Sam Harris and the Great Untruth of Us vs. Them

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff spelled out three great untruths that they believe are infesting our culture. While I’m ambivalent about the book, these three great untruths have stayed with me. They are:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

That last one has been on my mind a lot lately, because I ran head-first into it this year when I decided to delve more deeply in my meditation practice. I was looking for a good tool that would keep me accountable and offer excellent guided meditation, and I kept hearing that Sam Harris’s Waking Up app was the best on the market. He offers the app for free to anyone who can’t afford it, so I downloaded it to check it out.

My relationship with Sam Harris is frustrated, challenging, and complicated. I disagree with him on a great deal on the nature of religion, and I’m generally put off by his demeanor. At the same time, I benefited enormously from him in my own journey into nontheism.

Sam Harris Bad

The turning point in my relationship with Harris’s work came, however, when he had Charles Murray, author of the Bell Curve, on his show. In the Bell Curve, Murray proposes that intelligence is largely genetic and that intelligence differs by race. To avoid accusations of misrepresenting Harris’s view on the matter, I will quote him directly from the podcast in question:

People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups. 

Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims. About IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations. 

Again, this is what a dispassionate look at [what] decades of research suggest. Unfortunately, the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate, good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather, it was the product of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray’s career and has yet to release him.

This was a line too far. With the caveat that I might be misunderstanding the theory, it’s obvious to me that this is a disgusting, racist opinion, and that no amount of denouncing racism on Harris’s part could change that. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent on the planet, and there are so many varied populations with different genetic groupings that categorizing people into broad groups based on the arbitrary marker of melanin content is retrograde. Race, to me, falls under the category of “real but not true” – a fantasy conjured by humanity that has exacted enormous harm on the planet and human flourishing. The entire discussion with Murray also seemed to deliberate sidestep the long history of brutality against black people in America and the ways that might impact performance on IQ tests. I broke up with Harris at that point and stopped listening to his show.

But I didn’t just break up with him – I threw him away entirely. I demonized him. Everything he had ever said and done was suspect to me, even though I tried to take a measured approach to his work. Every good act, every positive thing Harris had ever said or done was now suspect, spoiled, and corrupted. There were, in my view, good people and bad people. I was one of the good people, and Sam Harris was one of the bad people. I wrote him off entirely and decided he was irretrievably racist and Bad. In other words, I rounded his entire character down to what I believed to be his very worst elements.  

Sam Harris Good

And then I encountered his meditation app. In doing so, I encountered a man who has deep wisdom about the nature of spirituality and consciousness. I encountered a man who, through his teaching, helped me attain states of consciousness I had never experienced before in my many years of meditating and being a yogi. I encountered a spiritual teacher brimming with compassion and passionate about dissolving the arbitrary boundaries between human minds. I started meditating daily with Harris, and reaped enormous benefit from his teaching. My days started to change – I was able to be present to the complexity and suffering of others in a way I couldn’t before. I’m more at peace, and more connected to the deep mysteries of my consciousness.

I was bewildered. Sam Harris was Bad, right? He was all Bad. But now I was encountering Sam Harris Good. I was encountering a Harris who taught and practiced compassion, and helped me become a better person in measurable, tangible ways. As I looked more deeply into his work, I discovered a man passionate about reversing human and animal suffering, curtailing climate change, and encouraging effective altruism for the benefit of the entire planet.

I realized that I had fallen into The Great Untruth of Us Vs. Them. Sam Harris was bad, and I was good, and that meant I could never learn anything meaningful from a racist like Harris. And yet here I was, learning things from him.

This is still deeply uncomfortable for me.

Rounding Up and Rounding Down

In reflecting on my cognitive dissonance when it comes to Harris, I realized that I (and the rest of the internet) have a tendency to round up or round down when it comes to public figures. Either we round down to their very worst beliefs, moments, and character flaws and see their entire character and body of work through that lens. Or we do the opposite – we round up to their very best moments and attributes and choose to see their worst through the lens of their best. This, of course, adds to the infighting and ideological bickering we find in every corner of the internet.

I think both options are a mistake. Rounding down makes it too easy to dismiss truth and insight, even when comes from someone we find distasteful. Rounding up results in being too forgiving of their shortcomings and resistant to acknowledging the very real damage that can result from their worst moments and ideas.

Instead, I think the best solution is to let people be a mess. Does Harris’s good outweigh his bad, or vice versa? I just don’t know. There are some people for whom their bad far outweighs their good, but I’m not sure anymore if that is many or even most people. There is no reconciliation between these two aspects of Harris. To attempt to reconcile them is to inevitably ignore one or the other. The Great Untruth of Us Vs. Them doesn’t allow me to see Harris as fundamentally good or bad, but simply as a human being, just like me.


But that’s just me. What do you think? Please leave a comment below or write me an email. I love hearing back from my audience.

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6 thoughts on “Sam Harris and the Great Untruth of Us vs. Them

  1. This reminds me of your piece on why you haven’t left TST.

    I think as individuals we always weigh the information we have, and we only make these very personal categorical decisions of labeling someone either bad or good when one starts to seriously outweigh the other (and even then, this might change when you receive new information that contradicts your view). In a mob, however, there is no room for such nuance. Even if you try to bring nuance into a mob-controlled discourse, your arguments will simply be divided over the good and bad piles.

    (I think Jaron Lanier also has a part in his book where he talks about how social media turns individuals into mob-members, but I can’t find it now. Mob mentality existed before social media of course, but social media amplifies it and allows it to infiltrate our daily personal lives, because a lot of our everyday social interaction takes place there.)

    Like

    1. I complete agree. Speaking of Lanier, he has an excellent section in his book where he beseeches his readers to be cats: individuals and somewhat wild. He also uses the metaphor of the lone wolf vs. the pack, and he thinks that the lone wolf is generally better for society in a lot of ways. For threat of sounding like a douchy libertarian, I agree with him. I want people to be able to go up the mountain and into solitude, and examine things on their own. This doesn’t denigrate the role of communities – I think we can still have rich community and group identity while also being cats and lone wolves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Labeling people good or bad is of limited use at best. This is why I try to think of behaviors, rather than people, as good or bad.

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  3. On the Skeptic podcast with Michael Shermer “Should we trust scientific consensus?” Oreskes talks about what she’s called Methodological Fetishism as it pertains to the problematic nature of IQ. It’s near the end at about 1:10:00. To be fair, I’ve not read anything by Murray and I’m not familiar with Harris’s position on the topic.
    I came to know of Sam Harris’s work through The Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement. Currently, I find his work to be of particular significance in my meditative practice. I feel Harris has picked up where Alan Watts left off.
    Anyway, I appreciate your work.

    Liked by 1 person

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