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Harris vs. Klein

A few months ago, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had an infamous debate posted to their respective podcasts. The following is a light edit of my initial thoughts on it.

It was, by universal agreement, a mess. In theory, the object-level concern of the debate was about the appropriateness of discussing Charles Murray’s contentious and possibly heinous ideas about race and IQ. But the podcast episode quickly devolved into meta-discussion. Harris accused Klein of succumbing to “Identity Politics,” and of slandering him and Murray in furtherance of that Identity Politics. Klein’s basic and oft-repeated reply was that Harris has an Identity Politics of his own, which he simply ignored, thereby de-emphasizing the history of racial oppression in the West.

They frustratingly talked past each other. Each ended up calling for the other to acknowledge something, and the other refused, saying “you acknowledge my thing!”

Klein is right that both men’s thoughts and values are rooted in their respective identities. Harris is indeed a “white man,” and that influences what he cares about. But if we’re basically doing psychoanalysis here, let’s take it seriously and be explicit about it. I doubt that Harris or even most people who know of his work would primarily identify him in racial terms, instead of as “celebrity atheist, popular scientist, controversial public intellectual.” In the same way, it would be awfully simplistic to call Klein a “white man,” instead of a “left-liberal policy wonk, also a controversial public intellectual.”

These two identities, not much related to race, are the real crux of the conflict.

Harris is a Defensor Veritatis. He thinks of himself, fundamentally, as a Defender of the Truth. He has personal experience in being maligned as a result of his reasonable statements, which he mentioned repeatedly in the podcast. He empathized with Murray precisely because of Murray’s similar experiences: damage to his reputation, and indeed assault against his colleague, as a result of his (in Harris’ view) reasonable opinions. Harris is especially tuned to this self-conception because of his work against religion. He repeatedly mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose colleague was murdered by Islamists) and other apostates from Islam, who to this day suffer death for speaking the Truth (as even Klein, an atheist himself, sees it). This identity has a long line of heroes and villains: Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno against the Church; John Scopes against the Fundamentalists; Socrates against the gods of Athens; even Jesus against the Pharisees, if you want to be subliminal about it.

Klein, on the other hand, is a Liberator Oppressorum. Whenever he isn’t cynical, he thinks of himself as a participant in the long march towards Justice. He has spent his career discussing ways society could take better care of the less fortunate. He is very aware of the ways politics can go wrong. He intuitively understands, like few others, the horrific scale of suffering that has been imposed on people. He is hypersensitive to oppression, obviously, because everyday journalism mostly involves researching the worst ways people are treated (functional institutions aren’t newsworthy). This identity also has a long list of heroes and villains, not that distinct from the other list: MLK against Jim Crow; Tubman against the Slave Power; Gandhi against the British Empire; Washington against the British Empire; you can even go as far back as Urukagina against Lugalanda, if you believe the inscriptions.

These identities don’t seem that opposed. What sort of discussion would we expect to put a Def. Ver. and a Lib. Opp. at odds? Precisely some (possibly) true statement X, whose acceptance might too easily (though not necessarily) contribute to some oppression Y. Lib. Opp. would understandably apply heavy scrutiny to anyone who talks about X. Some of their worst actors might actively harm them. This, of course, would cause Def. Ver. to become paranoid of censorship, so there would be even more discussion and defense of X, which would cause even more paranoia among Lib. Opp., and the cycle would continue.

Earlier, I said that each man refused to acknowledge something important the other said. Harris refused to consider the fact that as a Def. Ver., he was more naturally sympathetic to Murray than a Lib. Opp. would be. Klein made a similar refusal, which I suspect is also rooted in his identity. Multiple times, Harris asked, “It has been discovered that whites are more Neanderthal than Africans. What if the facts turned out the other way? How should good people react?” Klein never answered. I know, from listening to some other episodes of his podcast, that he is quite able to comprehend ugly dilemmas. For some reason, he ignored this one.

I have no great conclusion. Stop bickering. Keep on defending the truth, and liberating the oppressed. Our civilization is built upon the assumption that those different desires are reconcilable. I hope we’re right.