What Sam Harris Gets Wrong About Identity Politics

After the white supremacist rally this weekend in Charlottesville, VA., Sam Harris had this to say on Twitter:

Why would Harris feel it was important to condemn identity politics as a whole at this particular time? And why would he call something “detestable” without hinting at any reason why he thought so? I don’t know, but I suspected that Harris had a pre-existing beef of some kind with identity politics, so I looked it up, and sure enough, he did (it can be found here).

As is usually the case, Harris expresses himself very clearly, so rather than try and paraphrase, I’m going to give you a big honking quote:

It’s pretty strange that knowing a person’s position on any one of these issues generally allows you to predict his position on the others. This shouldn’t happen. Some of these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s attitude towards guns be predictive of his views on climate change or immigration or abortion? And yet, it almost certainly is in our society. That’s a sign that people are joining tribes and movements. It’s not the sign of clear thinking. If you’re reasoning honestly about facts, then the color of your skin is irrelevant. The religion of your parents is irrelevant. Whether you’re gay or straight is irrelevant. Your identity is irrelevant. In fact, if you’re talking about reality, its character can’t be predicated on who you happen to be. That’s what it means to be talking about reality.
And this also applies to the reality of human experience and human suffering. For instance, if vaccines don’t cause autism — if that is just a fact — and that is what the best science suggests at this point — well then, when arguing against this view, you need data, or a new analysis of existing data. You need an argument. And the nature of any argument is that its validity doesn’t depend on who you are. That’s why a good argument should be accepted by others. Right? No matter who they are. So in the case of vaccines causing autism, you don’t get to say, “As a parent of a child with autism, I believe X, Y and Z.” Whatever is true about the biological basis of autism can’t depend on who you are. And who you are in this case is probably adding a level of emotional engagement with the issue which would be totally understandable, but would also be unlikely to lead you to think about it more clearly. The facts are whatever they are. And it’s not an accident that being disinterested — not uninterested but disinterested — that is, not being emotionally engaged — usually improves a person’s ability to reason about the facts.

Sounds reasonable, no? We all want to think clearly and reach rational conclusions and have top-notch arguments, so it’s pretty obviously best if we set aside our identities and passions and just reason about the facts, right?

I think Harris is making a couple of mistakes, some of which reflect a lack of understanding and some of which I’d file under “naïve rationalism”.

Is the person who is saying, “As a parent of a child with autism…” really carrying the assumption that reality is based on who they are? It doesn’t seem likely. What seems much more likely is that such a person is saying that people who do not have children with autism are lacking experiences that would convince them of X, Y or Z. The statement may be completely wrong or misguided, but in either case, Harris’ example is plausably not saying what he claims it says.

Besides giving us a straw-man, Harris is also to some degree conflating identity with experience. And even if he were right on that score — even if they’re really the same thing — he is claiming that this experience is a drawback, because it makes us liable to be more emotionally attached to the issue and thus less likely to think rationally based on facts.

There are controversial and not-so-controversial arguments against this view. The controversial one is that everything we know about the world — including our ability to reason about facts — is based on and inextricable from experience. Thus, to the extent that experience and identity are the same thing, the very way that we reason is based on our identity. The less controversial argument is that our experiences always form the basis of our conscious and unconscious apprehension of reality, and can sometimes give us insight into reality that people with different experiences are effectively blind to or unmoved by. To understand how that works, we need to understand: 1) that reality is not always as simple as a yes-or-no answer about whether some physical effect is caused by an injection; and 2) that even when we are in possession of all the facts, our values — and more importantly our prioritization of those values — can make a huge difference in what we think should be done politically.

The vaccine example, as neat and tidy as it is, is a bad example in terms of the argument I want to make, because the experience of having a child with autism does not, in fact, give someone special insight into the biological mechanisms of vaccines. So let’s take a different example.

Let’s say I’m an African-American parent in a metropolitan area, and I say, “As the parent of a black teenager, I believe that we need to stop the racism that’s causing police to kill our kids.” I’m actually saying a few things here. One of them is that being who I am — my experience — exposes me to the reality of a causal relationship that most people are not seeing.

Harris would presumably argue that there are facts at issue here, and that if we dispassionately evaluate them, we could ascertain whether in fact it is racism that is causing police to kill black teenagers. But we know that our “best evidence” in this case might be biased and even intentionally muddied (how many police department statements do you see that claim race was a factor in a police shooting of an unarmed teenager?). And it’s certainly not unreasonable to think that an African-American parent in this metropolitan area might have a more accurate idea about the presence of racism in the police force in their neighborhood than is reflected in our databases on police shootings. Could the parent be biased? Sure. We are all biased. The point is that the facts, for we the dispassionate, are not always easy to discern. The parent is not saying “I believe this because I am an African-American parent”. They are saying, “I have the authority to say this because I have the experience that I have”. They are saying, “My experience is evidence.”

Instead of looking at identity politics as something that causes us to think unclearly, what if we looked at identity politics as something that is caused in us? What if we’re not simply choosing to base our beliefs on our identities? What if, instead, we are adopting identity politics as a reaction to what we see as a widespread misapprehension of reality? Is it still as “detestable”?

There’s a bigger issue here than facts. There’s an issue of values.

One of the things a parent is saying when they say, “As the parent of a black teenager…” is that if you were the parent of a black teenager, you’d probably care a lot more about how the police treated them. This is a statement about the prioritization of values. Maybe we all have the facts and we all know that a lot of police shootings of unarmed black teenagers are caused by racism. Even then, we have to decide to do something about it. We have to decide that we should value those teenagers’ lives more than we value whatever it would cost us to fix the problem.

If you think that this prioritization of values is pretty obvious and that we all agree about it, just google “Michael Brown” and “thug”.

Harris wants to say that our emotions lead us to reason less clearly about what to do. But what is actually happening in our brains when we adopt a dispassionate view? Why is Harris so careful to say that being disinterested is not the same as being uninterested?

The fact is that our emotions are not separate from our reasoning any more than reason is a pure realm separate from our experiences. If you are interested, it is through emotion. If you care to think about something at all, it is through emotion. Emotion is the process of valuing.

So the question is, when we have all the facts at our disposal, what should we value more and what less? How should we prioritize our values when they come into conflict with one another? This is what lies at the heart of identity politics.

When someone says “Black lives matter”, they are not saying “black lives matter more”. They are saying, “I live in a society that values black lives less than other lives, and I think that prioritization of values is wrong.”

Harris’ tweet itself is a small example of value prioritization. Harris obviously deplores white supremacy and felt it was important to say so. But at that moment, after a crowd was plowed into by a white supremacist’s car, Harris also felt it was a priority to make sure we were informed that all identity politics is detestable. His statement, and his decision to decry identity politics as a whole, was an expression of the priority of his values. He could have said a near-infinite number of things, and that is what he chose to say.

As a society, we can do a near-infinite number of things, and what we decide to do depends on how we, as a whole society, decide to prioritize our values. And this process is less a decision than a struggle, as history makes pretty clear. We will see identity politics arise any time there are people who feel strongly that they are being treated unfairly based on their identity. We will see it any time a society’s prioritization of values falls wildly out of sync with the prioritization of groups of people who share an identity.

This is true of white supremacists. They feel that their power is being taken away from them because society has come to value diversity and inclusiveness and racial equality over their (to them) obvious ascendancy. And — except for the ascendancy part — they’re correct. They are losing cultural hegemony. We are, as a society, coming to prioritize equality over their desire to hoard power.

Their identity politics is an effect of changes in society, not a cause of their wrong-thinking. There is nothing detestable about their identity politics in-and-of itself. What’s detestable is the fact that they think others are unequal — that others should be harmed and subjugated.

If we as a society end up rejecting this, it will be driven by emotion. Because there’s nothing else to drive it.

[Note: I didn’t address Harris’ argument about how one shouldn’t be able to predict someone’s views on an issue based on their views about unrelated issues. My response is this: If pure reason and perfect information existed and you based all your opinions on those, then your views would be even more predictable than an anti-vaxxer’s views on gun control. Should that “not happen”? Should we consider it “pretty strange?”]