Sam Harris versus Noam Chomsky

harris chomsky

Recently Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky attempted an email debate though it never really got going. This could have been because Chomsky is now too old to follow complex arguments, or because he was still fuming about past criticisms Harris had made about him, or because Chomsky was determined to misrepresented and misunderstand Harris from the outset. I’m pretty sure it was the latter, especially as he did something similar to Christopher Hitchens years ago when he wasn’t so old. Even so, he did at times sound like a tedious old bore, constantly repeating his boast that he has a long history of fighting (alleged) injustice, so maybe the whole exchange was a flop partly due to Chomsky’s age, partly due to his to crankiness and partly due to his wilful dishonesty. I thought Sam Harris for his part conducted himself well and did his best to have an honest exchange of ideas.

It turns out that many people saw the whole thing differently. They were of the opinion that Chomsky had wiped the floor with Harris and had ‘undressed him’. This got me wondering about the mindset of Chomsky supporters and why they think as they do. My thoughts went like this:

When we are born we naturally think our culture’s way of doing things is best, simply because it is our culture. I remember laughing whenever I noticed that some families did things differently to mine. Are they mad? It never struck me as at all strange that my family kept our sugar in a huge Pyrex casserole dish instead of a dainty sugar bowl and that our cat ate out of an old ‘Capstan Full-Strength’ ashtray instead of a saucer. My thinking was typical ‘us and them’; tribal and primitive.

Slowly I learned that our way of doing things wasn’t necessarily always the best. This was a bit of a shock at first but I soon got used to the idea and became a little more careful and objective in my judgements about the world.

As people grow up some of them associate criticisms of foreign cultures with their own unthinking adherence to their own culture. Conversely, they also associate westerners who are critical of western culture with objectivity and non-tribalism. Praise of ‘the other’ then becomes proof of your enlightenment, regardless of whether your praise is valid or not.

Of course most people, especially the young, just want to be popular and to fit in with others and in today’s western culture that means adopting progressive liberal views. Some people get carried away and over-compensate for their innate cultural bias by going into Opposite Land. Here they find everything done by other cultures vibrant and wonderful and everything done by their own mean and despicable. This is Chomsky country and is really just the mirror image of the position held by primitive tribalists: instead of loving everything about their own nation, they hate everything about it. They then congratulate themselves on their intellectual sophistication and courageous defence of ‘the other’, no matter who or how barbaric that other is.

Chomsky would of course reject all this, though he does admit to criticising America much more than other countries. He justifies this by saying that since it is his country he bears some responsibility for his government’s actions. In criticising the American government he is trying to influence its policies, something he can’t do with other countries.

This sounds reasonable enough until you read his assertion that America is “the world’s leading terrorist state”. Really? And by criticising only, or at least mainly, America, couldn’t his readers be forgiven for coming away with the impression that it is mainly America that is to blame for the world’s woes? Chomsky makes no effort to correct this impression but when pressed escapes into evasion, disclaiming many points of view most people understandably attribute to him. It reminds me of the way sophisticated Christians have one way of talking to their own and one way of talking to atheists. With the latter they come over all nuanced while with the former they quite happily talk about a father-figure just beyond the clouds.

How Chomsky stands on cultural relativism I have no idea, but some people reject the idea that one culture can be better or worse than another. Everything depends on how you view it they say, everything is relative. These people are so taken with the idea that we can never escape the influence of our culture and view things objectively that they sometimes claim that science itself is just our culture’s peculiar way of looking at things and no better at approaching the truth than any other way. Thus the belief that the moon is a huge rock orbiting the earth at a distance of 235,000 miles is no truer than the belief that it is a huge melon thrown into the sky by an African god.

Though cultural relativists never quite put it in these words, their beliefs inevitably lead them to see the practices of stoning adulterers and throwing gays off cliffs as only seeming wrong from our western perspective. If we could only see things through the eyes of ‘the other’, things would look very different. Well, I’m sure they would but this doesn’t mean that one person isn’t wholly right and the other wholly wrong. After all, the world looks different to the person who thinks that water is CO3 and the moon is made of cheese but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t a lunatic. Apart from this, the fact that we have stopped burning witches strikes even cultural relativists as being, on balance, a good thing, not only from their own partisan point of view but from the ‘View from Nowhere’. Quite how something can be both an improvement and at the same time neither better nor worse than the alternatives is a mystery to me.

Personally I think these people are confusing two meanings of the word ‘objective’. Is the fact that we no longer burn witches good in some mathematically objective sense? No, maths doesn’t care about such things, neither does the cold uncaring universe. Is it good in the objective human sense, i.e. that all reasonable societies would agree that burning innocent women is stupid and cruel? I think so. The only people who might disagree are those so ignorant that they continue to believe in the possibility of flight-by-broomstick and humans metamorphosing into cats. The views of these people can safely be ignored. This is Sam Harris’s belief, and my own.

Of course I think all three groups, prejudiced tribalists (me as a child), people perversely prejudiced against their own tribe (chomsky’s followers) and cultural relativists (bearded anthropologists) are all wrong. I believe that some cultures are better than others (in the human, non-mathematical sense) and that you should try to rise above your cultural prejudices to separate the good from the bad. While there is no absolutely neutral, God-like position from which to make judgements you can at least try.

Even so, of late I find myself being drawn back to my old tribal ways of thinking. I’m sick of having to defend my culture on purely objective grounds. When Nick Griffin warns that the demographics of Britain are trending towards a much larger Muslim population and that Britain could one day become a majority Muslim country with Islamic laws, Jeremy Paxman asks, ‘What would be so terrible about that?’ Griffin then feels obliged to list all the objectively negative aspects of Islamic countries around the world, like an absence of women’s and gay rights. Yet if Paxman had asked what Griffin had against being invaded by millions of Japanese, what could he have said? After all, it’s not immediately obvious why Japan’s culture is worse than Britain’s.

The truth is that no ethnic population wants either its genes or its culture to be replaced by those of another population, even if the invading people and their culture are fairly benign. Being asked to justify why you don’t want your nation swamped by alien people is like being asked to state your objective reasons for preferring your wife and children to those of other men. You shouldn’t have to justify such things, any more than you need to objectively justify why you prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate. And no one would think of asking Tibetans why they don’t want to be replaced by Han Chinese. The question is clearly a stupid one but people like Jeremy Paxman often lose sight of its inanity when sitting opposite a white British ethnonationalist. This 6-minute video shows why we can’t take in the whole world.

Native Europeans who are actively celebrating the influx of large numbers of Muslims and Africans into Europe should perhaps take a break from calling dissenters bigots, racists and Little Englanders and take a long, hard look at themselves. If they did, they might wonder when and why they began to embrace this cultural and ethnic suicide. What was it that diverted their thinking and feeling down such an evolutionarily weird path? If these people really believe what they say about diversity then why aren’t they asking the Native Americans and Australian aborigines to celebrate our arrival on their shores? Do they think these people were happy to see us? Don’t they think they would have fought us off if they could? So what is different about them and us?

Deep down these cheerleaders for mass immigration must surely know that nearly all the conflicts in the world are caused by racial, ethnic, religious, cultural and political diversity. And they must also have noticed that the Japanese manage to construct buildings, run companies and govern themselves, all without the alleged benefits of ethnic diversity. They do all this only with a diversity of skills, which is surely the only diversity that really matters.

Sorry, lost sight of Chomsky there.


3 thoughts on “Sam Harris versus Noam Chomsky”

  1. Interesting. Now apologise for the reminder.

    Thinking of the joy with which students expressed their progressive credentials in response to Farage’s prejudice regarding a group of men, especially Romanian men, moving in next door.

    Now, if I was part of a group of men that moved into a neighbourhood in a foreign country (or here in Britain for that matter) it seems perfectly reasonable that any long term residents may be less than happy about that. That it may take some time to gain their trust and good will, and in fact, it would be understandable if we as a group never did feel particularly welcome.

    Had Farage said something along those lines I think most of the little progressives would have conceded the point, albeit reluctantly. That would have been a good opportunity to lecture them on their adolescent naivety and to tell them to grow up.

    1. Killjoy, thanks for the comment. Not sure that I completely understand it, nor which side you are on. Are you for Farage or against him? Did he do right to say what he did or not? Can’t quite decide from your comments what you think. Thanks anyway.

      1. You’re welcome. This is very brief, I’ll have to check what I said later (I know I’m not so good at explaining things): basically I agree with Farage… and you, for that matter.

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