U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Freedom to Offend: On Disagreeing with Sam Harris

The last week or so has provided abject demonstrations of the freedom to offend.  In the New Yorker Salman Rushdie chronicled the arc of his last 23 years of living under a death sentence declared by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini; Russia’s political vanguard, Pussy Riot, received prison sentences for their demonstration against the collusion between Russia’s latest tyrant Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church; and a wave of violent protests erupted in Muslim countries over a pathetically awful anti-Islamic film.  Each example differs from the others, but all illustrate an abjectness.  Rushdie wrote a novel worthy of critique but instead engendered unbridled hatred and unqualified celebrity.  Pussy Riot exposed the illusion of civil society and were made, summarily, victims of the absence of law in Russia.  The protests by groups of Muslims degenerated into violence against innocents while their collective frustration was made into an abstraction by a process in Western liberal thought that treats challenges to its own assumptions as barely worthy of contempt.

In  2007, the University Press of Kentucky published a book I wrote entitled, “Freedom to Offend.” I wrote about the decline of the nation’s strictest censorship culture in New York City and the way that trend influenced the development of the city’s movie culture.  I studied the collusion between the movie industry, the Catholic Church, and government officials–all working in some harmony to get what each wanted.  For Hollywood, that meant easy profits; for the Church, that meant the ruse of obedience; and for the government, that meant placating constituents.  By the early 1960s, this jig was up and the censorial regime collapsed under its own illogical weight.  The straw, so to speak, that broke this camel’s back was the realization that moviegoers rejected the protection censors promised to provide.  In short, the constituencies “protected” by the censors embraced a freedom to be offended.

That notion is one misunderstood by Sam Harris, our contemporary Cassandra whose passionate defense of freedom to offend anyone rests on a belief that such freedom has a singular definition and that the holders of that definition can determine what offends it.  In other words, it is the freedom that is offended by those who act in ways disconsonant with Harris’s understanding.  In one essay, Harris argues that religion (his all-purpose offender of freedom) is like sports because both are generic terms that fail to describe what practitioners actually do.  Only a someone raised in contemporary western culture would imagine that sports carries the same transcendent purpose as religion–indeed, in America it is possible to worship through sports in a way similar to religion, and many should probably find that a problem.  

Here’s the difference between Harris, Pussy Riot and Rushdie.  Rushdie wrote his novel with the purpose of exploring the power of revelation–something that has no corollary in science or the regime of rational thought subscribed to by Harris.  Rushdie’s biggest regret was not his inability to predict the response his book instigated but that he had, at one point, backed away from the seriousness of his own argument and agreed to issue a statement that the targeting of him was a critique of his own insensitivity to religious pluralism.  Like Harris’s abstract understanding of freedom, Rushdie’s statement made no sense, ultimately, because he could no more defend or define religious pluralism than Harris can lead us to a world in which “freedom” is to be protected from all who would offend it.  Likewise, Pussy Riot entered the most important church in Russia in order to expose a corrupt state fully aware that that same state would slap them down in defense of the abstract notion of the state.

What I saw in the much less violent and consequential struggle over censorship and movie culture in the 1960s was the same drift toward abstractions.  If it was wrong for the censors to protect the virtue of the public or to legislate against blasphemy (as if the state had a way to define that term) it was equally problematic for the defenders of a new movie culture to claim that art was exempt from withering attacks because it was ART.  Likewise, the alternative to a world of in which all offenses provoke violence is not, as it seems Harris would have it, a world of unfettered freedom, whatever that means.  In this way, Harris is not much different from George W. Bush who boldly declared in his second inaugural address that we would seek to end tyranny.  Harris could be the corollary to that illusion, seeking an end to the notion that we can be offended.  After all, just as Bush’s doctrine blurred the line between ending tyranny by imposing an American version of it, Harris would end offenses to freedom by deny those offended the freedom to be offended.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Your post, Ray, reminds me of the philosopher Joel Feinberg’s trilogy of books: Harm to Others, Harm to Self, and Offense to Others. When I encountered these books I first thought, like many Western liberals, that the notion of offense had little moral import, and really didn’t deserve its own entire book. But Feinberg very quickly demolished that position, and replaced it with a problem: the very difficult and serious issue of the extent to which society should protect people from being offended.

    The one example that I remember most clearly (and, I think, has been most frequently cited) concerns a ride on a public bus in which all kinds of potentially offensive events occur. Beginning with passengers listening to loud music or having annoying conversations, this very eventful ride comes to include mourners bringing a corpse onto a bus, people riding naked, passengers quietly masturbating, and so on. Feinberg’s points are twofold. First, he argues that even though there is widespread disagreement as to when these behaviors start to become a problem for the other passengers, very few people, if anyone, would say that none of them should be restricted. Equally important is his second point, that none of the behaviors plausibly constitute “harm” to the other passengers. Thus every single one is properly thought of as an “offense.” Consequently, the idea that a person who is “only” offended rather than harmed has no recourse to moral or political protections is not correct.

    The fact that offense is in the eye of the beholder, as evidenced by the inability to come to an easy agreement on where the bus behavior becomes morally or legally troublesome, makes it difficult to come up with a robust conception of “offense.” But that difficulty should not be confused with the separate claim that offense is not important, because liberal societies only care about restricting harm. Feinberg has pretty conclusively shown that this position just doesn’t hold up. It sound like you are saying that Harris is nonetheless advancing a similar idea.

  2. Since it is the fashion in intellectual history for writers to say: “often dismissed by the left as a loathsome fool, (so and so) was actually interesting or important in some other way…,” and since money quotes substantiating those alleged mischaracterizations are usually hard to locate, let me do a favor for some intellectual historian of the future: Sam Harris is a loathsome fool.

  3. I was remiss by omitting one detail Harris included in his article I cite above (and this will only confirm sadbillionaire’s helpful tag), Harris praises Romney for taking the right position on “Muslim Rage.” It is good to know that we can trust Mitt, even though he gets so much else wrong when it comes to protecting Americans (most from people like him), and yet according to Harris, when it comes to standing up to freedom of expression, Mitt will offend with the best of them and do it in the name of freedom.

    Okay, pithy stuff aside. Thanks to Mike O’Connor for the Feinberg references. I came across similar types of analysis in John Courtney Murray’s essays on the limits of literature and the limits of censoring literature. I’d be interested to hear your take on Rushdie’s piece.http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/09/17/120917fa_fact_rushdie

  4. I quite disagree with sadbillionaire. In my reading, calling Sam Harris names (anonymously, no less) is par for the course, not some act of courageous defiance. I can think of few people in public discourse who are treated as dismissively.

    Personally, I find that there is a lot not to like about Sam Harris. His scientism, in my view, is unsophisticated and silly. But it is no more so than that of, say, Steven Pinker, who is treated as quite the Serious Thinker. And he’s not a jurist or a philosopher, so I don’t really care what he thinks about freedom of speech. What little I have read by him on the topic, however, seems absolutist almost to the point of being uninformed. So, again, I am happy to grant that Sam Harris is not the ideal of a thoughtful public intellectual.

    But the reason why Sam Harris is dismissed and condescended to rather than refuted or ignored is not because of his positions on scientism or freedom of speech. It is because his first book said that believing in an invisible, omnipotent man, one who controls everything on earth and yet never manifests this power in a clearly identifiable way, cannot be supported in the normal sense of providing publicly-identifiable reasons. As a result, he argued, when civic discourse grants a particular status to this belief by making it impolite or inappropriate to question, this “bracketing” allows something into the public square that could not possibly have entered by competing in the marketplace of ideas. Given the outsize, and frequently negative, political influence of religion, this tendency to give religious faith a “free pass” is a really pernicious feature of our public life.

    This is not the argument of a fool. Clearly, many people find it loathsome. Indeed, Harris is written off rather than rebutted, I think, simply because the evidence in support of his point is so abundant and accessible that that it cannot be refuted. And he has made it really easy for people to ignore or ridicule him by interweaving into this powerful critique all kinds of foolish crapola, including simple and straightforward religious intolerance. That is truly unfortunate, and one might loathe him for it if one chooses. But he is no fool.

  5. Mike O’Connor: my name-calling of Sam Harris was not meant as an act of courage. Don’t know why “courage” or “risk” would be the salient category. And since the great tradition of critical anonymity is so annoying to some: my name is Kurt Newman, and I live in California. I have a dog named Sarah, and I enjoy the music of Machaut and Pig Destroyer.

    Can’t speak to others’ antipathy towards Harris. My own hatred of him stems from his enabling of contemporary Islamophobia, which is ushering in a new fascist politics in Europe and the United States. It’s terrifying, to those paying attention.

    My hatred of Harris also derives from my commitments to the ethical project of “bottom up” social history and its protests against historians’ condescension towards non-elites. As a leftist, I am also appalled by the refusal of entrepreneurial atheists to recognize that religion has been a progressive force animating a huge swath of poor people’s politics over the centuries. Yes, religion has been other things. But it has also been that. Technocratic reason has bloody hands too. Manichaeism is not helpful.

    Fools can make many coherent arguments. They can also get tenure. There are many kinds of fools. Sam Harris is the kind who cares not what evils he sets loose in the world in the name of the “truth” that pays his bills. He has lots of company. He has chosen, in my opinion, the wrong independent variable as the cause of human misery. We should hold anyone advocating a monocausal explanation to a high standard, as monocausal explanations have caused a lot of damage. At a minimum, the “god is not great” troops seem to be letting secular forces (capital, and its secular iterations of heteropatriarchy, homophobia, and racism) off the hook. That, it seems to me, comforts the comfortable.

    PS: To paraphrase the late Alexander Cockburn, musing on the passing of Christopher Hitchens and the latter’s crusade against Mother Theresa: “I know which one of them would have given me a bowl of soup if I was hungry.”

  6. I think you completely misunderstood Harris’ use of the analogy to sports. The point he was making was about language, and does not assert any similarity between religion and sports as phenomena. The point was merely that lumping many things under a single term can gloss over important differences between members of the class.

    • Nope, it’s Harris who can’t figure out that both terms actually do have precise meanings and it is he, once again, who has chosen to use terms to peddle his own particular theory. While he might have a vague notion that there are different types of religion, he fails to understand that the term religion actually does accord with those different types grouped under it. Sport is the same thing. But for Harris, all thinking and argument is open to rash reductionism.

  7. Ray-
    Above site has an interesting conversation between Glenn Loury and Corey Brettschneider discussing his book “When the state speaks, what does it say?” Discusses freedom of speech relating to hate speech, anti-Islam video and coercive actions by state to protect society.

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