Generalization and Communication – Affleck and Harris

This kerfuffle between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris irritated me to no end, mostly because although I don’t like either Affleck’s or Harris’ primary professional output (of late, anyway), I think they’re both fantastic parts of modern culture. The world will be worse off when/if either of them retreats to a more private life.

The over-generalization of the Harris camp was the primary problem, here. And I land squarely in Affleck’s camp because of the fallacy Harris (consistently) commits. BTW, just because Harris commits a fallacy does not imply Affleck’s reasoning is flawless… but that’s not my point. Had Harris (and, Yog forbid, the entertainer named Maher) been explicit and specific in their language, the controversy would not have arisen. But Harris is consistently sloppy on this topic, even when citing statistics. Sheesh, we can’t even accurately poll our 1st world population as they exit election polling stations. What makes the Harris camp trust polls of war-wracked and poverty-striken populations?

I believe I can answer that: because the Harris camp believes it has the world figured out. They trust the statistics they (imprecisely) quote, without also presenting the accuracy and variance of those statistics because doing so confirms their bias. We could drill down into this issue by comparing, say, the number of Americans who can’t read a map with the number of Muslims who believe suicide bombing is justified, including all the sampling problems, and methodological considerations of taking such data. But I won’t do that.

Instead, I’d like to point out the inherent conflict (contradiction?) between Harris’ (and [cough] Maher’s) assertion that they are, in this dialog, defending liberal principles. It’s always seemed to me that liberals tend to be more open to situational complexity and less likely to base their ethics on static or absolutist rules. The openness to new experiences we see in liberal sensibilities is based, I think, on their tendency toward consequentialist or pragmatic ethics.

What the Harris camp is really doing, beyond a naive sense of over-generalization, is closing off certain thoughts. They are holding some values or principles as sacred, unquestionable rules. This is not liberalism. And the more often they claim it is, the more they reveal their familiarity with Newspeak. If I thought Harris was naive or gullible in any deep sense, or if I thought he had never been a good scientist, I’d chalk it up to confusion over what liberalism means, rather than a (perhaps unconscious) use of Newspeak. But I think he has demonstrated situational and pragmatic awareness recently (in his assertions about sprituality, profiling, gun control, hand washing, etc.). And I do think he knows what scientific falsification means. So, his adoption of deontological reasoning for this particular argument can only be manipulative.

That’s OK, of course. Lots of good has been done by means of such manipulation. I am not a liberal, despite the huge overlap between my conclusions and many liberals’ conclusions. My ethics are a moderate mixture of rule-, value-, conseqence-, and situation-based reasoning. Perhaps that’s what allows me to reject Harris’ claim that his claims about Islam are liberal claims.

p.s. This sentence betrays Harris’ rule-based approach rather nicely: “I await an entry in the DSM-VI that describes this troubling condition.” I hope that was a joke. But all good jokes are good precisely because they contain a kernel of truth.


4 thoughts on “Generalization and Communication – Affleck and Harris

  1. Pingback: Harris and Chomsky | Eternal Query

  2. Pingback: Generalization and Comm. #2 | Eternal Query

  3. I really liked your blog posting on this topic…I had a similar reaction when I listened to the podcast of the show. Thanks for posting the video because it does make a big difference to watch rather than just listen to the exchange. I think you would enjoy listening to this podcast about disagreeing Stay tuned until the end of the podcast for “The Spiel” where Mike Pesca explains why disagreeing and argument are a positive for us overall but it needs to be done better.

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