I Think Sam Harris Might Still Be Sleeping

I’ve been super into podcasts for the last year or so.  They’re a fantastic way to sort of learn by osmosis while I’m at work.  I can putter around at my desk and walk around the office and still pick up a good deal of information.  I’ve become pretty invested in some of the podcasts, but, because of its atmospheric quality and the low level of engagement podcasts require, they are also excellent media for listening to people with whom I disagree.

One of those people is Sam Harris.  He is a philosopher with a PhD in Neuroscience and has written several books.  By any objective measure, Harris is a brilliant guy.  He also tends to be a controversial guy for his hardline positions on (among other things) organized religion and particularly Islam.  Recently however, Islam has gotten a bit of respite.  Harris’s most recent punching bag is the liberal fascination with “identity politics.”

On the September 28 installment of his weekly podcast "Waking Up" (episode #99), Harris had a lengthy discussion with Mark Lilla of Columbia University.  Mark Lilla is ideologically liberal but critical of many aspects of modern liberalism, most notably what he defines as “identity politics.”  Lilla takes issue with the sort of identity politics that deal strictly with the theoretical, and serve primarily to fragment coalitions.  He does, however, credit the notion of group identity with being essential in addressing Civil Rights issues, recognize that some issues operate fairly independent of identity but that others don’t, and note how effectively group identity can galvanize support for important causes.  His issue seems to be with the ideological purity of some identity politics and the use of those politics to fragment rather than collectively advocate.  His critique (though I don’t agree with every part of it) is nuanced.  Harris’s critique is not.

At about 40:00, Harris dives into an analogy to make his point:

“The idea that you can’t find a non-sectarian source of energy in the face of evil – right? – or in the face of dysfunction, or in the face of injustice.  I just don’t think that’s true.  You know?  If there’s a hurricane bearing down on you, and you need to start filling sandbags, the hurricane is motivating enough.  The idea that you’re a ‘christian’ filling sandbags is, in the best case, irrelevant.”

Harris’s tunnel vision leads him into two enormous logical fallacies.  

The first is that he sets up a false choice by claiming that identity either is a solution to every problem or it’s a solution to none.  He seems to claim that those who argue the necessity of a measured identity politics believe it’s the former and that they believe there to be no other effective means of organizing.  This is, of course, not true and it’s especially odd considering his guest repeatedly addressed issues he felt were not so tightly interwoven with identity (trust and monopoly law, environmental policy, etc).

Recognizing identity is effective for organizing around issues in which identity plays an important determining role.  While we could quibble around the margins about whether we should recognize the more incidental impact of identity on some of the issues that his guest brought up, there are many issues of profound importance, for which ignoring or suppressing the impact of identity is explicitly counterproductive.  

How can we tackle the enormous and consequential problem of mass incarceration without recognizing how deeply tied the institution is to racial identity, not just in the present day, but since the days when convict leasing replaced slavery and the black codes as a legal means of social control and economic exploitation?  Ignoring how this experience cuts differently against gender and class means less effective and nuanced solutions to the problem.

His second logical fallacy is the analogy itself.  He starts with a problem – a hurricane – with an impact that is not mitigated or exacerbated by differences in identity (we could talk about the concentration of poverty and particularly of black and latino residents in the flood-prone areas of New Orleans and Houston, but I digress).  He then drops a human into his analogy and chooses for it an identity that has no conceivable impact on the situation in which it is placed.

If Harris chose, instead of a hurricane, literally any social problem of consequence – mass incarceration, police violence, poverty, education, unemployment, consumer debt, wage gaps, wealth inequality, uninsurance, narcotic or opioid abuse, infant or child mortality, depression, or any number of others – and paired it with any generally broad identity group – (sure) christians, immigrants, black Americans, women, Appalachian men, rural poor, urban poor, LGBTQ, or any number of others – his situation would have sounded perfectly reasonable.  If he’d picked a single social problem and seen how it impacted different groups of people differently he may have arrived at a nuanced solution for that problem.  If he’d paid close attention to those groups impacted by that problem the most and done the same with other social problems then he may even have had the beginnings of a coalition that could help him work toward solutions.

I certainly believe that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and I’ll argue with those who champion ideological or partisan purity at the expense of concrete progress any day of the week (and I’ve done so here and here, for example).  But Harris constantly argues that a focus on identity is a roadblock to achieving progressive goals.  His expression of that argument, however, suggests that he lacks the will or the interest to look at issues specifically and advocate for specific remedies, even when their identity politics might make them unpopular or easily branded as “divisive.”  This is a politics of convenience that suffers with the same blind spots evident in the progressive politics of the New Deal and other 20th Century “color-blind” (or identity blind) progressive initiatives.  It will lead to the same inequities.