Clash of the Titans

Sam Harris debated Ezra Klein.  I listen to both these guy’s podcasts.  But I’m a much bigger fan of Sam Harris.  His is the only podcast in my library that I truly savor.  I’ve also read most of his books.  I just like the way he thinks.  I like his heart for communication and ethics, his willingness to engage with contrary opinions, and his ability to articulate his ideas well.  But that last part really only applies to a certain demographic that I just happen to be a part of.  Here are some of the quirks of me and that demographic.  1. We care more about ideas and systems than we do about particular people and their stories.  (This is NOT the same as not caring about people, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue)  2. We have a LOT of patience for focusing on long form arguments.  3. A boring monotone voice doesn’t put us off. 

I enjoy Ezra’s work on a different level.  I like hearing far Left arguments articulated well with a heart towards individuals and their specific stories.  He ALSO speaks a lot about ideas and systems, but everything I’ve seen of his work ties those to particular people.  Turns out MOST people only care about ideas and systems to the extent that they can derive a meaningful connection to individuals and their stories. 
So it was with great fascination that I’ve followed the slowly unfolding drama of the collision of these two guys.  I don’t want to retread this whole story.  Here’s a piece that gives all the pertinent details about the specifics and comes to different conclusions than I did.  If you want to know the whole story it’s a great resource:

But I don’t really care about these two people and this specific story as much as I do about the meaning of their interaction and what it illustrates about the cultures we are swimming through at the moment.  Because Ezra -and those who side with him- see the interactions as ALL ABOUT the differences between race’s IQ tests and the politics of a guy named Charles Murray who wrote a book and promotes politics they don’t like, I’d LOVE to be able to not even touch those issues, as they are of no concern to this meta-commentary I’m attempting to make.  But I also know that’s impossible, and that to whatever degree I don’t side with Ezra, I’ll be making myself a target to those on the Left.  So let me do what Sam didn’t do and make these quick caveats.  1. I agree with Ezra that discussions about race and IQ should be had with as diverse a group of people as possible.  2. IQ is a constantly changing thing and any given group’s average is always changing in relationship to it.  3. The gross inequities that occurred in the past and continue to this day are undoubtedly a primary cause of the gap between white/black IQ scores in the U.S.  4. The more we talk about that gap, the more fuel it gives to actual racists, and that has a real impact on the lives those with fewer privileges and less power.  
So why Didn’t Sam make these caveats?  Why didn’t he take the opportunity to agree with some of these specifics that Ezra explicated?  That’s part of what I hope to suss out in this analysis.
Here we have two middle aged American Jewish men with huge media platforms debating two different things, unable to see or acknowledge what the other thinks “the issue” is.  It’s fascinating to me, as someone (also a middle-aged American male) who hopes to find better ways to communicate, bridge divides, and align goals between an increasingly fragmenting society. 

Image result for ezra klein 
They are both great thinkers and rhetoricians, but in my estimation Sam is a better thinker. Ezra is a better rhetorician. (Please note: I’m not intending this word to be interpreted in the colloquial derogatory way, but in the technical meaning.) And in any debate where the public is the judge, the better rhetorician will be the perceived winner.  Therefore the whole engagement was a loss for Sam and his message.

Like I said above, IQ-and-race along with Murray and his politics were “The Issue” for Ezra.  Whereas with Sam, “The Issue” was: Cultivating a culture that is able to digest scientific data in a healthy, non-self-destructive way.  Sam sees IQ-and-race, along with Murray and his politics as peripheral mechanisms for broaching “The Issue” that HE sees as primary.  Because Ezra consistently kept “The Issue” in Ezra’s arena (Meaning he would only speak as if the conversation were actually, consensually about that), Sam was at a huge disadvantage in this debate.  He doesn’t get to directly defend minorities or attempt to address and right historical wrongs.  These are heroic sexy things Ezra gets to do by keeping “The Issue” that he talks about from EVER being what Sam hoped to engage with him about.  Therefore Sam’s backed into a corner, and that’s never a good look on anyone.  Being in the corner means you’re constantly playing defense, and therefore SOUND defensive.  And any time you DO fire back with a positive argument, you SOUND aggressive, rude, etc.  He’s attempting to talk about the abstract socio-political long-term ramifications of a cultural bloc (the Left) being unable to digest scientific data.  Ezra gets to talk about visceral feelings, specific historical events, and specific people’s stories of injustice.  That’s high drama.  That’s the journalist’s stock in trade, and what Ezra has been honing his craft on for decades.  Sam, on the other hand, while having decades spent honing his craft at high-level conceptual topics like ethics, free will and science, simply can’t compete with that kind of dramatic firepower when it comes to capturing the emotional territory of an audience.  

Image result for sam harris
So while to most ears it SOUNDS like Sam lost this debate, I think it’s important to note that the reason it feels like he lost is because of his ethical grounding, which drove the choices he made about how he conducted the interchange.  If his concern was SOUNDING like he was “winning” he could have dropped his dogged adherence to “The Issue” he found most important, and could have jumped over to Ezra’s arena.  He still would have “lost” because he’s not as polished and practiced a rhetorician as Ezra.  So maybe it was less about ethics and more about inevitability.  But I’m importing my knowledge of the difficult ethical decisions that Sam has made in his career that have landed him in hot water in the past.  So I don’t think Sam’s refusal to jump into Ezra’s arena was a cynical or tactical one.  I really do think it’s because he honestly believes that “The Issue” of how a culture comes to grips with politically uncomfortable scientific data is super super important.  And he’s willing to die on that hill. Or in that corner.

Being the expert in rhetoric that Ezra is, he made a brilliant maneuver by framing the entire debate as one where Sam was reflexively identifying with Murray’s tribulations as an academic who gets harassed for his opinions, and therefore partaking in the identity politics of white male academics.  The brilliance of this move is that it simultaneously calls Sam’s motives into question, and keeps “The Issue” about Murray, his politics, and IQ-and-race.  (As though Sam was passionate about reinforcing any of Murray’s opinions or cared about racial differences) Meaning that the audience implicitly sees any defense that Sam does as self-preservation at the expense of those with less privilege.  I know I’ve used the word brilliant twice now, but damn… there’s no better word for it. 
From Sam’s perspective, Ezra was constantly dodging every point Sam made and every question he was given.  In his mini-post-mortem Sam made on his next podcast, he rightly noted that it his style of communication gave all the advantage to Ezra.  Sam tends to talk in ‘walls of text’.  That’s great for keeping a solid set of ideas together and illustrating their holistic meaning.  But it’s terrible in a debate, because your interlocutor then has the power to cherry pick any tiny bit of that wall of text and respond only to that, but then giving the impression that they adequately responded to all of it. 

Ezra took full advantage of Sam’s stance on identity politics.  Sam ardently disagrees with identity politics, and denies participating in them.  Personally I disagree with Sam about identity politics.  I think he’s following the logic of the rhetoric that has amassed around the concept, and sees that it’s not a tenable long-term framework for composing a coherent and stable society where justice prevails.  I do agree with him on that.  But I also think that it’s the best diagnostic tool we’ve created so far for perceiving the past and current injustices that need to be addressed.  Identity carries with it such a huge pile of unique data and perspectives that I think it’s foolish to abandon that as a legitimate lens of examination, or as a method for interrogating social and political institutions.  I can’t think of another means for consolidating and communicating the perspective of a community of shared identity.  Because there’s a bandwidth problem that identity politics solves.  I can’t hear 7 billion individual people’s individual perspectives about how the current systems affect them.  But when enough of a particular group gets together, then I can at least start to form a mental model of how the current systems affect certain kinds of people.  If we as a meta-culture can’t hear/see/perceive how our politics, attitudes, institutions, etc. effect those with other identities, I don’t think we can navigate the moral landscape towards the highest peak for everyone.  We’ll continue to only seek the highest peak for those with the most social/political/financial capital.  I think I’m safe in claiming that guiding culture based on only the privileged is NOT one of Sam’s goals.  As he said several times in his debate with Ezra; he wants almost all the same policies and procedures that Ezra does.

But Ezra can’t acknowledge that.  If he does than his narrative about Sam being a self-deluded un-empathetic person falls apart.  And I’m guessing that’s why Ezra always steered the conversation back to his arena of high emotional impact imagery and specific-people-centered stories. 
In summation, I found this who kerfuffle fascinating, frustrating and disappointing, but ultimately valuable.  I really wish that at points Sam would have, as a friend I was talking about this put it: “Just say ‘OK that’s a good point.  You’re right.  I didn’t think of it that way’. Or ‘Yeah I can see how I came off that way.  I feel the complete opposite and will try to do better.’”  Personally, I find those kinds of olive branches and self-reflection as ultimately more important that this particular issue getting the best case presented.  If I were in Sam’s shoes I would like to think that I would have sacrificed some points for what I was convinced was right, to gain some points in building a platform for good-faith dialog.  But I’m Monday Morning Quarterbacking here.  I know very well that when I’m caught up in the heat of a real-time debate I can’t possibly make the best choices every time, or even most of the time. 

Ultimately, if Sam’s point is drowned out by this; if the Left can’t find a way to digest inconvenient scientific data in a healthy way, then they will progressively become unmoored from reality and unable to maintain a large enough base to accomplish the goods and the justice that they hope to.  And that would be sad for everyone involved. 


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