Harris/Chomsky II

Harris’ thinly disguised “I’ve made up my mind and won’t listen to anyone about it anymore” statement fully demonstrates the problem I think I outlined in my previous entry. (No, those quotes aren’t real… he didn’t say that. It’s my interpretation of what Harris said.) Harris is so convicted by his idealism, he literally cannot hear his critics. His idealism has made the boundary between considering and not considering intentions artificially crisp. Such a boundary is actually quite fuzzy.

Chomsky gave zero indication that he thought intentions were never important. He only indicated that in this particular comparison (collateral damage from bombing a pharma plant vs. the 9/11 attack on the twin towers), the consideration of intention is not the most salient consideration. If I’m right that this was part of Chomsky’s argument, then I have to agree. (If it wasn’t part of his argument, then I’ll simply make the argument myself.)

Clinton (and the US government) was explicitly given the responsibility to consider the consequences of his actions. That’s one of the things for which we paid him … why we elected him. It’s part and parcel of his duty. That applies through the whole chain down to the soldiers who follow orders. This is one of the things that makes our military different from many others. Our soldiers are legally cupable for any illegal orders they obey. It is, in part, their duty to consider the consequences of their actions. This is especially true the higher up in the chain you go. The president, as Commander-in-Chief has a fiduciary duty to consider the consequences of his actions.

For Clinton to have considered the collateral damage and made the sickening, but perhaps necessary decision to purposefully kill those people who suffered from the lack of the pharma plant, would be morally difficult, but justified in a sense. But for him to fail to consider those consequences would be a dereliction of duty. By many standards, dishonor and failure to do one’s duty are considered more morally repugnant than purposeful (mass) murder. Bin Laden fulfilled his duty. Clinton did not.

So, Harris is quite free to disagree with the honor/duty standard. Most of Western culture has begun to degrade that standard and is opting for softer, more context-sensitive approaches. But for him to be completely blind to the point is surprising. And I believe it’s clearly Harris’ idealism that is preventing him from hearing the point. (The other option is cynical, that Harris simply wants attention and to save face.)

Inside Your Personal Space

The first part of this article on Police reminded me of something I learned a long time ago, but continually forget. I’ve always disliked being touched, at least when I haven’t explicitly authorized it. I’ve often chalked this up to my dad’s behavior. He was always very grabby, especially when he was mad. But even when being “playful”, when I was a kid, he’d palm my stomach and squeeze … his version of tickling, I suppose. And any sports were always very contact-based… even soccer, where, as a coach, he encouraged tackling. If we weren’t supposed to kick each other, why did we wear shin guards?

I didn’t really understand this behavior until I started my martial arts training. I think I was 14 or so. My master was a cop and taught us the power of stepping inside an opponent’s personal space. It was odd because this was Tae Kwon Do, which is normally quite distant. Yet he insisted on teaching us very close-in punching and wrestling techniques. And I learned that it works very well. My dad had been golden gloves back when he was in the Air Force. And I suppose that he was good at that precisely because he knew how to fight inside someone’s personal space.

To this day, I sincerely appreciate it when a normally grabby person restrains themselves around me. And I am intuitively … instinctively suspicious of those who consistently pat you on the back (men) or touch your arm (women) when talking to you. I also notice the tendency of many (usually emotionally insecure) men who seem to be trying to express dominance by shaking your hand within both of theirs. I much prefer the macho, crushing, single-handed handshake to the passive-aggressive double hand handshake.

But take these methods seriously. It’s not just the cops who are trained to get inside your personal space. It’s a well-known technique used in all contexts. And, to me, it’s like a gun. Never point it at anything you’re not willing to destroy.

Harris and Chomsky

This attempt by Sam Harris to goad Chomsky into playing the “idealism game” has simply added more fodder to confirm my opinion of Harris. It’s interesting to consider, both in the practice of the discussion and as a higher lesson in types of intellectualism. Re: the practice, Harris is right. Trying to launch this in e-mail was probably doomed from the start. (The more important thing to say is that Harris launched this because Chomsky expressed no interest in any sort of public exchange. Harris’ purpose is to sell books and sell his ideas. Getting Chomsky to take him seriously enough, even if merely to express his disdain, helps Harris sell his books and ideas. To his credit, Harris wins by gaining more attention through this opportunistic stunt.)

Also with regard to the practice, it seems like they both went for the “post at the top, no interleaving” method for e-mail exchange (though perhaps Harris reformatted it). And while this mirrors the classic letter writing style of days gone by, it’s not best for … “plodding” and “accusing”.

But w.r.t. the larger lesson, Chomsky is (I think obviously) a detailed thinker, whereas Harris is an abstract thinker. (For the 0 people who actually read my web log, we’ve been here before.) Chomsky is a true liberal, I think, fairly clearly identifiable for his willingness to engage in the gritty detail of a situation. Whether some act is moral or not can hinge on the tiniest detail, leave it out, it’s moral, put it back, it’s immoral. Harris is completely the opposite. He tends to like grand sweeping positions (e.g. his Islamaphobia), regardless of any situational details.

Both types of thinker can be considered intellectualist. Think of the stark difference between, say, a very fact poor discipline like philosophy versus a fact rich discipline like biology. Both domains take a great deal of attention, footnoting, citation, bookkeeping, etc. And you have to have a soaring intellect to be good at either one. But, at bottom, they are very different activities.

As to the final result of this exchange, it shows why abstraction is, if not the cause, always coincident with atrocity. Idealism is just as dangerous as it is motivational. Chomsky shows this quite well in the content of the exchange. And even the format of the exchange shows that Harris assume[s|ed] we can have a conversation like this regardless of the detail that it’s being done by e-mail… a detail that changes its character entirely.