If you’re a fan of Sam Harris or Noam Chomsky you might know that they recently had something of an intellectual scuffle. Or they almost did, anyway. Sadly, the conversation never really happened, and I wanted to write about how sad that actually is.
Here are the main points of the exchange and my takeaways:
Starting at the beginning, I was struck by how respectful and cordial Harris was, and how dismissive (and borderline rude) Chomsky was. This starts from the very first interaction, where Harris is referring to him by name, and “clearing up misconceptions” and such. Chomsky returns none of this; he’s terse and uses no greetings whatsoever. Poor form.
The overriding current throughout Chomsky’s remarks is that the West is always evil, and always worse than anyone they attack. I cannot find any counter examples to this, where he has any acknowledgment of how hard war is when you’re trying to hurt the enemy but not hurt innocents. He seems to not even acknowledge that the U.S. is usually being cautious in this way.
Harris keeps pointing to the concept of intentions in a way that I think should be intuitive to anyone willing to listen. He basically says that if any given crime is done by two people, we should look at what each wanted to accomplish to measure our response. If it was a major explosion at a chemical plant that killed 100 people, in both cases, but the first one was a bunch of kids playing with fireworks (even though they knew they were dangerous), then they are guilty–but not much. If it was a terrorist plot to kill as many people as possible, they are as guilty of those 100 deaths as possible.
Chomsky keeps sidestepping this point by saying that the U.S. knew that major damage COULD have happened, and thus they are guilty for all of it. This ignores Harris’ second point, which is a thought experiment called the Perfect Weapon. If the U.S. had a perfect weapon to use in the Middle East, who would it kill? Thousands of terrorists. How many people would live? All the rest of the hundreds of millions. Now, let’s try that with ISIL or Al Quaeda. Who dies if they have a perfect weapon? Hundreds of millions. And who lives? Very few. That’s the power of intention. The U.S. may be selfish, it may be careless, and there are horrible people like Dick Cheney in charge at times, but you have to know that we don’t desire to do maximum harm because if that were the case then a whole lot more damage would be done.
The main problem in the discussion, and the reason it never really had a chance at all, was that Chomsky was on full attack. He never once really listened to what was being said. He basically talked down to Sam while ignoring his points completely.
Sam could have done better, though, which he acknowledged in a later podcast. He could have started by addressing what Chomsky thought Sam had said about his work. He could have also started by finding common ground. He could have started by saying that he agrees with most of what Chomsky believes about how the U.S., and the West in general, as well as Israel, have a long history of being complete dicks, and that we have a lot to atone for. But I’m not sure that would have helped.
The way this needs to happen is this: they both need to discard what was said about each other by each other. They start completely fresh, and they begin by agreeing with each other on X number of points. Sam should agree that the U.S. has been very wrong in the distant past, and even in current conflicts, and that we have a history of supporting dictators, etc. Granted. Then Chomsky grants that the U.S. is often measured in their military responses, and that not everyone in the entire United States with guns are pure evil, and that they sometimes are trying to only harm the bad guys and not the innocents. Unsupervised Learning — Security, Tech, and AI in 10 minutes… Get a weekly breakdown of what's happening in security and tech—and why it matters.
From there they can move on to intentions. Chomsky should agree that intentions matter for the simple reason that they tell you what a person will do next. If a bunch of kids accidentally kill 100 people, and feel horrible about it, we’re not likely to have to worry about it again. But if a terrorist group kills the same number of people and then congratulates itself on Twitter for it, then that’s a dangerous group of people. So, yes, intentions matter–even when the damage is identical.
Then they should move on to separating the evil done by the United States from the evil done by ISIL. This is a hard one, but if they have agreed up until now, and they remain civil throughout, I think they can make some progress here. The answer won’t be clean. It won’t be that the U.S. is good, and ISIL is bad. It won’t be that ISIL is the victim and the U.S. is the cause. It will unfortunately be a nasty, strangely-shaped hybrid of many such statements, and people will have to disagree slightly on the mix.
But as Sam has pointed out on numerous occasions, the one thing we can’t have, if we want to maintain any hope in this world, is two extremely smart Liberal types who can’t even have a fucking conversation about these issues. If two educated liberals can’t agree on moral issues, or even have the conversation TO SEE IF THEY AGREE, then what hope do we have to fix climate deniers, or religious extremism?
At this point it may be time for Harris to go on offense. With both Greenwald and now with Chomsky he’s doing underhanded fisticuffs with people who throw dirt in the eyes and sucker punch. And then they turn around and call him the crazy one, to much applause.
It’s time to get these guys into a debate setting, with the cameras rolling, and see how they defend when there’s nowhere to squirm. Sam would crush Chomsky in that setting, not because he’s more right about the issue necessarily, but because it’ll become obvious that Chomsky doesn’t even want to discuss it. And the same should happen with Greenwald, and Dennett, and these other people who refuse to engage him in conversation.
Highly frustrating. I hope Sam changes tone and gets more aggressive with these types. I fear his measured tone is resulting in his reputation being harmed even though he’s being civil, so maybe it’s time to use offense as defense.
And no, that wasn’t a play on first-strike doctrine. Man, can’t say anything with you guys…
I have respected Chomsky for a couple of decades, and honestly thought there was a good chance that he and Harris would end up agreeing on most points. This is what makes the interaction so disappointing.
I’d gladly take Dennett on myself on the free will issue. I’d destroy him, but then feel bad about it.