3 Lessons Noam Chomsky Taught Us on Debating Intolerant People from His Exchange with Sam Harris
The day before Mayweather fought Pacquiao, New Atheist Sam Harris released an email sparring match he’d had with famed linguist and leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky. In his bestselling book The End of Faith, Harris had accused Chomsky of drawing a “moral equivalence” between 9/11 and the 1998 U.S. missile attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, which the Clinton administration had allegedly believed to be a chemical weapons factory.
The ensuing debate, which occurred over a four-day email exchange, is the most uneven public intellectual bout in recent memory. Chomsky repeatedly called out Harris’s rhetorical evasions and sloppy thinking, at one point describing one of Harris’s arguments as “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.”
For his part, Harris was persistent and calm, but he seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the scope of Chomsky’s critique. Harris repeatedly asked Chomsky to be more polite, and offered to let him revise his comments before publishing the exchange. Chomsky refused the offer.
Here at The Cubit we read a lot of bad arguments, and you might be surprised to learn that Chomsky’s refusal to just be polite came as a welcome surprise. Here are three take-home lessons from the Harris vs. Chomsky Fight of the Century.
1. Call Out Bullshit Thought Experiments.
For Sam Harris, “not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Yes, he admits, the U.S. has committed atrocities at a larger scale than many of our enemies, but we have higher moral standing because these were mistakes. Harris likens the U.S. to a “well-intentioned giant,” whose aims are good even if it occasionally blunders.
Underlining the good intentions of the U.S. even during attacks like the one on al-Shifa, Harris offered the following thought experiment:
Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.
What would I say? I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.
The scenario you describe here is, I’m afraid, so ludicrous as to be embarrassing. It hasn’t even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged. That is truly scandalous.
And of course they knew that there would be major casualties. They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?
In fact, as you would know if you deigned to read before launching accusations, they were informed at once by Kenneth Roth of HRW [Human Rights Watch] about the impending humanitarian catastrophe, already underway. And of course they had far more information available than HRW did.
Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them…
I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level.
The Take-Away: If your opponent creates a thought-experiment that bends reality to fit their assumptions, pummel them with the facts.
2. “Civility” is a Dubious Rhetoric When it Comes to State Power
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris accuses Chomsky and other leftists of “moral blindness” towards the important differences between “the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence [perpetuated by Muslim governments].” Harris argues that there is a qualitative moral difference between the U.S. and the Muslim world, which leftists like Chomsky cannot see.
Chomsky critiques Harris on two fronts. First, he deconstructs the accusation of “moral equivalence,” a term that “has been regularly used… to try to undercut critical analysis of the state one defends.” Of course there are moral differences between a terrorist attack against defenseless civilians and a U.S. missile strike that was believed to target a chemical weapons manufacturer. The problem with the accusation of “moral equivalence” is that it creates a relativist strawman, distracting us from more substantial ethical questions about U.S. actions.
Second, Chomsky dismantles Harris’s claim that good intentions alone can separate the U.S. from its moral enemies. “Professing benign intentions is the norm for those who carry out atrocities and crimes,” Chomsky points out, and so the claim the U.S. means less harm than it enacts is an empty one.
Throughout their exchange, Harris fails to recognize or address these substantial critiques. Instead, he accuses Chomsky of “running into the weeds” and focusing too narrowly on these points, calls him cantankerous and prickly, and refuses to move forward until Chomsky has sufficiently outlined—to Harris’s liking—the moral hierarchies of various violent intentions.
Harris asks Chomsky to be civil and return to a question that had already been answered, rather than “litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way.”
I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise. And I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them. That’s impressive.
Chomsky refuses to return to the fundamentals of Harris’s argument—the dubious arguments of moral equivalence and hierarchical intentions—because, as he had already explained, they were not just flawed, but also conceptually imbricated with defenses of American power. In the guise of politeness, Harris was asking Chomsky to play a language game whose rules enshrined Western values.
This reminds me a bit of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent argument that pleas for nonviolence in Baltimore are ultimately demands to back down and comply. “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out,” Coates states, “it exposes itself as a ruse.” Similarly, for Chomsky to politely return to the philosophical premise of Harris’s choosing would be to ignore the larger context that makes his arguments flawed in the first place.
The Take-Away: Calls for “civil discourse” ought to be criticized and ignored if such civility would exclude facts and perspectives necessary for questioning dominant powers.
3. Drop the Mic on Your Way Out
From his first email to Chomsky, Harris seems eager to create a correspondence that he can publish on his website. Chomsky, on the other hand, is clearly more interested in the argument itself. When Harris continues to push the correspondence toward publication, Chomsky just drops the mic:
The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird, a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content. Personally, I can’t imagine doing it. However, if you want to do it, I won’t object.