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August 8, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Sam Harris- 'Wrestling The Troll' "Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. Anything can and will be said at your expense—or falsely attributed to you—today, tomorrow, and years hence. Needless to say, the urge to respond to this malevolence and obfuscation can become irresistible. "
posted by herbplarfegan (47 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't particularly like Sam Harris, and don't want to simply assume that everyone he thinks is misrepresenting him actually is.

But the problem he's describing is very real. People who voice opinions outside the mainstream become "outlaws" to whom the normal rules of discourse, principles of charity, don't apply.
posted by grobstein at 11:34 AM on August 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


What a horrible person.
posted by feckless at 11:36 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Coming from Sam Harris this is postively poetic; it could be the ending of a "be careful what you wish for" fairytale, perhaps entitled something like "The Troll's Lament." Oh no, all the years I've invested in inflammatory, reductive pot-stirring and peddling neocon culture-war crap have somehow led readers to take my new pieces in a spirit of less than full charity! And when my views actually are treated with intellectual rigor, I "don't recognize myself" in the resulting discussion! Pity me!
posted by RogerB at 11:44 AM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I have never heard of Sam Harris, but he is absolutely correct about how discourse on the Internet is essentially a lot of trolling. The pure essence can be found at /b/ where there are few controls and the more radical the experimentation the better and the end result? The Internet is a great big troll. Other sites are less radical than /b/, but the same structural problem exists. /b/ is just useful for exposing the reality of what online discourse is really about, once all barriers are removed. Facebook has tried to tame the beast by integrating real-world contacts, but it's still there.
posted by stbalbach at 11:44 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have never heard of Sam Harris, but he is absolutely correct about how discourse on the Internet is essentially a lot of trolling.

U mad, bro?
posted by yoink at 11:51 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


RogerB: "....Pity me!"
/metapoetic

The article links to Seth Godin's explanation of why he doesn't allow comments on his blog.

(which makes three of us, if you hadn't guessed)
posted by herbplarfegan at 11:53 AM on August 8, 2012


I stopped paying attention to Harris when I watched a TED talk where he basically advocated a form of utilitarianism without actually using the term or addressing any of the historical arguments against such a moral philosophy. He's either being intentionally deceptive and simplistic or he's ignorant.

So, boo freakin' hoo. Harris is a sloppy thinker, and people are taking him to task for it.
posted by Wemmick at 12:04 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Harris makes good points, and he makes bad points. This point he's making here is one of the good ones.
posted by gurple at 12:07 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem is that Harris confuses superficial nuance for robust comity, complaining that he's misunderstood on semantics when often his premises are rotten to the core — his back and forth on profiling is an especially good example of that, in that he relies on loaded hypotheticals and is demolished when it comes to actual evidence. Likewise, his complaints about Islam both align with an Orientalist worldview and distort through hyperbole — he may have a point regarding certain strains of militant Islam, however those points in context fall apart when dealing with the larger Muslim world, and then he's generally excoriated for that hyperbolic depiction rather than some of his more moderate views.

He touches on the solution, though I think it's one that he's unlikely to pursue given his career: Being more circumspect and deliberate in communication, and avoiding the inflammatory pronouncements that have heretofore been his stock in trade.
posted by klangklangston at 12:11 PM on August 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can this be a thread about the point that he's making, instead of an example of it?
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:14 PM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think Harris is often wrong, and was egregiously wrong in the profiling discussion, but the mentioned essay, "The 5 Most Awful Atheists" struck me as a horrible hack job.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:24 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zizek jokes “Why are you for death penalty? Well because Sam Harris is alive."
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:39 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This was a worthy piece to post here, although I think a direct link to Jackson Lears' essay on Harris would have made a good counterpoint. I say that it was worth posting, but I am also going to pile onto Harris by saying that he is in fact a racist, whether he wants to admit it or not, and he is not nearly as rigorous a thinker as he likes to imagine.

The debate he had with Bruce Schneier about profiling "muslims" when they get on airplanes is a pretty good example of how he lets his emotion and his racism get in the way of intellectual rigor. The recent suicide bombing of some Israeli tourists in Bulgaria seems to make Schneier's point pretty well (assuming the facts of that incident haven't changed since I first read about it): get a 'muslim terrrorist' a good fake ID and put some long hippie hair on him and there goes your racial profiling.

This anti-'trolling' piece is just another example of Harris's bad-faith debating techniques and unwillingness to acknowledge his own limitations and failings. Just look at the adjectives he uses to describe his intellectual opponents: "tedious" Bruce Schneier, "idiotic and unbalanced" Jackson Lears, "unscrupulous" Myers.

Harris is, in my opinion, drawing close to the line where a supposed intellectual becomes a crank. This essay is the kind of thing that makes him look like one.
posted by jackbrown at 12:45 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Plan ahead. Get that site and primary address in the .nu domain first. Then the HotmailOutlook spamcatcher address. Get your your fake online identity well established. Then you're good to go rollin' and trollin'.
posted by jfuller at 12:49 PM on August 8, 2012


Oh. And How To Defeat Your Enemies on the Internet. (From Gizmodo's Guide to Etiquette.lolwut?)
posted by jfuller at 12:56 PM on August 8, 2012


This seems less to me about trolling than it is a complaint about how making a living out of opining on things is hard and time consuming.

Well, okay. So? I'm doing it here for free. That's my choice. If Harris doesn't like what his job entails then maybe he should change career directions.

Not to minimize the reality of trolling, but I don't know that he's defining it remotely the way I would. Someone thinks you're a shitty example of a public figure atheist? Someone else disagrees with your points, or misunderstands them? That's not trolling IMNSHO. That's existing in life and being known by others.
posted by phearlez at 1:00 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sam Harris's blog: in which we are called to wrestle with the soul-shattering implications of Sam Harris making a point that's not necessarily and completely wrong.
posted by flechsig at 1:06 PM on August 8, 2012


Given that I suggested (twice) that white men like myself also fit the profile of a possible terrorist, I would have thought that charges of “racism” would be off the table.

One of the big problems I found from the start with Harris's argument was his appeal to self-sacrifice in ignorance of the actual ethnic demographics of Mulsim Americans. "... anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim ..." includes more African American and South Asian people than Jewish Atheists.

It's not an argument I'd jump to defend in the wake of the Oak Park shootings.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:12 PM on August 8, 2012


Just look at the adjectives he uses to describe his intellectual opponents: "tedious" Bruce Schneier, "idiotic and unbalanced" Jackson Lears, "unscrupulous" Myers.

To be fair here, the only accurate quote you've identified is the one referring to Myers (whom Harris also refers to as "that shepherd of Internet trolls"). My friend Ctrl-F tells me that Harris calls the debate he had with Schneier "tedious", while he labels Lears's "blistering review" of his work "idiotic and unbalanced".

I don't have a dog in this here fight because I don't know Harris's work very well, and I'm sure you're right that he's not above sad little ad hominems - just not the ones you've quoted. He certainly doesn't appear to understand what trolling is, but that's destined to be a word diluted by mainstream attention in the same way that "hacker" was.
posted by Chichibio at 1:23 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am also going to pile onto Harris by saying that he is in fact a racist, whether he wants to admit it or not

Given that I suggested (twice) that white men like myself also fit the profile of a possible terrorist, I


So you're going to pile onto Harris by saying that he is in fact a racist even though he said over and over that his criteria for whether someone "looked Muslim" was specifically not racial? Then you're something worse than a troll.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:40 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Not to minimize the reality of trolling, but I don't know that he's defining it remotely the way I would.

The canonical Internet Troll is someone who says something controversial or offensive that he doesn't really even believe, just for the lulz of watching the hornets-nest drama it kicks off.


> I don't have a dog in this here fight because I don't know Harris's work very well

Oh, he's your typical atheist.
posted by jfuller at 1:45 PM on August 8, 2012


I love Sam Harris. He's the guy I can always point to when I want to support my "Law of the Conservation of Irrationality". He's is an atheist, but that doesn't mean he's more rational than your average smart Christian. The irrational beliefs just pop up elsewhere.

So I agreed with the "worst atheists" article, in part. He does puncture athiesm's reputation for "rationality". But to me, this is a good thing, because atheists (like me) need to keep perspective. We're not necessarily smarter or more rational others.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:45 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


*than others....
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:45 PM on August 8, 2012


Chichibio: pretty nitpicky response. I suppose I could have written "to describe his intellectual opponents and their arguments" but honestly it seems to be the same thing when you're talking about intellectual opponents. My point isn't whether he calls Schneier's argument or Schneier himself tedious: it's the lazy and dismissive tone toward his interlocutors. If you read the debate with Schneier, it's first of all clear that (a) Schneier (or his argument, if you will) is not tedious, but rigorous, thoughtful and posessed of a good deal of expertise on this topic, and (b) that he demolishes Harris's weak position.

Harris is either unaware of this, or pretends to be, since he's apparently unembarrassed about linking to the debate.

Fuzzy: As far as racism against Muslims go, I perhaps embrace a slightly wider definition of racism, in which hating and fearing people because of their religion is racism. Race, as you are no doubt aware, is sort of a problematic category to start with. Arabs have historically been considered white in American racial codes, but I assume you wouldn't dispute that racism is possible against them. If you'd prefer that I use the phrase "Harris is deeply religiously prejudiced against people of Muslim family extraction" I suppose I could go with that. It's true that calling it racism is kind of a shortcut, but it's a pretty linguistically convenient one.
posted by jackbrown at 1:57 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dirtbike: Yeah, I mean, I'm a fairly fanatical atheist myself, even what Ian Buruma might call and "Enlightenment fundamentalist," but I really don't feel like I share much with Harris intellectually. He's an atheist I wish wasn't.
posted by jackbrown at 2:00 PM on August 8, 2012


Jackbrown, I prefer the catch-all term "bigot." If you want to go to specifics, you could perhaps use the term "islamaphobic" to use an odd neologism.
posted by Hactar at 2:04 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


PZ Meyers responds.
posted by phearlez at 2:12 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


But the problem he's describing is very real. People who voice opinions outside the mainstream become "outlaws" to whom the normal rules of discourse, principles of charity, don't apply.

Yup, I see that kind of thing happen all the time, even on well moderated sites. Suddenly it's okay for one side of a debate to say terrible things about the other and any response in kind is treated as an offense. The differing standards enforce a monolithic opinion just as well as the outright banning you get at a place like Free Republic or the croudsourced censorship of DailyKos.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:20 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had no idea Harris and Meyers were engaged in some kind of hypernerd diss war. Surely the only solution is a no-holds-barred battle to the death! A non-metaphorical battle. To the mutual death.
posted by nanojath at 2:22 PM on August 8, 2012


So you're going to pile onto Harris by saying that he is in fact a racist even though he said over and over that his criteria for whether someone "looked Muslim" was specifically not racial? Then you're something worse than a troll.

I think his attempt to make a distinction between race and ethnicity is superficial. It also ignores the demographic reality that the majority of American Muslims are of African or South Asian ancestry.

Does this make him a racist in the same sense as the KKK or Michael Page? Probably not. But there's no way to implement his "looks like" standard in a way that's free from racial bias.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:32 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The other thing that annoys me about Harris here is the deprecation of "troll" as a term for intentionally provoking another party into replying in order to mock the indignant reply. It's perhaps unfair to hold him to a more prescriptive usage, but then he'd know better if he wasn't a Muslim.
posted by klangklangston at 2:50 PM on August 8, 2012


Fuzzy: As far as racism against Muslims go, I perhaps embrace a slightly wider definition of racism, in which hating and fearing people because of their religion is racism.

Really? But when you boil it all down, isn't religion simply a more complex way to define an ethical code? If so, I've seen tons of "racism" on metafilter. People get hatey all the time here over other people's morals and call them all sorts of horrible things for their ethical principles that they would never call them for being black, or indian, or any other race for that matter. So by your expansive definition, aren't we all racists?

What I'm trying to say is, STOP RACISM ON METAFILTER!
posted by wolfdreams01 at 3:12 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I consider Harris's writing (and, sadly, that of some other Famous Atheists right now) bigoted b/c of the specific targeting of Islam over all other religions, especially within the context of our now long-running War-on-Terror crap. When their writing, over and over again, fits a pattern of "all religions are bad, but this religion over here is REAL BAD" ... well.

As for racism .. who knows? As pointed out above, when we're dealing with religious bigotry against Islam vs. racism against Arabs (or even racism against people who vaguely look like what I think in my mind evil Arab Muslims look like, sorry Sikhs), it's a bit of a fuzzy thing. Bigot is a nice broad word.
posted by feckless at 3:32 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


[I don't know why I'm having to remind people not to let arguments escalate to the point where you're calling each other child molesters to make a rhetorical point, but, you know, don't do that.]
posted by cortex at 3:41 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


As far as racism against Muslims go, I perhaps embrace a slightly wider definition of racism, in which hating and fearing people because of their religion is racism.

So, you're saying that hating and fearing members of the Westboro Baptist Church, or Christian Dominionists, or Scientologists, would be racist? Because that's really rather silly.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:38 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure that I'd ascribe to the proffered definition of racism — I'd have to think on it more — but all of those groups could be "hated" because of their practices, rather than their religion. It's not like Westboro represents the mainstream theology (except perhaps as parody) of Christianity.
posted by klangklangston at 4:47 PM on August 8, 2012


all of those groups could be "hated" because of their practices, rather than their religion

A distinction without a difference. A practice is a religion---if you don't keep the Eucharist, you aren't Catholic. Meanwhile, Harris makes says in the article "no one suffers the consequences of this pernicious ideology—the abridgments of political and intellectual freedom, the mistreatment of women, the fanaticism and sectarian murder—more than innocent Muslims," making clear that he well understands that militant Islamism does not "represent the mainstream theology (except as a parody)" of Islam. Yet you continue to accuse him of racism against Muslims, an utterly nonsensical statement on multiple levels.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:56 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


A distinction without a difference. A practice is a religion---if you don't keep the Eucharist, you aren't Catholic.

See it actually doesn't work that way. I'm still a Catholic even though I don't keep Eucharist, I'm just a really bad one. Religions, some more than other, carry cultural and social and family meanings just as much as they are a set of beliefs and practices. Americans associate a certain appearance with Muslims, thus certain insane attacks targeted at Muslims even more insanely hitting Sikhs. Religious practices had nothing to do with that, it's racism.

I'm not saying Harris is racist like that, but it certainly is a thing.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:21 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be fair, calling Myers unscrupulous is being far gentler than he deserves. I say that as someone who used to like the guy. These days Myers is a shocking hypocrite and a shit-stirring asshole who has started listening to his fawning fans a bit too much. There's been some rare bullshit going on over at Freethought Blogs and Myers has been rolling around in the muck with greater glee than any of 'em.
posted by Decani at 6:27 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


"A distinction without a difference."

Not at all, especially not when your categories are as broad as religious groupings.

"A practice is a religion---if you don't keep the Eucharist, you aren't Catholic."

Either you've misunderstood or you've lapsed into absurdly broad definitions. All religions are practices, for the sake of argument, but not all practices are religions. Further, arguing that fringe practices are part of the definition of the larger religion, be it Islam or Christianity, is not something you can build inferences out of — there are simply too many contested practices.

"Meanwhile, Harris makes says in the article "no one suffers the consequences of this pernicious ideology—the abridgments of political and intellectual freedom, the mistreatment of women, the fanaticism and sectarian murder—more than innocent Muslims," making clear that he well understands that militant Islamism does not "represent the mainstream theology (except as a parody)" of Islam."

Well, not only does that quote not support your assertion here — one can be innocent without being mainstream, surely — but it wouldn't support your argument that holding prejudice against Muslims as racist means that hating Westboro is racist. Because Harris is still making the same mistake that you are, in trying to ascribe fringe practices as essential to the definition of a given religion. (If you're not trying to do that, your argument makes even less sense.)

"Yet you continue to accuse him of racism against Muslims, an utterly nonsensical statement on multiple levels."

I not only accuse him of racism, but continue to do so? Nah, but I accuse you of bullshit. Feel free to scroll up the page and check.
posted by klangklangston at 9:58 PM on August 8, 2012


It's a real tragedy that people troll Sam Harris about his support of torture, targeted killings and hypocritical beliefs in superstitions like psychic phenomena . . . insufficiently.
posted by mobunited at 10:55 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cheering on the trolls is really not a healthy reaction to this. Regardless of your feelings about Sam Harris. He has his positions, and he has engaged in good faith with some who disagree, sometimes to the great detriment of his position. I have occasionally been educated by his rightness when he was right, and I have occasionally been educated by his wrongness when he was wrong – as it's been with pretty much anybody I've ever learned anything from.

The issue at stake is, the toxicity and poor-faith argumentation of so much discourse on the internet makes it harder for great thinkers to continue sharing interesting or challenging ideas. This is the case whether you personally count Sam Harris among those thinkers or not. If you disagree with this, then let's have that conversation.
posted by churl at 11:38 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love the concept of Sam Harris--whose The End of Faith recycled trite "ticking bomb" scenarios in the authorial voice of the most pompous Fox News viewer ever--discovering that his ideas are too complex and subtle to be understood on the Internet.

While I am not the biggest fan of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, these guys could back up their egoes with wit, intelligence and consistency that was so hardcore compared to Harris's gullible embrace of ESP mystics, reincarnation and George W. Bush policies.
posted by steinsaltz at 7:11 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cheering on the trolls is really not a healthy reaction to this.

Who has done this? Point to even a single example in the thread. No one is "cheering on the trolls", but many have said that they find Harris to be deeply problematic and have listed many reasons for that. That's not trolling, and this cuts to the core of the problem with this piece: while trolling is a real problem, another problem is someone wrapping themselves in the aura of the benighted Outsider to avoid engaging in debate and labeling all criticism of oneself as trolling. Here:

However, I continue to learn the hard way that if an issue is controversial, and my position cannot be reduced to a simple sentence, my critics will do the work of simplification for me.

This is classic dissembling bullshit. He simply can't engage with his critics because they are so unfair. If only someone would get him right, he could respond! The piece contains several examples of this attitude:

A subsequent glance at his article reveals misrepresentations of my views and tendentious maneuvers that seem to have been made in very bad faith. Engaging with this sort of thing only gives it greater currency—or so I like to believe, given that I have no time to engage with it.

Right. And then there is the excellent Jackson Lears essay, in response to which Harris

linked to his essay on my website, I did not answer it either—apart from saying that it “may be the most idiotic and unbalanced response to my work I have ever come across.”


Much later he sens Lears a muddling email in which he tells Lears

your Nation piece was so long and unremitting that it is difficult to know where to begin. And, because I do not recognize myself in your review, I am struck less by your specific points and more by the distance between us.

To which, surprisingly, Harris got no response.

He has his positions, and he has engaged in good faith with some who disagree

I think the point is many here feel that he hasn't. He's a sloppy thinker who makes overy-broad, poorly-conceived arguments and apparently does not like to be called out for it. He slaps the label of "troll" on those who disagree so he never has to engage. He declares that websites have "distorted" his views and therefore will not engage.

This comes across like an angry conservative who declares that liberals just don't get him and aren't being fair but refuses to visit any liberal sites or discuss his ideas with them because they're so clearly biased.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:57 AM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cheering on the trolls is really not a healthy reaction to this.
Who has done this? Point to even a single example in the thread. No one is "cheering on the trolls", but many have said that they find Harris to be deeply problematic and have listed many reasons for that.
This is the comment immediately before mine, to which I was responding:
"It's a real tragedy that people troll Sam Harris about his support of torture, targeted killings and hypocritical beliefs in superstitions like psychic phenomena . . . insufficiently."
To be clearer; saying that Harris dismisses legitimate counterarguments as "trolling" is one thing, and a point entirely worth exploring. That's what a lot of people here are saying, fairly, and I'm honestly not trying to paint everyone here who disagrees with Harris using the same brush.

Saying he deserves to be trolled because he's a dick is a different argument, which a couple people are saying, and which I don't think helps anybody.

And I think that although his examples are framed in a kinda narcissistic way, they are legitimate frustrations with bad arguments that do misrepresent his positions. And regardless of whether Harris is right or wrong on any issue whatsoever I think those types of shitty counterarguments are widespread enough to stifle useful, creative discourse, and moreso with people whose positions are contrary to the common wisdom.
posted by churl at 2:00 PM on August 9, 2012


I think it's quite helpful to point out that Harris deserves to be trolled for dickishness because there comes a point where honestly, some positions no longer require a detailed rebuttal because they have been explored and rebutted powerfully and repeatedly, and pass basic utilitarian muster.

We are not, in fact, required to constructively engage a pro-torture argument or suffer charges of irrationality, any more than we are required to constructively engage pro-racist or pro-sexist arguments -- or arguments against the rights of atheists, for that matter. Many of Harris' positions belong to this category, and he uses the pretense of rationality to revive them as if his iterations are novel. They are not. They not only deserve our contempt, but our *casual* contempt. His ideas deserve to be trod underfoot without pause.
posted by mobunited at 2:22 PM on August 9, 2012


We are not, in fact, required to constructively engage a pro-torture argument or suffer charges of irrationality, any more than we are required to constructively engage pro-racist or pro-sexist arguments -- or arguments against the rights of atheists, for that matter.

In short, 'We don't need to rationally dispute things that Everyone Knows to be the case. Wrongthink must be eliminated, not debated!"

Yawn.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:58 AM on August 10, 2012


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