If you’re a fan of Sam Harris or Ezra Klein you know that they’ve been engaged in a year-long online skirmish that recently culminated in a direct face-off in the format of a podcast.
Listening to the podcast first would be helpful, but not necessary, to appreciate this analysis.
I’ve been waiting to hear this interaction finally play out, and listening to it yesterday was quite surreal for me because it largely followed the same contours as a 3-hour conversation I had with my own sister just two days before.
Here’s my analysis of the interaction. First the background.
The history here is that Sam Harris had a conversation with Charles Murray, who is the radioactive author of The Bell Curve, which made the case for social policy change based on science that says blacks have lower IQs than whites and asians.
Sam basically brought him on to defend him—not because he agreed with his politics or policy opinions—but because he saw Murray as the victim of what he calls Moral Panic, where people are unable to speak freely about accepted facts without being blacklisted and attacked.
Ezra Klein heard that podcast and took issue with Harris defending Murray. Klein knows Murray, and although he says he’s a really nice guy, he says Murray’s spent a lifetime of work basically saying blacks cannot change their lower IQs (whether the issue is mostly genetic or environmental) and therefore we should change social policy to make it far less liberal. So, remove affirmative action, remove the safety nets, etc.
I’ve made a few slight tweaks to this summary based on Sam’s feedback, by the way.
As a response, Klein wrote a couple of articles on Vox, where he essentially (but not explicitly) calls Murray and Harris racists, and most certainly creates that impression in a large numbers of his readers. This is true to such a degree that they are now listed as propagators of hate on the Southern Poverty Law Center website.
Sam is super upset about this because he feels maligned, and Ezra feels his actions are justified because he thinks Sam (and Murray) are wrong about the IQ science and Murray’s proposed policies given the history of racism in the United States.
My analysis of the conversation
For example, “Ezra, you do understand that we’re both Jewish liberals, right? You do understand that I’ve spent my career trying to increase happiness on this planet, right? You do understand that there are real people trying to harm social equality, and who disagree with both of us on gender equality, abortion, and many other core issues, right?”
It’s extremely clear to me that Sam is not a racist and that he’s operating as a liberal who’s trying to improve the world. As I have told him in a couple of email exchanges, I think he makes a major mistake by not repeatedly reminding liberal debate opponents that they are on the same side. Sam alluded to this a few times, but it needs to be far more explicit.
They completely failed to address each others’ core points during the debate.
Sam’s tactical point was that as a supposedly good person wielding tremendous journalistic power as an editor of Vox, Ezra should never paint someone (who he should easily be able to tell is a fellow liberal) as a dangerous racist, which would obviously harm his reputation and his ability to do good in other areas.
Sam’s strategic point was that it’s extremely dangerous to blacklist ideas or people for talking about (or even mentioning) accepted science that makes people uncomfortable, and that we should instead be courageous in the face of such knowledge and relentlessly pursue policies that promote equality for everyone.
Ezra’s tactical point (although he never said this directly) was that, as a privileged white guy, you don’t invite and defend a man on your podcast who has spent a lifetime saying that—whether it’s mostly genetic or environmental—blacks can’t really change their ability to thrive, so we should stop trying to help them as much—and then complain when people think you’re a racist.
Ezra’s strategic point was that we can’t even really trust the science on this, and even if we could you have to think about the history of oppression at every level of society for blacks that continues to this day. In short, we’re nowhere near the point where we can say blacks can’t improve their lot because the system has been, and continues to be, stacked against them.
These were the four points that were being made throughout the conversation, yet neither really spent the time to listen and address them in a way that would defuse the other side.
My biggest takeaway from the engagement was the feeling of sadness that two liberals who agree on 95% of social issues could have such a negative and non-productive conversation despite their deep similarities and superb communication skills.
Sam remained defensive and upset that he was being unfairly maligned, which I absolutely agree with. And he failed to fully address Ezra’s main point about his perspective being limited, or about the potential benefits of trying to expand it. And Ezra stuck to the point of Murray’s work being quite destructive in his view (which he think’s Sam is blind to), which made him characterize Sam’s entire conversation with Murray as blind at best and insensitive to alternative life experiences at worst.
In my conversation with my sister a couple of days before, she made the exact same point to me that Ezra was making to Sam. She asked me how many of the hundreds of books I’ve read in the last several years have been by black authors, etc. Like Ezra, she was hitting the isolation / blindspot / perspective point.
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What Ezra should have said
What Sam should have said
What I learned from the conversation
I think both Sam (and I) need to adjust our understanding of how we’re heard when speaking about this topic with people who are sensitive to the history of oppression. While we are also sensitive to that same history, we should not ever try to fully distance data from reality on the ground, or make these really clean distinctions between the science and the policies—because they really are quite intertwined. I personally see this conversation, and the one with my sister, as an indicator that I should try to do better to mix these two things a bit more, rather than separate them, and to expand my exposure to people who experience them as the same.
I continue to feel 100% confident in Sam Harris’s morality on the race issue, and on his good faith attempt to have a conversation with Ezra. For Ezra my analysis is not as positive because I still cannot square why he wouldn’t explicitly state that Sam is clearly not a racist, is trying to do the right thing, but is someone who Ezra thinks has a blindspot or has made a mistake by having Murray on the show. That would have been respectable and understandable. But instead he chose to basically label him a racist in front of the entire world while taking no responsibility for it whatsoever. He could have easily made the criticism while avoiding the charges of racism, but he didn’t, and it’s hard for me to attribute that behavior to a good faith actor.
I think, as someone in the comments below captured very well, that Ezra basically refused to discuss anything. He came in with an agenda and pulled 100% debate tactics on Sam throughout. In a debate you don’t listen for any other reason than to win, because you’re not allowed to change your mind. In a discussion you can win even if you change your mind, and that’s something Ezra seemed completely unwilling to do. He basically postured as this super nice guy who couldn’t even hear that he had smeared someone unfairly, and just proceeded on with his single point that Sam was isolated and participating in tribalism. It was infuriating and gross.
I’m troubled that so little positive came from it all. I think smarter people, however, will see through Ezra’s tricks and score it for Sam as I did.
Overall I think the entire thing hurt Sam the most to a casual listener. More than Ezra, definitely, and even more than Murray. Ultimately, when you wipe poo off yourself with your bare hands, you just get more poo on you.
Murray was already tagged as a racist by most of the left, so he experienced no change there. Sam on the other hand is a liberal intellectual, and benefits from interactions with other liberal intellectuals. So he’ll suffer to the extent that his ability to do so has been diminished.
But I do think Sam can repair much of the damage, over time, via a clean summary and narrative that strips away the noise.
My advice to Sam is to make his own version of the following:
It really has to be a summary like this because people aren’t patient enough to listen to hours of content.
I, Sam Harris, am a liberal intellectual with the single career focus of maximizing happiness on planet Earth for as many people as possible, with special emphasis on helping those who need it the most.
I absolutely acknowledge the history of debilitating oppression against African Americans in the United States, stemming from the American slave trade, and understand that effects from this are still active today.
Much of that work is focused on combating bad and dangerous ideas.
One of those dangerous ideas is the notion that we should attack knowledge and science that makes people uncomfortable, because I believe the truth is always better than lies in the long-term.
An example of this is idea of group differences across various races. It’s foolish to believe that East Africans and the Inuit people from Northern Alaska have the same ability to run marathons, and we shouldn’t tie anyone’s overall worth to such differences.
If good-hearted liberals blacklist the truth of group differences from public conversation, this truth (and many falsehoods that sound similar to it) will be used by bigots and racists to do great harm.
We must have the courage to look science and truth squarely in the face, accept what it offers us, and push ahead with liberal policies that enable equality for everyone, regardless of who they are or what they look like.
In the past people used science to justify discrimination, and it is our fear that if liberals don’t acknowledge the science of group differences whenever they inevitably surface, will will not be able to put them in their proper (and rather meaningless) context.
I.Q. and sprinting ability doesn’t make someone a great person, and many people with less of those than you or I have been far better people than you and I. Don’t confuse human metrics for human greatness.
I hope reading this summary helps someone process this as much as it’s helped me to write it.
I’ve made a few tweaks to the piece based on exchanging emails with Sam. I essentially left out where he explicitly said he could have been too hasty in labeling Ezra a bad-faith actor. But after the podcast I think that’s still an open question. What would change my mind is Ezra adjusting his pieces to not obviously paint him as a racist, which is clearly what they do now.