Free Speech and Fanatics: A Final Rejoinder to Sam Harris

03/10/2016 12:24 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2017

I do not worry about these people. They have always been with us; they add a variety to life. -- John Kenneth Galbraith on certain types of conservatives, Massey Lectures, 1965.

The motion before us concerns free speech and open debate at a time when both are under siege on all fronts. Specifically, in this case, it also deals with reforming Islam and the Middle East, and deals with unscrupulous public thinkers and their equally ignominious followers. By way of background, the neuroscientist Sam Harris published a short booklet on reforming Islam, I reviewed it critically and argued that it was simplistic and unoriginal, Harris publicly invited me for a discussion on his podcast, I publicly agreed, we debated about Islam and terrorism for four hours on his podcast, and then he refused to release it, saying it was "boring." When I objected to this purge in an essay for Salon, Harris produced a second podcast in which he aired three selectively edited and redacted clips from our talk to unwitting ears--despite saying in one of the clips that he would explicitly not do so. Each of these excerpts were instances where Harris was lecturing me about one of the many issues we discussed, the last clip cutting off just as I was about to rebut his points. As of today, Harris steadfastly refuses to air the complete audio.

The controversy around this debate is of little interest to me. What is interesting is how quickly the principle of free inquiry is turned on its head when it becomes inconvenient. It is true that the right of free speech does not include entitlement to any platform one chooses. An illiterate fanatic has no right to be published in The New York Times, though if the Times turns down an Op-Ed solely because they do not agree with its arguments or its ideological stances--within reasonable limits; a bellicose militia commander advocating genocide should not be published--the paper of record has infringed upon the writer's right but only minimally, because other media are available to our rejected scribe.

Continuing this analogy, if the Times refuses to publish a debate that took place on the Times' turf, in which one of its writers participated and which was advertised to the public in advance, the editors have certainly committed the sin of censorship and ought to be fired. Journalistic ethics on this matter are very strict: Even altering an article that has already been published requires appending an editorial note informing readers of the changes. Removing an article in its entirety for whatever reason is another clear violation of writerly ethics that currently assume the status of unwritten rules. These are rules of transparency and they help ensure that the custodians of information and knowledge do not defraud citizens of the truth--and the truth is an embattled prisoner in today's world, where falsifications and fabrications are published and spread every second.

If it means anything, free speech is a three-pronged right to: 1) A fair hearing in the public square we all inhabit; 2) The right not to have one's speech curtailed, whether by campus mobs or official censors; and 3) The right of the public to hear opinions they may oppose. This third strand is the most important, as the infringement of a single person's right to speak is necessarily also an infringement of the public's right to hear what that person has to say. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty:

First: the opinion which is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.

Harris has the exclusive right to the audio of our debate, a condition he imposed without reservation beforehand. Thankfully, I did record my end of the conversation on my phone and took notes on what Harris said, and I am willing to stand behind every word I uttered on the podcast. Can Harris say the same?

In diminishing the public's right to hear our exchange--because it was "boring"--Harris decided that he was the impartial judge of what could and could not be allowed into the public square. Our debate garnered significant public attention--my last essay on his suppression of our talk was shared over ten thousand times in twenty-four hours--and yet the contents of the debate are still locked away on Harris's computer.

His second reason for keeping the conversation barred is that he did not wish to "inflict such boredom" upon listeners. This is a laughable excuse and anyone who believes it needs to have their head examined. A "boring" four-hour conversation is a contradiction in terms, as oxymoronic as "intellectual censor." But, suppose a debate on such contentious issues as Islam and terrorism and American foreign policy was maddeningly boring to the point of being an audio sleeping pill. Suppose that any listener who endured even twenty minutes of it would fall into an unproductive daze that lasted half the day. Even such an alchemic debate of biblically boring proportions would not be "inflicted" upon anyone--listeners would not be forced to click on the link, turn up the volume, and sit down for three hours to listen to it. If the listener disliked it, he or she could simply shut it off and go make a cup of coffee. Harris could even upload the debate onto an alternative platform if he does not want to use up his precious website space, unless, of course, "boring" in Harrispeak translates into "This will make me look bad so I can't air it" in plain English. A neutral observer to our public back-and-forth should not rule out this conclusion.

Since the word "boring" has been inflicted upon the public so assiduously by Harris, it is useful to point out that the level of interest a public conversation is projected to garner has never been the standard that determines whether an argument or debate should be censored. Interest level is certainly factored in to editorial decisions--newspapers and magazines would go out of business if what they published was "boring" in the true sense of the term--but every stage of my disagreement with Harris is currently in the public realm, every stage except the actual debate itself. If other editors, journalists, and news anchors adopted Harris's definition of "boring" as their standard for transparency, news publications would degenerate into the worst kind of tabloid hucksterism, in addition to freezing free inquiry. The guest on our show argued a troublesome point? Bury her segment and say it was "boring." The invitee to a symposium challenged the host's record? Burn the audio and say it was "boring." One can imagine a gleeful Richard Nixon responding to critics about his secret tapes: "Gentlemen, those tapes are boring!"

In his last podcast, Harris says a number of things which are untrue or half-true. He says that I was "immature, smug, extraordinarily petty, and fairly paranoid," and that I was a "thin-skinned and coddled and micro-aggressioned [sic]" individual who was "incapable of having an honest conversation." How true these statements are as descriptions, I do not know--but between the two of us, I am the only one asking for the public to hear our exchange and decide for themselves, the only one asking that readers not be coddled like children and be allowed to make up their own minds as they see fit. How true these statements are as insults, I can only respond how Pierre Trudeau responded to Richard Nixon: I have been called worse things by better people.

Apart from playing redacted snippets from our talk, Harris says a few other things in that podcast that merit a response. He defends, once again, his use of the term "collateral damage" as a "standard phrase that everyone uses on this topic." The issue of collateral damage was raised when I quoted for Harris the figure of 288,000 Muslims killed by US bombs in recent decades, most of them civilians whose lives he did not defend. This number was a back-of-the-envelope figure calculated by Harvard's Stephen Walt on his Foreign Policy blog several years ago, and is obviously on the higher end of estimates, but Harris has not said much about the deaths of innocent civilians at even one-tenth of this number.

In point of fact, "collateral damage" is not the term that everyone uses. It is a term of propaganda, a euphemism whose literal meaning is "innocent people we killed." The term makes the innocent dead into an indefinable collection of flesh, thereby dehumanizing them and scrubbing the public record clean. Think of the the outburst of criticism if President Obama read aloud the names of civilians killed by the drone program the way he rightly reads aloud the names of victims of mass-shootings--they are not "collateral damage" anymore but individuals with names and faces and aspirations taken prematurely by missiles incinerating their bodies.

Writers with public platforms should not be using and defending the sterilizing jargon of those who hold official positions in government. Let the generals use the euphemisms. This is exactly what George Orwell spent his life railing against--the lifeless rhetoric of powerful individuals who use their platforms to dupe the public through verbal trickery. It is precisely to dull the reactions of the public and reduce the citizenry's scope of thought that the Inner Party in Orwell's 1984 studiously trims words from the dictionary.

Harris claims that I am being hyperbolic when I argue, as I did in Salon, that he "dehumanizes Muslims to such an extreme degree that it verges upon bloodlust."

If my description of his words is hyperbole, how should the following words be described:

It is time we admitted that we are not at war with "terrorism." We are at war with Judaism.

[...]

The Jewish world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism. In confronting the religious literalism and ignorance of the Jewish world, we must appreciate how terrifyingly isolated Jews have become in intellectual terms.

These sentences belong not to Alfred Rosenberg or Hajj Amin al-Husseini, two of the twentieth century's most notorious anti-Semites, but--once "Judaism" is replaced with "Islam" and "Jews" with "Muslims"--to Sam Harris. Diabolical statements negate the hyperbole in their responses. Never-mind, though, because Islamophobia is not real!

"What are the chances that on my own podcast," Harris asks in the same podcast where he played three self-adulating fragments of our debate, "I just transformed into Colonel Kurtz?"

To those who did not get the reference, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz was the murderous and savage character played by the great Marlon Brando in the film Apocalypse Now. The character is based on Kurtz from Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, a ghastly character who advises the authorities to "Exterminate all the brutes!" In the movie, the sadistic Colonel Kurtz uses the most barbaric tactics to torture and kill the Vietnamese, without censure from military higher-ups. Only after pictures documenting the massacres are released and transparency achieved does the military object to Colonel Kurtz's exterminations. Irony is to be found even in the crevices of rhetorical questions. What are the chances that Sam Harris transforms into Colonel Kurtz? I know the answer to this question, but because of Harris's playing fast and loose with the truth, listeners do not.

What was most fascinating to me after my last essay was published was how hundreds of Harris's admirers responded online. I am not talking about insults or vulgarities--these are cheap bullets utilized by people with small vocabularies. Rather, the extreme length many of his supporters on social media traveled to remain ignorant. One person e-mailed me with a longish rant about how I agreed to a "discussion" and not a "debate," as if a discussion about vigorous disagreements is anything but a debate. Other admirers of his seized on my agreeing to the authoritarian terms he set as a way of completely exonerating his act of censorship, incapable of detecting any ray of bad faith on Harris's part. Many others still repeated points I had directly addressed in my pieces, either because they had not read them or could not read them, in the same way that many religious people cannot read arguments against their faith. It was as though this horde of unthinking followers, comfortable behind fake names and avatars, could not bear to have their opinions about Harris budged even slightly. A flurry of angry, often semiliterate tweets, messages, and e-mails came my way like an ululating mob whose prophet had been attacked. I have been in these situations before, usually while debating fundamentalist Muslims and Christians. It seems that cults can be formed in unsuspecting places.

This was not upsetting but illuminating. Writing publicly is like entering a loud, crowded party--except that the party is taking place on a stage and there are an infinite number of rows filled with spectators, most of whom you cannot see but who can see you and who can and do heckle and shout unsparingly. Just as the actor in a stage-play cannot disparage the boos he may receive for a bad performance, nor can the writer put out a text and complain about the response. Unlike the actor in the play who can walk off the stage, however, the writer's words remain on public display forever. The party, so to speak, never ends. Maybe this is why Harris will not publish the debate.

There are other charges Harris makes in that podcast that deserve a response, but the entire controversy has now spun into a sideshow, descending into the amateurish depths of he said/she said. Let me conclude by offering Harris an open-ended invitation unlike the one he offered me: I am willing to discuss, debate, dialogue, or discourse with you in any public forum, at any time, at any place, subject only to a mutually-agreeable moderator. Let's have the enlightened public be the judge. For the time being, you have our debate in your hands. Do with it whatever you like. Burn the tapes if you want, as Nixon did. Until my offer is either accepted or rejected, I'll exit this particular stage because it has indeed grown tiresome and you have not engaged with a single substantive point I have made. I assure you that the party will certainly go on.