don’t think Sam Harris is responsible for everything that all of his fans say or do. I don’t think any writer is responsible for everything that all of our fans say or do. I don’t think that, and I never said that. I do think that in general, writers should be aware of the effect we’re having, and if our fans are saying or doing bad things in our name, it’s certainly a good thing to speak out against it. But writers are not responsible for everything that all of our fans say or do. I don’t think they are, and I never said that they are.

2: No, I don’t think Sam Harris, or any writer, has a responsibility to speak out against absolutely every bad thing that ever happens. I understand that writers are busy — heck, I understand that people in general are busy — and I don’t expect everyone to speak about everything. And I understand that Sam Harris, in particular, is probably more busy than most of us. (However, if a writer is responding to a bad thing that happened, and they’re spending more time getting defensive and hostile towards the person who’s calling it to their attention than they are actually speaking out against the bad thing, that’s somewhat troubling.)

So. For anyone who cares, here’s how the exchange actually unfolded.

1: I got a comment on my blog from a fan of Sam Harris, defending him against criticisms I’d made — a hateful misogynist comment, with a not-very-veiled threat.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 11.23.18 AM

fuck you,you ugly dyke.sam will be of more relevant to humanity than you. you irrelevant whore.just die already.

2: I posted about this comment, Tweeted a link, and tagged Sam Harris, to let him know it had happened.

#mencallmethings: “ugly dyke,” “irrelevant whore,” “just die.” (Note that this was in defense of @SamHarrisOrg .) http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2014/09/22/mencallmethings-ugly-dyke-irrelevant-whore-just-die/

IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: Please note that nowhere in this Tweet did I blame Harris for the misogynist comment. I tagged him on it, calling to his attention the fact that the comment had been made in his defense.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: If Harris hadn’t responded at all, I would have understood. See above, re: people being busy, and Sam Harris in particular probably being more busy than most of us, and people not having the bandwidth to respond to absolutely everything.

However:

3: Sam Harris responded. He spent six comments being defensive about this incident, and aiming hostility at me about it. Those comments are documented here.

IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: This whole “He doesn’t have time to respond to everything! He’s not responsible for speaking out against every bad thing!” narrative is now completely blown to pieces. If he had time and bandwidth to post six comments about why he wasn’t responsible for the misogynist comment (which, again, I never said he was), then he had time and bandwidth to speak out against the misogyny.

4: I responded back, asking him to spend less bandwidth defending himself against accusations I didn’t make and to just speak out against misogyny and threats, and explaining why it matters. Link, link,link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link.

IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: Not only did I never say that Harris was responsible for the original misogynist comment — I specifically said that he wasn’t. Also, not only did I never say that Harris was responsible for speaking out about every bad thing — I specifically said that he wasn’t, and said I would have understood if he hadn’t responded to me in the first place.

5: Sam Harris finally did speak out against misogynist and threatening statements made by some of his fans.

I’m told that certain of my “fans” threaten my critics with violence when defending my views. If you are one of these jerks, unfollow me.

6: I re-Tweeted this, and thanked him for it.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 4.21.48 PM

Greta Christina retweeted: I’m told that certain of my “fans” threaten my critics with violence when defending my views. If you are one of these jerks, unfollow me.

Greta Christina: Thank you. That’s all I was asking for.

7: During this time, and for some time afterwards, I also engaged in conversation with others on Twitter about this exchange, and about the original misogynist comment that sparked it. (There’s no way I can document all of that, as there’s too much of it. Sorry.)

That’s it. That’s the story.

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Some Clarifications on the Mythology Springing Up Around My Recent Twitter Exchange with Sam Harris
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69 thoughts on “Some Clarifications on the Mythology Springing Up Around My Recent Twitter Exchange with Sam Harris

  1. 2

    Thanks for so carefully parsing the issue, Sam. Glad that as a fan of yours I can still call someone an ugly, irrelevant dyke whore. So long as I don’t ask them to die; that would be over the line!

  2. 3

    Every time I looked at Twitter today, Greta, there you were dealing with this. I am so sorry that talking about the fact that you were harassed only brought you more harassment.

  3. 4

    What you say is basically what I said to Richard Dawkins in the discussion that led up to the joint statement. (Too bad that effort got wasted so quickly.) Lots of people were thinking he was ok with the harassment, in the wake of Dear Muslima, so yes, it would indeed be useful for him to say he wasn’t.

  4. 5

    After reading your blog last night I was thinking the same thing. Once Sam starting talking about the nasty comment basic decency says he should condemn it. I am glad that he did but you had to prod him a bit.

  5. 6

    Can I ask about Sam’s original mistake?

    The use of the phrase “estrogen vibe” was cringe-worthy but I read his statement as a comment about the interests of men and women – not as a comment about the capability of men and women. “Fuck you, you sexist patronizing asshole” was a surprise and the subsequent morphing into “Sam said women can’t think well” and “Sam says that women aren’t good at critical analysis” that took place elsewhere was also a surprise.

    So, two things – one, was Sam saying that women are less capable than men and was I somehow not hearing it? I’m not asking this to be a smart-ass – if he was I want to know about my blind spot. And if he was not, is it taboo to suggest that men and women might be interested in different things or find different styles of presentation more or less appealing as groups? It seems to me that the suggestion that they are is becoming off limits. I find myself having a tough time abandoning the idea that men and women are interested in different things to different degrees. Worse yet (or at least it seems like even more of a taboo), I have a tough time abandoning the idea that men and women are different in capacity/capability/propensity in certain areas. I am probably going to continue to think that women are less violent than men and that some kind of cultural change where we inculcated boys and girls identically would not change this.

    The response to Sam makes me worry that merely asking these questions is horrible sexist bullshit. Am I part of the problem?

  6. 8

    @Fedorable:

    The comment you are referring to implied that critical thinking is a male interest. And that the reason women aren’t ‘into’ critical thinking is because it doesn’t have that ‘estrogen vibe.’

    This very strongly implicits that women don’t do critical thinky because estrogen prevents us.

    This is extremely sexist, and declares that women aren’t as good at it as men… because of that scary scary estrogen.

    For the second part, how much of the differences in interests between the genders is due to early socialization and/or hostile environments? Why should I be interested in doing, say, anthropological field research when about 1/3 of the women who do so are sexually assaulted or raped? Fuck that noise for a lark. I find anthropology fascinating, but I have NO interest in participating.

    Why should I also have any interest in participating in Sam Harris’ ‘critical thinking’ when he thinks I don’t want to because estrogen vibes? It’s a self-reinforcing statement.

  7. 9

    The response to Sam makes me worry that merely asking these questions is horrible sexist bullshit. Am I part of the problem?

    fedorable @ #6: Asking the questions is not sexist (although it might be sexist if you demand answers from any given feminist at any given time — that’s a thing people sometimes do, expect Feminism 101 education on demand). What would be sexist is not listening to the answers. Many people have written explanations of what, exactly, was sexist about Harris’s comments. Here’s one by Amanda Marcotte; here’s another by Jamie Bernstein. Please read these: they answer at least some of the questions you raised here. If you have questions that aren’t answered there, then by all means, ask. (I’m writing a piece on this, too, but it won’t be up for a day or two.)

  8. 10

    Let’s all take a moment to remember that Sam Harris said this regarding extremists among Muslims:

    It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities.

    You know, before you go defending this guy on the grounds that he shouldn’t be expected to speak out against terrible things being done in his name.

  9. 12

    I think I caught most of this stuff yesterday and today on Twitter. It sure did seem like various Sam defenders were pretty determined to misread or twist what Greta was saying. Lots of people sure fuss about being charitable, but that doesn’t seem to happen much when reading what feminists say, and certainly didn’t hear. Several were sure obsessed with that idea that it’s horrible to expect someone to respond to every horrible thing their followers might say, no matter how often Greta corrected them.

    One thing I was a bit surprised no one jumped on, though, is that it looked like from the timestamps that I think Greta missed Sam’s denouncement tweet at first, leading to his tweet about ‘how often must I’. Not that this is really a gotcha anyway since it still took lots of defensive retorts before getting around to the denouncement.

    It’s still really disappointing how many people will jump in to that ‘defense’ against criticism from feminists, and not just read it uncharitably but actually twist what’s said in to straw and keep harping on it without appearing to read the replies. And almost the same responses over and over from different people. That was a lot of patience Greta showed, putting up with it to reply reasonably.

  10. 14

    @Tom Foss

    Precisely what I was thinking! The dynamics of the situation is like the islamist extremist thing, in milder form surely, but the principle is the same.

    The Imams are now justified to respond to Sam “so you want me to tell my congregation that they are not supposed to murder people and blow things up? How ridiculous! Does anything go without saying?”

  11. 16

    Saying “ew, don’t do that” when someone defends you using violent threats and misogynistic language is pretty much the bare minimum requirement of decency, right? And yet he had to be cajoled into it. That really doesn’t speak well to his senses of ethics or morality or, for that matter, understanding of how people work in general.

  12. 17

    @8

    The comment you are referring to implied that critical thinking is a male interest.

    That’s actually not what he said. He was talking about “being critical.” That’s not the same thing as “critical thinking.”

    @10

    Let’s all take a moment to remember that Sam Harris said this regarding extremists among Muslims:

    It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities.

    You know, before you go defending this guy on the grounds that he shouldn’t be expected to speak out against terrible things being done in his name.

    This comparison would hold up if and only if the random troll’s actions were somehow animated by a specific doctrine prescribed by Sam Harris. Religious violence finds justification in its doctrines. Misogynist internet trolls are deranged people with no semblance of even bad ethical motivation. Just block them where you find them and hope that they aren’t pet owners. They are not rational actors and they can’t be reasoned with.

  13. 18

    Yeah, his comment was sexist and anyway I’m not crazy about Sam Harris mainly because I seem to disagree with him politically on quite a few things. He also seems to have a problem ever admitting what he said was wrong (or possibly like some of the other atheist leaders always thinks his reasoning is unimpeachable). But I think his reluctance to criticise the abusive tweeters was probably more to do with Greta saying “Fuck you, you sexist, patronising asshole” and about his books, “……and we don’t want to hear it, or anything else from you, ever again?” than with any particular problem in principle. I actually give him credit for replying at all.

  14. 19

    @Thats,

    It’s that easy, huh. Simply othering “them” as lesser humans and putting the super-block on them? No, no. It’s a continuum from Dawkins blackballing Rebecca at conferences to others sending her rape and death threats online. The line is blurry. Sure, block the obvious trolls – as if that hadn’t occurred to the victims.

  15. 20

    @malmo

    Sure, it’s the tone that counts.
    He told women without using any of the bad, bad curse words that their gender isn’t really able to do the thinky thing. Remember: It doesn’t matter how offensive the meaning of your words is as long as it is civil!
    Of course, then, Greta used the *bad bad* words on him, poor guy, he’s such a mensch for even bothering to answer! Let’s hope he had enough soap hangldy to wash his ears.

  16. 21

    @Alex Tone matters if your dealing with an individual. I suppose Greta wrote the post with her normal audience in mind and thats fine and I bet it was well received. But then she engaged with Harris on Twitter. You think he’s going to ignore that she suggested he’s an asshole and that no-one should read his books ever again (even if it was implicit). That’s why I was surprised he replied.

  17. 22

    Anyone who wants to defend Harris needs to deal with this:

    For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

    Setting aside the issue of sexism for a moment, holy monkeyballs, can you imagine Harris, himself, accepting that sort of argument in any other context? “How much of the biodiversity we currently see is due to evolution and how much to a Divine Creator? I have no idea, but I’m confident that each of these factors plays a role.” “How much of the increased rate of autism is due to better diagnostic techniques and how much is due to vaccines? I have no idea, but….”

    But yes, Harris’ argument is, quite literally, the following: “There is a notable gender disparity in my fan base. Exactly zero words in this long, tedious essay are devoted to scientific studies, but it’s safe to conclude that it is due to innate factors such as hormones and chromosomes. I have absolutely no justification for this position save my reluctance to acknowledge that perhaps something I do makes me less appealing to women, in general, and the combination of my own faults and broader social trends are more than sufficient to explain this perceived imbalance.”

    Women vote for Democrats at a higher rate the Republicans. Gender difference, must be estrogen, not vile Republican policies driving them away…

    In the 1950’s more men went to college. Clearly estrogen kept women from participating in academia…

    It’s an old argument. It’s been wrong every time.

  18. 26

    @22 doubtthat

    No, hormones and chromosomes were not one of the factors previously mentioned. Read the paragraph again. The most you could suggest is that when he says “psychological differences between the sexes” that he means hormones and chromosomes, but he would come back and say that psychological differences between the sexes could be culturally influenced.

    That paragraph is phrased like a politician, deliberately obfuscating meaning.

  19. 28

    @That’s just, like, your opinion, man. says (#17)

    That’s actually not what he said. He was talking about “being critical.” That’s not the same thing as “critical thinking.

    I gather you see as two separate things:
    Critical thinking: The ability to assess and spot flaws in the reasoning / arguments of others.
    Being critical: Pointing those flaws out.

    With this distinction in mind – is your defense of Sam Harris that
    1) He wasn’t saying women couldn’t think just as critically as men.
    2) He was just saying women were less inclined than men to “be critical” (that is, women are less motivated than men to point out flaws in the reasoning of others).
    3) A key culprit for this discrepancy is hormones: women’s brains, unlike men’s, are exposed to estrogen. Estrogen compels women to nurture, rather than confront, those around them. This makes them less likely to care about or relate to all those critical postures that estrogen-free men, like Sam Harris, are able to take.

    Do you think this is the point Sam Harris was actually trying to make? Is it your perception that Harris’ critics, if they’d only see this ACTUAL message, would understand that Sam wasn’t saying anything sexist at all?

  20. 30

    @26 doublereed

    I agree that he’s being fuzzy, but in the context of the writing, it’s clear that he’s referring to innate differences:

    he atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.

    Sure, off the cuff, trying to be funny, surely he distanced himself from this view in his “clarification,” right? Wrong:

    if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

    So there it’s clear that he believes hormones do, in fact, affect psychology, which I don’t think anyone would challenge. The question, of course, is whether they’re relevant to this particular topic. You can find plenty of people discussing various “temperaments” of the races or explaining how the “natural” tendencies of women disqualify those groups from academia, the military, law school, medical school, sports…etc., and every time it’s turned out that it was actually social structures, not hormones, barring equal participation.

    Harris is moving from a perceived gender gap in his audience –> gender gap in atheist activism and leadership –> some innate difference. It’s an argument based entirely on sloppy musing and not remotely grounded in anything resembling factual substantiation (for good reason, there isn’t any). And it’s obviously sexist, whether Sam Harris had a mother or not.

  21. 31

    @30 doubtthat

    I agree. I’m just saying that if you take him at his most literal and face value he isn’t saying anything at all. It’s deliberate. He’s designing the conversation such that he always has a method of evasion and “You’re putting words in my mouth.”

    It’s all implications. No direct statements.

  22. 32

    Hypothetically if Ajay had tweeted those violent comments aimed at say, Richard Dawkins and attached Sam, I have a feeling Sam would have immediately shut the asshole down. Sam would not rush to your’s or PZ’s defense because you’re not part of their club. Sam and Richard don’t like you and are so childish that they won’t have the decency to tell their violent misogynist fans “guys don’t do that”.

  23. 34

    @kevinkirkpatrick

    Thank you.

    Critical thinking is required for being critical in a way that is constructive, not just ‘being critical’ by being an asshole. But apparently my estrogen makes it so that I can’t do that sort of stuff, because vibes.

  24. 35

    @ 13 – Nate – After watching this 3+ year continuing ‘situation’ for lack of a better word, I would go further than what you spelled out, for the reason you spelled out. I think that economic issues are heavily at play, which makes me even more irritated and sickened by it. Apologies if it seems that I’m making a reverse ‘click-bait’ observation. But I think that there is a large contingent of a certain type that follows Harris and Dawkins, and they are loud and they are rigid, and they don’t brook dissent. That’s a lot of book sales and appearances we’re talking about being on the line. They – Dawkins and Harris – don’t have an incentive to care other than human decency, and apparently that’s not enough….

  25. 36

    @fedorable; @That’s just, like, your opinion, man. says: As is so often the case, Harris’s original statement wasn’t the biggest part of the problem. The biggest part of the problem was his apologia in response to the criticism. In that, he doubles down on hormone-based gender essentialism and ironically clarifies that he did mean that he thinks women are less likely to engage in overtly critical discourse becasue estrogen (and I say ironically because this is amid complaints that women are being too mean in calling him out). Had he said something like, “Oops, I made a mistake, that was supposed to be an obvious joke becasue gender essentialism is ridiculous, I’ll try better to think about the likelihood that people will problematically interpret my statements in the future and make clearer statements less prone to such interpretations,” we would be celebrating him instead. We’re not simply making shit up to be outraged; a lot of us used to be big fans of these various Thinky-Thought Leaders. Harris’s initial comments were tone-deaf at best; the follow-up clarified that the most charitable read was not actually the correct one.

  26. 37

    @Seven of Mine #23: I immediately latched on to that bit as far and away the most obvious demonstration of Harris’s unexamined sexism. He says that he has no clue what he’s talking about, but he still feels qualified to tell people (many of them women, all of them more informed about the subject than he is) the correct interpretation of the subject. It’s a lack of self awareness that’s almost too severe to believe, a textbook case of mansplaining with the lack of expertise even directly acknowledged by the speaker.

  27. 38

    kevinkirkpatrick,

    @28

    I actually disagree with your definition of critical thinking. That’s not how it’s defined or used in common parlance. This definition, swiped from wikipedia sums it up pretty well as the

    intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

    Whereas being critical, as you said, is to point out flaws in people’s thinking. He was saying that this tendency in “new atheism” is perceived as being aggressive/combative. Which is true. Even among many male, testosterone-vibey atheists, it is perceived as combative–excessively so.

    With this distinction in mind – is your defense of Sam Harris that
    1) He wasn’t saying women couldn’t think just as critically as men.

    I wouldn’t call it a defense but, yes, it’s obvious that he wasn’t saying that.

    2) He was just saying women were less inclined than men to “be critical” (that is, women are less motivated than men to point out flaws in the reasoning of others).

    No. He said that his brand of writing “can sound very angry to people,” and that men, on average, are more attracted to it.

    3) A key culprit for this discrepancy is hormones: women’s brains, unlike men’s, are exposed to estrogen.

    He also never said this. Read “extra estrogen vibe” however you want, but there’s nothing in his writing suggesting that estrogen is preventing people from becoming atheist activists.

    Depending on how you want to define “sexism,” maybe what he said was actually sexist. As for me, I would hesitate to throw around words like “sexism” or “racism” loosely. It makes them lose their moral gravity. There is sexism as a social phenomenon, which just about everybody participates in at some level, at least unconsciously; and then there sexists, who consciously and deliberately uphold sexism or pursue sexist social policies. People have all kinds of cognitive, “in-group-out-group” racial and gender biases–even people that are genuinely dedicated to social justice. Publicly branding someone as racist or sexist is a totally different ball-game than questioning someone’s implicit assumptions or biases, and it never leads to productive dialogue, only resentment and fear of saying the wrong things.

  28. 39

    (However, if a writer is responding to a bad thing that happened, and they’re spending more time getting defensive and hostile towards the person who’s calling it to their attention than they are actually speaking out against the bad thing, that’s somewhat troubling.)

    ‘Somewhat troubling’ should win for biggest understatement of at least the decade. 🙂

    That should be in huge, bold, 18 point font…..

  29. 41

    That’s just, like, your opinion, man. @ 38

    Publicly branding someone as racist or sexist is a totally different ball-game than questioning someone’s implicit assumptions or biases, and it never leads to productive dialogue, only resentment and fear of saying the wrong things.

    Here is the chain of events:

    1) Sam Harris said a thing.
    2) A bunch of people said “Yo, Sam. That thing you said? Kinda sexist.”
    3) Sam Harris said “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.”

    In other words, we are “questioning someone’s implicit assumptions or biases.” Nobody implied Sam Harris is consciously sexist other than Sam Harris.

  30. 45

    17

    This comparison would hold up if and only if the random troll’s actions were somehow animated by a specific doctrine prescribed by Sam Harris. Religious violence finds justification in its doctrines. Misogynist internet trolls are deranged people with no semblance of even bad ethical motivation. Just block them where you find them and hope that they aren’t pet owners. They are not rational actors and they can’t be reasoned with.

    Why is there necessarily a doctrine involved. Also, how can you say that the cultural phenomena of misogyny or terror are not equally real or despicable. You mean misogynists actually need a manifesto and every single one of them must subscribe to it. That is a purely ridiculous requirement.

    Religious violence is not wholly defined by what you think it is. Frequently it is an ancillary excuse. There is a whole lot of spectrum in between those two things.

    Misogynists – you can drop the dismissive “internet trolls” pseudo-category – are real and many will explicitly claim an ethical motivation. Again on the flip side, not all religious extremists actually have an ethical motivation, but merely bend to their own problems and/or peer influence. Anger and pack behavior.

    “Don’t feed the trolls” doesn’t work. The kind of troll who says random garbage or mashes their keyboard and posts it to be disruptive? Yeah, not the same thing. And letting posts like that stand without a response, puts it into some people’s heads that this is popular or right or OK as a way to think, speak, and be.

    Since when are the religious extremists (with a doctrine in a suitcase or whatever) any more rational and subject to having their opinion swayed?

    I find all this more troublesome than some half-arsed attempt at apologetics for Harris, and I address it completely divorced from that portion of the comment. Others have addressed that.

  31. 46

    @That’s just, like, your opinion, man #40:

    Other’s would have blog posts entitled “Sam Harris admits to being sexist scum-bag.” The accusations of bigotry preceded his defense.

    I notice that title isn’t a link. Care to link the blog posts that were so titled?

    #43:

    A bunch of people said a lot more than that.

    Each construction worker may only shout one disgusting thing at a woman walking by, but in aggregate, they’re going to have a negative effect on the target. The guy who says the last thing before she snaps and screams invective at him may think he’s been treated unfairly–after all, he only said one thing, and maybe it wasn’t even as explicit as what some of the other guys said–but he got caught in the unlucky position of being the straw that broke the camel’s back. You’d almost feel sorry for him if he weren’t participating in street harassment.

    Similarly, Sam Harris said one dumb, sexist thing, and maybe if he weren’t the third or fourth (or, counting the Buzzfeed article, something like the eighth) atheist in the span of a week or so to say something dumb and sexist or to have major news break about his dumb sexism, the response might have been more measured. But he threw it on an already bulging pile, and the collective response was “Jesus fucking Christ, not another one.” People were already exasperated at having to dredge up the same 101-level conversations they’d been having all week to address misogynist mythology, and here comes Sam Harris to drop a brain myth as discredited as the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy in the midst of it all. If that were all there were to things, we’d all shed a single manly tear for Sam Harris, the poor lout who said a dumb thing at the worst possible time.

    Except it’s not. This isn’t, you may be surprised to discover, the first interview Sam Harris has ever given. In fact, he’s a rather prolific writer and speaker in atheist circles, who has, believe it or not, said dumb sexist things in the past. He said, then defended, sexist things about Sarah Palin in 2008, even pulling out the same “sexist pig” self-reflexive insult that he’s using now (and that I have a hard time believing has been seriously used by anyone in the last forty years). He’s on record saying that religion is worse than rape. If we broaden beyond sexism to generalized bigotry, we’d be here all night, and if we generalized out to “conservative things Harris assumes are true because of ‘common sense’ and gut feelings despite the actual evidence being solidly against him,” we might be here until the heat-death of the universe. Harris didn’t just pop out fully-formed into that interview, and people are familiar with his body of work–including his past ventures into ill-considered bigotry. The fact that his response to accusations of sexism now is exactly the same hyperbolic defensive posture as it was six years ago suggests an all-too-familiar pattern. People have picked up on the pattern. People are responding to a pattern of behavior.

    In short, Sam Harris also said a lot more than that.

    You know, we keep saying that science and skepticism encourages us to be more honest about the limits of our knowledge, and more comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” If Sam Harris had followed that bit of skeptic 101 advice–“You know, I honestly haven’t given it much thought, so I really don’t know”–instead of giving an off-the-cuff, ad hoc rationalization, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

  32. 47

    Why is there necessarily a doctrine involved.

    Religions share a doctrine. When people are able to use that doctrine to justify violence, then there is a responsibility on moderate members of that religion to seriously address those doctrinal justifications.

    Also, how can you say that the cultural phenomena of misogyny or terror are not equally real or despicable.

    I didn’t say that. I would not ever say that. I don’t even know where you got this idea from.

    Religious violence is not wholly defined by what you think it is. Frequently it is an ancillary excuse. There is a whole lot of spectrum in between those two things.

    You don’t know what I think it is. I said that religious violence finds justification in religious doctrines. Sure, sometimes it’s an excuse. But by asserting this you are admitting that the religious doctrine can be used to justify violence.

    Misogynists – you can drop the dismissive “internet trolls” pseudo-category – are real and many will explicitly claim an ethical motivation.

    I never said that misogynists are not real. I also did not imply that they never express any kind of ethos. However, comments like “fuck you,you ugly dyke.sam will be of more relevant to humanity than you. you irrelevant whore.just die already” are obviously the rantings of a clinically psychopathic person (that is basically what internet trolls are in “real life”), which doesn’t make their misogyny any less real, but the point is that that comment could never be justified by anything that Sam Harris has written. So, again, the comparison of responsibilities that I was referring to does not hold. It’s a type error.

  33. 49

    Greta @ #9: Your response is an unexpected bonus – thanks for inviting me to ask more questions. And a thank you to the readers who took the time to write @me.

    I have read the links that Greta and others provided (and some other stuff) and I’ve learned a lot. It was particularly helpful to read that one does not have to hold a given sexist viewpoint in order to be exhibiting sexism. The questions that I now want to ask are very different than the ones that I previously thought I wanted to ask. I will continue to read more on the subject and I will adjust my worldview accordingly.

    I have a lot of questions but I’ll start with this one:
    Comment #22 doubtthat equates “psychological difference between the sexes” with vaccines causing autism and with the divine creator.

    Is it sexism to think that “psychological difference between the sexes” actually exists?

  34. 50

    It is sexist if you accept it unquestionably because it is almost impossible to tell what is *actually* due to chemistry/genetics (the idea that women are more gentle and nurturing because of estrogen, for example, is pure bunkum) and what is culturally ingrained.

    As a girl, I was pressured to conform to society’s standards of feminine behaviour. I was ostracised because I couldn’t be trained to fit that mold (mostly I was oblivious to the ways that not giving in would affect me; it’s only as an adult that I see the effects in hindsight). At even 6 years old the boys expected girls to be icked out by frogs and snakes, and would walk away confused when I asked where they found the frog so I could find one too. People would ask why I didn’t wear pretty skirts, and again look confused when I said that pants were better for climbing trees. They would ask me about princesses and I would instead wax poetic about troodon, my favorite dinosaur. Or maybe Remy, my favorite x-men character.

    Fast forward to Jr. High and I was the best at math in my particular classroom. I was ostracised again for being intelligent and liking to read. I was one of two girls in metal shop…. where the teacher was a sleaze and would try to look down my shirt. I was one of three girls in the ‘outdoor survival’ class, and the only one to go on the overnight backpacking trip. I remember the boys being taught wrestling, while we girls were taught volleyball.

    We treat female infants differently than we do male infants, girl toddlers different than boy toddlers, young girls different from young boys. We treat them differently in how we talk to them, what we expose them to, what we expect and accept as appropriate behaviour. It begins at birth.

    When you consider that, when you acknowledge that you absolutely CAN NOT separate cultural influence of behaviour from genetic influence of behaviour expression, then the idea of there being “women this way because estrogen, men that way because testosterone” becomes ludicrous.

    I’m a woman. I’m good at math. I love the sciences. I’m extremely strong for my height, and even more so for my gender. I’m aggressive. I have a potentially violent temper and when young I *hurt* several other kids who were teasing me for not being a proper girl. I stabbed a boy in the arm with a pencil. I’m a very physical person, preferring to ‘do’ rather than chat. Sure, I’m very nurturing but that’s because I have a protective streak a mile wide and if someone is harming something helpless near me my temper comes out full force. I once attacked a bunch of boys who were batting butterlies out of the air and ripping their wings off with the very sticks they had been using.

    And when people tell me, even implicitly, that because I am a woman there are things I can’t do, or shouldn’t like, it makes me want to bite them in the throat.

    I’m a woman with behaviours we, socially attribute to men, because that’s how we raise boys. And many people find women like me uncomfortable to be around, because of that social conditioning of how women are supposed to behave.

  35. 51

    Is it sexism to think that “psychological difference between the sexes” actually exists?

    I’m really at a complete loss to understand why people cannot wrap their brains around this concept. No. It is not sexist to simply observe that there are differences. The problem is when people make declarative statements about the cause(s) of those differences being due to biology completely absent any evidence at all in support of that conclusion. The data is simply not there. There is plenty of data which demonstrates that culture and socialization have a huge impact on psychology. So, when you say “X because biology” when there’s no data to back that up and we know there’s culture and socialization at work, there’s no reason to be doing that unless you’re riffing on stereotypes and cultural biases. And that’s bigotry by definition.

  36. 52

    I have a lot of questions but I’ll start with this one:
    Comment #22 doubtthat equates “psychological difference between the sexes” with vaccines causing autism and with the divine creator.

    No, and that isn’t remotely what I said. I instantiated Harris’ argumentative structure with other examples to point out the absolute lunacy and vapidity of his argument. You’ll even notice that the paragraph you took this one begins with, “Setting aside the issue of sexism for a moment…”

    Feel free to insert an example that actually generates a compelling argument, as opposed to an awesome display of proud ignorance, “I have no idea, but I’m confident that…”

    Is it sexism to think that “psychological difference between the sexes” actually exists?

    Seven of Mine answered that better than I could in 51, so I will just support that post by pointing out that this same argument has been trotted out endlessly throughout history. Women’s innate “constitution” or “temperament” or “psychology” explained why they couldn’t be in the military or in college or in law school or med school or be doctors or lawyers…etc.

    Those claims were identical to this one: no science backing up a claim, just a gender disparity and people looking for a way to justify it that doesn’t involve societal responsibility. What about Harris’ explanation of his fan base differs from these previous cases?

  37. 53

    Couple more things:

    1) In taking umbrage to the conflation of “equate” and “analogize,” it appears I’ve ignored the fact that of pernicious lies, vaccination conspiracy theories, and awful and harmful as they are, look practically innocuous compared to the damage caused by vapid sexism.

    2) Though I know this is treading on dangerous ground, consider the following analogy –

    Observe this Daily Show clip (relevant portion begins at 4:00min)

    http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/8q3nmm/burn-noticed

    The no doubt earnest and completely free thinking Republican Congressman asks about Global Wobbling. The scientist points out that the wobbling cycles take place over such an extended period of time that they have almost no effect on events occurring during the time scale in question.

    Here’s the analogy (close your doors, board your windows): Were someone to ask the following question, “Is it global warming denial to think that “global wobbling” actually exists?” The answer, obviously, would be “no.” Is it global warming denial to attempt to explain warming trends over the last 150 years with wobbling. Hell yes.

    Pointing to a phenomenon doesn’t finish the process. You need to take the second step and show causal relevance. Notice that Global Wobbling is something that exists and is highly relevant over the proper time scale, compared to “psychological differences” (good lord, the vague, inchoate nature of that concept should give any critical thinker pause before using it), which haven’t been show to be relevant to anything.

    But this falls in line with the slippery argumentation style that doublereed pointed out: Harris tries to move his argument forward by shifting the burden, as you tried to do, “What, you want to argue that psychological differences have no effect?” When it’s perfectly possible to grant that unproven assertion (it does seem reasonable in a natural sense) and still argue that like wobbling to the warming of the globe, the effect is so limited in this case that it’s an irrelevant, useless consideration.

    And again, you folks haven’t even really proven that the phenomenon in question exists.

  38. 54

    Wow! This appears to be far worse than I ever anticipated it could be. It’s early but so far the zeitgeist appears to be that the reality we live in over here is somewhere between “there are absolutely no differences between men and women” and “under some specifically strained circumstances we might consider the possibility that men and women are different, but only in insignificant ways and absolutely, positively not because of anything biological”. Maybe some rational voices will come forth and speak up to correct these ridiculous and crippling foundational propositions upon which everything else that follows can be justifiably disregarded.

    Just the mere fact that the term ‘gender essentialism’ exists at all is indicative of a massive problem. It’s as useful as the term ’round-earthers’. That it gets thrown around as a slur or as ammunition to dismiss criticism – I’m sick and tired of those round-earth bastards shoving their preconceptions down my throat; oh, that’s just that goddamn gender essentialism trope being brought up again for the 5000th time – well, you have to be fucking kidding.

    This is like wandering into a creationism community that’s studying evolution under the unyielding framework that the earth is 6000 years old. They might occasionally get something right but it will be only by luck or bad reasoning. We are not out of line to dismiss them as not really involved in anything meaningful. If this community lives under the umbrella of men and women are not biologically different, everything that flows from here is meaningless.

    This level of denial of reality is staggering – and crippling. So many more people who could help effectively deliver the message that this community wants everyone to hear could be on board. Greta is such a good writer and such a good thinker. I can’t imagine that she supports this inanity.

  39. 55

    @Greta #9

    Assuming that you don’t support the inanity…

    I am surprised that Amanda Marcotte is recommended reading. It’s clear to me that there’s a large segment of the audience that’s going to read the first paragraph where she bolds the “[Sam suggests] that it’s women’s biological inferiority” and go — wait… what? Really?

    – Is it sexism to be among the readership that goes — wait… what? Really?
    – Is it sexism to think it’s disingenuous for her to make this leap?
    – Is it sexism to think she should know better?
    – Is it sexism to disregard her follow on conclusions?

    Among the things here that surprise me – according to Amanda, unless we refuse to accept the notion that men are more violent than women, we are supporting the idea that nothing can be done about male violence. According to Amanda, a graph that shows something going from 10 to 5 means that a future value of 0 is possible (and demonstrates that the cause of the value being non-zero in the first place is the cause that she wants it to be).

    I really wanted to ask: Must one read Sam’s comments and conclude that he is stating that women are inferior to men? Can one read Sam’s comments and come to the conclusion that he’s talking about levels of interest and not capability without being sexist?

    But now I worry that all questions about sexism are moot because mere observation of reality is sexist.

  40. 56

    @fedorable

    Got it. You won’t read or respond to actual arguments. You just want to ask rhetorical questions that give a superficial appearance of thoughtfulness while avoiding providing any actual argument or reasoning.

    Again, global wobbling exists, it’s just irrelevant to the last 150 years of warming. Maybe there are biological differences between men and women relevant to our psychologies, but you need to show how they have any relevance to this topic.

  41. 59

    ..the reality we live in over here is somewhere between “there are absolutely no differences between men and women” and “under some specifically strained circumstances we might consider the possibility that men and women are different, but only in insignificant ways and absolutely, positively not because of anything biological”…

    Why does the truth need to lie between those two possibilities (tiresomely phrased as they are)? You’ve given absolutely no evidence, hell, no reason, why that should be the case. Because of your personal incredulity? That doesn’t move me much when it comes from people who have exhibited thoughtfulness on other topics, much less some goofball that comes rolling in attempting to Socratic Method some punks, and can’t even keep his agenda hidden for more that one post (and arguably, not even that).

    Hell, you first need to prove there are psychological differences. Then you need to prove that these differences arise from biology rather than societal custom. Then you need to show that these biological differences are rooted in sex differences, as opposed to spread across people regardless of sex. Then you need to show that this specific psychological feature unique to women is the reason Harris has many more male twitter followers.

    Or you can skip that step and say, “How can I go about proving this? I have no idea, but I’m confident…”

    Maybe some rational voices will come forth and speak up to correct these ridiculous and crippling foundational propositions upon which everything else that follows can be justifiably disregarded.

    For someone radiating hollow sanctimony like squiggly lines of a cartoon skunk’s tail, even this is pretty bold. “Crippling foundational propositions?” Such as, “I don’t need to provide evidence for any of this, I can will it into truth will the sheer force of my disdain for women?”

  42. 62

    @Seven #55 – thanks for pointing to your earlier statement that it’s not sexist to simply observe that there are differences. I can’t tell if doubtthat agrees or disagrees with that statement.

    When you made it, you then went on to say “The problem is when people make declarative statements about the cause(s) of those differences being due to biology completely absent any evidence at all in support of that conclusion”. Are you talking about a given instance where someone makes a statement, suggests that biological differences could be behind their supposition, and then fails to point out how biological differences could be in play in regard to this specific issue? Or are you saying that it’s a problem when someone says that there are biological differences between men and women – and that it’s a problem because there is no evidence at all to support the conclusion that there are biological differences between men and women?

  43. 63

    @doubtthat

    What is your argument? I can’t tell what it is that I’m not responding to.

    What is it that I am expected to provide evidence for? I sure hope it’s for something other than the assertion that there are biological differences between men and women.

  44. 64

    @fedorable

    It’s right above your post. This blog isn’t Snapchat, the posts don’t disappear after you read them.

    If you want to defend Harris, you need to provide evidence that (1) there are psychological differences between men and women (2) these differences are genetic, not cultural (3) that the genetic basis is related to sex and not just distributed across humanity as a whole and (4) that these genetic psychological differences have any relevance to the composition of Sam Harris’ fan base.

    Now, if you’re asking what evidence you need to support the gibberish you pooed out in posts 54 and 55, that will be more complicated. You could start by providing evidence to justify any of your condemnation of the views expressed buy, presumably, Seven of Mine and me. Because you were just babbling at the moon and not actually responding to any points that people made, it’s impossible to tell who or what you were arguing against.

  45. 65

    fedorable @ 61

    Are you talking about a given instance where someone makes a statement, suggests that biological differences could be behind their supposition, and then fails to point out how biological differences could be in play in regard to this specific issue? Or are you saying that it’s a problem when someone says that there are biological differences between men and women – and that it’s a problem because there is no evidence at all to support the conclusion that there are biological differences between men and women?

    I don’t know what am I talking about? I have an idea! Maybe we could scroll up and re-read my post! Do you think that might help? Let’s try it and see! I’ll even quote it for you and bold the relevant parts:

    No. It is not sexist to simply observe that there are differences. The problem is when people make declarative statements about the cause(s) of those differences being due to biology completely absent any evidence at all in support of that conclusion.

    Do you think that statement is more consistent with me having a problem with people asserting biology as a cause without evidence or with me having a problem with people asserting that there are differences?

    But let’s back up a second to the beginning of your #61:

    thanks for pointing to your earlier statement that it’s not sexist to simply observe that there are differences.

    Do you see what you just did? You actually just said “thanks for pointing out that you don’t think it’s a problem to observe that there are differences…but did you mean that you think it’s a problem to observe that there are differences?”

    fedorable @ 62

    What is it that I am expected to provide evidence for?

    Really?

    doubtthat @ 59

    Hell, you first need to prove there are psychological differences. Then you need to prove that these differences arise from biology rather than societal custom. Then you need to show that these biological differences are rooted in sex differences, as opposed to spread across people regardless of sex. Then you need to show that this specific psychological feature unique to women is the reason Harris has many more male twitter followers.

    You’re not doing a very good job of disguising your willful obtuseness as innocent cluelessness.

  46. 66

    Please note that, @ #9, I pointed fedorable to some resources explaining why Sam Harris’s comments were sexist, and then said, “If you have questions that aren’t answered there, then by all means, ask.”

    Please note that fedorable is continuing to ask questions that were answered in those posts.

    fedorable appear to be “just asking questions” — i.e., asking 101-level questions again and again, and not responding to the answers or moving on.

    fedorable has been put in comment moderation. Any of their future comments will have to be approved by me before they are posted.

  47. 67

    This selective recollection is highly self-serving and increasingly divorced from reality.

    The relevant statements that aren’t recounted in the selective recollection above are such charming and well-evidenced scientific statements as:

    “Fuck you, you sexist patronizing asshole” (argumentum ad hominem is one of the classic logical errors indicating that one’s ideas don’t deserve further consideration)

    “Sam said women can’t think well” (which he quite obviously never did, indicating incredibly poor reading comprehension and rhetorical skill)

    “Sam says that women aren’t good at critical analysis” (again, indicating severe reading comprehension errors)

    Mr. Harris pretty clearly said:

    1) Many others perceive his writing style as angry (note that he denies that it is angry, but asserts (with decent convincingness) that others often perceive it that way)

    2) That perception of him angrily “being critical” draws a male-biased audience, because males flock to engage in contentious exchanges perceived as “angry” at a significantly higher volume than women. (Evidence: reality, people; every sports audience ever, for starters).

    Need more internet-relevant evidence of that second assertion? 4chan, reddit, nerddoms everywhere. Done. Again: obvious, easily verified reality

    In return for those uncontroversial statements, 90% of the femternets demonstrated their recurring case of Tourette’s Syndrome and refused to engage the words that Harris actually wrote in good faith, instead veering into toxic, lazy, self-absorbed misrepresentations of his words that enabled them to rationalize multiple temper tantrums in public venues.

    Everything after that little bit of elided background, this entire post included, falsely presumes that anyone who repeatedly demonstrates an incapacity to engage the words actually written in good faith deserves to have any benefit of the doubt extended to anything else they ever write on the topic.

    If they apologize for their gross misrepresentations and ad hominem venom, they may be worth listening to again, ever, on similar topics.

    In the absence of such basic. minimal intellectual integrity and human decency, they can instead safely be ignored and/or be justifiably presumed to be engaged in dishonest hatchet jobs at all points thenceforth.

  48. 68

    90% of the femternets demonstrated their recurring case of Tourette’s Syndrome

    darththulhu @ #66: “The femternets”? Seriously? Goodbye.

    And can I just say in parting: I keep being struck by how, on the one hand, Harris’s followers angrily insist that “women don’t like criticism and conflict, because ladybrains and estrogen” isn’t sexist and is totes reasonable — and yet, when a whole lot of women are harshly critical of Harris, these same followers get angry and tone-trolling about it. It’s almost as if critical women experience gender policing and social pressure against being harshly critical.

  49. 69

    Sam Harris and acolytes: Women don’t like that I sound angry. Men are more attracted to the critical posture.
    Women: *angrily criticize Sam Harris for spouting discredited stereotypes about women*
    Sam Harris and acolytes: I refuse to listen to you while you’re being so angry and critical!

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