There’s an interesting exchange between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald that Harris posted on his blog. In a nutshell, Greenwald tweeted about an article that was critical of remarks Harris made some time ago regarding Muslims. Greenwald agreed with the critic, Harris got miffed, and the email exchange ensued.
This very public disagreement highlights something that is a byproduct of social and cultural debates, as demonstrated by this bit that Harris uses as part of his defense.
There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.
When Christians are accused of being intolerant of other religions (Islam in particular), homosexuals, or other groups which they often rail against, the accusation is flung right back at the accuser for being intolerant of Christianity. When you call out an opponent of same-sex marriage for working to oppress the rights of others, you are accused of oppressing their freedom of speech. And, as we see with Harris, critics of Islam are often accused of being Islamophobes or racists by those who want to emphasize that there are good Muslims out there.
Obviously, being intolerant of intolerance is a net positive. But when emotions are deeply entrenched as they often are when it comes to social and cultural issues, neither side sees themselves as being the intolerant ones. I actually saw a guy on Facebook claim that when he votes against same-sex marriage he is not infringing anyone’s rights or forcing his beliefs on others because he is voting for what he believes in. Rather an absurd thing to say, but in his mind it is a perfectly fine justification for his action (cognitive dissonance) and makes his critics both wrong and intolerant of his beliefs. This is why these issues can be so subtly hard to debate without sparking an argument, even when two people are generally on the same side.
My main criterion for what I consider intolerable is quite simple and can be derived from the medical ethics maxim, Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). Anything that causes harm to others should be neither tolerated nor protected from criticism. It’s nice that there are Muslims out there who don’t condone what the extremists do and who may not agree with some of the more violent aspects of Sharia law, but it doesn’t change the fact that Islamic communities as a whole oppress women and provide fertile breeding grounds in which extremism thrives (among other things). It’s nice that Christians are making use of their first amendment rights to voice opposition to same-sex marriage on religious or (what is to them) moral grounds, but the civil rights of a minority group should never, ever be left to the vote of a majority to decide. Freedom of expression is one thing, tyranny of the majority something else entirely.
The weakness with my criterion is that it is perhaps too simple in that it is not clearly defined as to what I mean by “harm”. For example, it’s quite easy for someone, say, to claim that legalizing same-sex marriage will harm the institution of marriage itself, or endanger the future of the human race by affecting the reproduction rate. Both of these particular claims are easily shot down with simple logic, but logic, and even fact, has no bearing when cognitive dissonance is involved. The more evidence you give someone who stubbornly refuses to accept it, the more stubbornly they will cling to their misguided claims. It’s precisely this behavior that causes many social movements so much difficulty and to take so long to succeed in achieving legislation.
What we see in the divide on the left, as demonstrated by the Harris-Greenwald exchange, is the same sort of behavior expressed in a different way. Some of us see Islam itself (and all religion, really) as a threat to society. Others see only the extremists as the threat. It’s the latter group that accuses the former of Islamophobia and racism when sweeping criticisms of Islam are made. The difference here is not so clear cut as the left-right divide that comes up in so many social issues of our time. Neither side is obviously suffering from cognitive dissonance. I can see a real justification for both sides claiming harm (harm Islam causes mankind vs. harm to moderate Muslims caused by criticism of Islam as a whole). Personally, while I don’t agree with Harris on everything he says about Islam and Muslims (for example, I think his support for profiling Muslims at airport security checkpoints is over the top) and do agree with Greenwald on a lot of things, I find myself on Harris’s side in this particular debate. His 2006 article that provided the initial fuel for this row makes some very good points about the nature of Islam in the modern world.
I’m not really offering answers here, just trying to put into words something that I frequently find frustrating. I like to think of myself as arguing from evidence, forming my opinions based on facts and data. My disagreements with the right are many and, in many cases, I’m confident that history will prove me to be on the right side. That doesn’t mean I’m always right, since I am just as apt to suffer from cognitive dissonance as anyone else. But these cases don’t trouble me. These are the arguments where both sides just beat each other with the same hammer day in and day out. Debate changes nothing. The hard part is in those cases where the cognitive dissonance gap is not so obvious, where both sides really do have something to support their arguments and have valid points to make. It’s not always clear to me if I’m on the “right” side in those cases. But it is these very situations where debate really can make a difference and, ultimately, lead to a solution. It’s just really challenging to get there.