Ezra Klein's Entire Debate Strategy in Three Words

[TLDR: Pivot and Gaslight]

I listened to Waking Up Podcast #123 — Identity & Honesty | Sam Harris and I can't recommend it unless you want to hear two people talking past one another.

I did not know Ezra Klein very well head of listening to this podcast but I found him to be smug and evasive... and also well-rehearsed.  He barely answered anything directly but was really quick pivot and make his own tangentially related point.  And I was impressed with how little it costs to say how he just talked to so-and-so just a couple days ago any time a name was mentioned. 

Instant credibility!

Overall, I was bothered on a subconscious level by his manner of engagement and it took me a while understand the nature of the crime... to fully grasp that his entire tactic can be analogized to the following:

"I'm not an alcoholic!  If anything, you're the alcoholic!"
(me: but I don't even drink!)

Sam says Klein is operating from a notion of identity politics?  Klein says Sam is also operating on identity politics.

And... It's a pretty slick maneuver to be able to smear Murray as a racist and then to tell Sam Harris that he has a blind spot because he's an "Anti-Anti-Racist".  Seriously... WTF is that?  A false dichotomy, I think.

gas·light

/ˈɡaslīt/

verb

manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.

Harris would do well not to invite gaslighters like Klein onto the show and I fully support him choosing not to talk to T. Coates for exactly the same reasons.  You can only hope to talk past a gaslighter because playing by their rules is a no-win situation.  (Heads, racist... Tails anti-anti-racist).

Sects and Violence

I want to talk today about what "Islam" means. I am not a muslim and I am a complete outsider. I see danger in some ideas associated with Islam and beauty in some of the ideas. I see people saying Islam is peace. And I see mobs and violence associated with it. And so I think it's long overdue to ask whether we are all referring to the same thing when we refer to "Islam".

From what I can see, Islam means peace to most Muslims I know. And to some Muslims, it means violence visited upon other people for various different reasons: some political, some moral, always opportunistic, and always justified by some grandiose vision (a story). And the latter part is a bit sticky since the spectacle and tragedy creates a more vivid impression in the mind than the many Muslim neighbors we know and work with.

Let's Talk About Sects, Baby

Let me tell you about a trick of the human mind. It is a tendency for non-Muslims to think about Islam as one enormous monolith with complete homogeneity of belief and action. But Muslims are 1.6 Billion+ in number. And the idea of one great Islam doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Every religious or philosophical movement has within it a manifold of sects. People just can't seem to agree on things. Take any belief system and you can break it down to subgroups based on the disagreements.

To provide specific examples, I have collected here an accounting of the major religions I could think of and their sub-sects scraped from Wikipedia:

  • Chrisitanity: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical,...
  • Judaism: Rabinnic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic,...
  • Hinduism: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism,...
  • Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen,...

And as for Islam? Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi,...

There are no incidents of complete uniform belief within any belief system. Humans are messy, sloppy creatures subject to entropy. Our brains are meat-machines driven by huge variations in chemistry. Fuzzy logic? check. Non-logical leaps? check. Context-dropping? check. Mistakes of thinking? check. Hormone-driven teenagers? check.

You know why clear thinking is beautiful when you hear it? Because it is rare. Reason is slow and requires discipline and it is always impressive to hear an idea that is simple and clear and true.

Aside: Beware of Mob Think

There is a sort of situation worth mentioning where uniformity does arise... where an idea can become so loud that it drowns out other ideas. When human beings are in a mob driven by fear and anger whipped into a frenzy, we have shown ourselves to be capable of frighteningly uniform non-thinking. The Rwandan genocide comes to mind. Nazi Germany comes to mind.

People are capable of their ugliest actions when they blindly react rather than stepping back and thinking about things rationally, and acting accordingly. And, in the case of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, both resulted in the creation of cultures that slaughtered unimaginable numbers.

Labels Fail Us

Back to the main point. The labels: Islam. Muslim.

There is a visual that Sam Harris mentioned in his chat with Neil Tyson about what a Christian imagines when they find out that a person can be painted with the term "Atheist":

they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.

Don't we do this with "Islam"... just a little? We imagine Islam as one thing. We imagine Muslims as one people who conform perfectly to some expectation.

The labels fail Muslims and the labels fail non-Muslims alike. The labels expose non-Muslims to the mistake of thinking in "Us vs. Them" terms with Muslims as the other. And the labels expose Muslims to taking a defensive posture where "We are under attack" by an unjust world who will not accept them. The labels expose Muslims to having their fear and frustrations manipulated.

But these are just stories and they are divisive ones. These are the ones that deliver us into the hands of Neo-fascists. And we don't want those hands anywhere near us so it's time to abandon these stories, which divide us.

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Beyond Us Vs. Them

We need some new narratives to give us hope and something to strive for.

Instead of Us vs. Them... What if we just thought of this whole mess as a bunch of people with a bunch of mixed-up ideas and some of them are poison?

Rather than considering Islam as one set of ideas interpretable only one way, we can remember that ideas are subject to fashion trends. They are subject to trending upward or downward at any given point in time.

Here are ideas I would love to see trend upward:

  • Non-Muslims reflect and realize that Muslims are our neighbors and friends and co-workers. Most of them want to live their lives and raise their families. We act accordingly. We love our neighbors.
  • The world notices that Muslims have their versions of Goebbels and Hitler. And the world will need to put these tyrants down in exactly the same way: total war ending in unconditional surrender. This is the only way to defeat evil that has decided to wage war: Force met with overwhelming force.
  • Muslims embrace freedom of speech and dissent by all, especially other Muslims, and Non-Muslims unilaterally choose to stop disrespecting Muhammad because it's nearly always a gimmicky cheap shot that is not doing anybody any good.
  • Muslims come out in support of liberal values. We will support and encourage these people because they have right on their side. Further, we work to encourage the conservatives among Muslims to respect the rights of all human beings alike (male, female, gay, straight), just as we do with non-Muslim conservatives. Live and let live becomes the universal norm.
  • "Islam means peace" becomes a statement of intention... a movement and a mantra owned by Muslims: they are defiant, vocal, and visible movement of the majority.
  • Secularism: All people of all religions work to keep their religions separate from the state. There are no state religions. Just respect and protection of rights for all beliefs and creeds.

The only way we can do this is to see the bigger "Us". We, as humans, need to see Universal principles describing fundamental rights. In other words: the conditions under which we are able to live with one another.

We don't need to be innovators who must define fundamental rights for the first time. We have the shoulders of giants to stand on. But as I said, ideas are subject to fashion and we do have to keep these ideas trending upward. It's constant upkeep... yes. There is no magic bullet to make humans respect rights for all time.

But it's good work if you can get it. And as always... Discipline Equals Freedom.

How We Have Abdicated the Moral High Ground to the Extreme Right

One of the big takeaways I have from reading Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz is the pressing importance of finding ways to achieve honest dialogue. We need to be able to have respectful but direct discussions on the unique problems faced by, and presented, by Islam.

Gag Me Elmo by Mark Turnauckas

Gag Me Elmo by Mark Turnauckas

If we fail at achieving honest discussion and finding a coherent way forward, we risk that the people who sound like Donald Trump are the only ones who are saying what they are really thinking. This creates the impression that they have the moral high ground. But it is only by our own default that they have it.

It's not worth the effort to persuade the unabashed bigots on the right who are driven by their deep racism. We have to consider how we can help the well-meaning people, those who believe in the universal rights of a free democratic society (whom I will refer to hence as "universals").

We need help each other to see that we have been painted into a corner and that it's okay to walk on the paint because the building is on fire and we need to GTFO.

Some universals are Muslim, some are atheists like me. The goal as I see it, which this book has helped me to bring into focus, is to help the universal Muslims to battle for a pluralistic view of interpreting Islam and to defeat the cases for Jihadism and Islamism.

The part that people who are not Muslim can play is to understand that there are those among us who are making things difficult for the Muslims that want reform. Actions that we think are neutral may not be neutral. And there are some deeply dishonest people on the left who have done a good job of making us question ourselves by crying out "bigotry" and #Islamophobia against anyone who criticizes muslim societies or values. Nawaz refers to these as the "regressive left".

We universals have a hard time taking action that puts ourselves in the bigotry bucket because we care about the impact of our actions. They use this against us, but I think the time has come to grow a thicker skin. I now view political correctness as an auto-immune disease. This describes any time you choose not to say what you mean because someone will be offended or, more likely, label you a bigot of some sort.

The regressive left can go fuck themselves. The building is on fire. Let's get out there and discuss it.

Photo: Gag Me Elmo by Mark Turnauckas