Monday, October 13, 2014

In Response to Sam Harris' Mechanics of Defamation

The debate about Islam and Islamophobia are back going strong thanks to a recent debate on Bill Maher's show that mostly centered around Ben Affleck and Sam Harris.  Whatever your view on the subject, or whose arguments you gravitate towards one thing is clear, the two sides seem to be locked into their positions like this is trench warfare.  However, Sam Harris recently posted in his blog about The Mechanics of Defamation making claims that he was being defamed.  Defamation is a fairly serious accusation to throw out.  Harris accused Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan of "consciously misleading their readers," as well as "increasing my security concerns in the process."  Not only that, but Harris claimed that "I have not behaved like that. I have never knowingly distorted the positions I criticize, whether they are the doctrines of a religion or the personal beliefs of Francis Collins, Eben Alexander, Deepak Chopra, Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, or any other writer or public figure with whom I’ve collided."

This struck me as kind of odd since I had previously called out Harris for doing the exact same thing he was accusing Greenwald and Aslan of doing.  Using Harris' own definition of defamation "The crucial boundary between hard-hitting criticism and defamation is knowing that you are misrepresenting your target", lets take a look at how Harris responded to Glenn Greenwald's article on Harris' views over a year ago.

Harris tweeted this to his followers after the publishing of Greenwald's article.
This is doing exactly what Harris says he has never done.  The link points to an article suggesting that Greenwald supported the Iraq war because of something he wrote in the preface to his first book.  I've already written about this so I'll repeat what I've previously written on the subject.  "This claim that Greenwald supported the Iraq war by writing in the preface of his first book explaining his apathy towards politics and "coming of age" in political terms - that uses a quote that merely states he gave Bush the benefit of the doubt in his handling on the war on terror- is a mischaracterization of enormous proportions.  If you'd read the book you'd know it is anything but a source of support for the Iraq war nor does it give support for Bush's policies."

A simple internet search on the subject would enlighten anyone to Greenwald's opinion.  You can read Glenn's response to this willful misrepresentation of his views here.  Here's a short quote or two from his response.  "The whole point of the Preface was that, before 2004, I had been politically apathetic and indifferent - except for the work I was doing on constitutional law... I never once wrote in favor of the Iraq War or argued for it in any way, shape or form. Ask anyone who claims that I "supported" the Iraq War to point to a single instance where I ever supported or defended it in any way. There is no such instance. It's a pure fabrication. "  

It doesn't end there.  If we look at the definition of defamation which is from the Latin diffamare, or to spread evil report, it means to "damage the good reputation of someone: to slander or libel."  In my view personal or ad hominem attacks would fall under defamation because the intent of ad hominem is often, if not always, to damage the character (and thus the reputation) of the person it is directed towards.  Then Harris tweeted this.
Calling Greenwald a hypocrite and a liar isn't a rational response to his critique, it was an attempt to damage his character and reputation.  This is exactly the kind of defamation Harris supposes (hypocritically) to have never done.  It's also not the first time Harris has claimed defamation or libel from his critics as he did in an email exchange with Greenwald quite sometime ago.  Harris was upset about his tweeting out a Murtaza Hussain article on him, and claimed it was defamation.  Greenwald simply responded "I’m not sure how you can blame me for tweeting an article published in Al Jazeera and written by a respectable commentator, but I’m happy to post your email to me."  In his latest claims of defamation, re-tweeting a picture with a quote, it should be stated that just because someone tweets something doesn't necessarily mean they believe or support that statement.  Sometimes they just find it interesting. It's much different than using your own words to defame someone.  

The defamation by Harris doesn't end there though.  He's also gone after Murtaza Hussain by tweeting to him an ad hominem attack here.  

I asked him why he seemed to always respond to criticism of his work with ad hominem attacks like this.  He responded here.

He fully admitted to the ad hominem attack, and to my knowledge his only response to these criticisms of his work are found here.  I've already stated that I found these responses both not compelling as a defense, but the important point here is that he's willing to defame and attack his opponents personally while claiming he hasn't done just that.  

Here are a few more quick examples of Harris attacking his critics personally in an attempt to defame their person.  
This is Harris in response to Reza Aslan's CNN interview and as you can see calls Aslan a liar, assumes he's being deliberately misleading, and compares him to Genghis Khan saying that he speaks with an air of self-importance.  Not only that but he accuses him of having an agenda to shut down debate and deliberately mislead liberal audiences.  This is a textbook assault on character and a prime example of defamation.  Perhaps Harris should take his own advice, and "Beware of critics who claim to know what you mean better than they do."

Finally there's the recent interview Harris did with Joe Rogan found here.  Harris says his image of Greenwald is that of a "guy blogging in his underpants, in Brazil, with his 10 dogs, and his boyfriend."  He goes on to criticize him saying "he's not some great journalist who found this (NSA story)... Greenwald was not functioning like a journalist."  Essentially what this says is that Harris doesn't understand sources often give people who are gainfully employed at news organizations, like The Guardian, information with which to write stories.  In fact, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein two of the most famous names in the history of US journalism had their biggest stories come from a source who handed them information about the Nixon administration.  This is again willfully misleading and knowingly misrepresenting Greenwald.  It's directed at him in a mud slinging fashion that is plain to see for anyone who watches it.  To call a guy working as a journalist not a journalist in order to satisfy a personal dislike of someone is to defame their person.  

So whatever side you take in the Islamophobia debate, there is one thing that is patently obvious to anyone without the amnesia required to actually believe Harris' claim that he never defames any of his critics, and that's that he does just that.  He has actually been the instigator of this type of attack on his critics and often engages in ad hominem attacks or willful misrepresentations of their character.  One would hope that the fans (or perhaps disciples) of Harris upon reading Harris' defamations of Greenwald, Aslan, and Hussain, would stop shouting the battle cry of defamation on these individuals unless they're willing to do the same to Harris for being the first to engage in this type of behavior.  Calling foul on something you yourself do is a textbook example of hypocrisy, and as Harris says is "debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant."  Then again, Harris calling out Muslims for being violent while sanitizing and even lending support to US foreign policy while it's waging aggressive preemptive wars in countries with a Muslim majority (that kill many more of them than they have of us), would make it seem par for the course for him.


  1. Defamation involves dishonesty. In the definition from Harris that you provide he uses the word "knowingly." The "knowing" is actually the "crucial" to the definition. This obviously opens a door for the alternative possibility of an honest mistake. You can rule out an honest mistake when someone has been corrected on that issue several times and yet keeps repeating it. This is the case with Greenwald and Aslan. Harris has communicated with them extensively and they continue to misrepresent him. Harris considers knowingly misleading people a form of lying. So it makes sense he'd call people liars for doing it.

    Ad homs in general are not always dishonest so they are not always defamatory. If you have an example where Harris repeatedly misrepresents someone's views or criticizes them in a dishonest fashion, please provide it. What you have presented here is not comparable to the unethical criticism that Harris has been subjected to.

    1. I provided the definition of defamation that I'm going by and by that definition Harris has obviously engaged in defamation. You're more than welcome to your opinion that because Harris said defamation involves dishonesty that ad hominem attacks against a person to damage their reputation and spread evil about them aren't defamation without dishonesty, but that's a semantics argument I'm not interested in. I'm not aware of one single instance where Greenwald or Aslan have written or spoken in an attempt to discredit Sam Harris the person, because they attack his ideals and at most point to his lack of expertise on the subject. So please point me to all these attacks on Harris if you have them and send me a link to your writing on it. Your argument rests on the notion that Harris can tell they're maliciously misinterpreting his positions which is a supernatural power if I've ever heard of one. I don't think either of them are, so if they're wrong on them point out where, Harris shouldn't act like he's being attacked when he attacks people himself and was the first to do so. There's also no necessitation of repeated offenses for it to be defamation, but I think the point here is Harris' arguments in refutation to Greenwald's haven't actually been in any way convincing that Harris didn't mean what he clearly wrote. You have to ask yourself if someone is publishing something that is being criticized by many people over the course of a decade, does it perhaps point to that person not being clear on their position in the first place?

      If you call for profiling, confuse doctrine with individual faith, make arguments for torture, and even a nuclear first strike being ethical with a strong us v them throughout the work, these are controversial subjects so you should prepare to be critiqued on them. When these initial critiques came out Harris lashed out personally against his critics and defamed them claiming subversion, malicious & sinister intent, and general bullying. If the positions weren't so morally opaque in the first place (and in my opinion outright nefarious) perhaps it would be more clear just what Harris' stances are.

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  3. An interesting article and you make some intriguing points. I have always liked Sam Harris (though I would not call myself an 'acolyte', Harris has his flaws) and nothing you have said here is going to change that, but it's always nice to get the other side of an argument.

    One piece of constructive criticism is that your article does not come across as very balanced. Greenwald and Aslan, irrespective of your opinion on Harris, are not squeaky clean when it comes to ad hominem attacks and misrepresentations of opposing arguments. Your article would have had more impact if you had acknowledged this and not been quite so one sided.

    It is evident (especially from your reply to 'Jeebs' in the comments) that you do not like Harris. But you shouldn't let personal feelings get in the way of writing an objective article.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Speaking of letting personal feelings get in the way of writing an objective article, here's Murtaza Hussain asking "Which of the new atheists is the biggest dbag?" several months before he wrote the hit piece on Harris (et al) that Greenwald liked so much:

    And here's Hussain describing that article as "an 1800 word middle finger":

    These are just some of the things you've left out of this piece in order to smear Harris. I get it that you dislike him, but when you write something as misleading and context-free as this you only illustrate this point.

    1. This was a response to Sam Harris' blog post about the mechanics of defamation, and nowhere did I claim some sort of moral or ethical superiority by Harris' critics. I wasn't writing a comprehensive review of the good or bad both sides have done, I was writing a response to Sam Harris' blog post to point out he's just as guilty of defamation.

      Also if you're going to accuse me of smearing Sam Harris please understand the definition of the word smear. Please point out where I make a false accusation or falsely damage the reputation of Harris. I pointed out the instances of Harris willfully misrepresenting others views and making ad hominem attacks in order to attack a person rather than their ideas.

      I have no personal relationship with Harris and have no personal dislike for him, but I do find some of his ideas abhorrent, and I've made those views clear in earlier posts. If my post was perhaps titled "A Comprehensive Review of the Arguments Made by Sam Harris & His Critics", you might have a point, but clearly the subject and scope of the article is a reply to Harris' main assertion that he's being defamed and that he hasn't done that himself. A view I find hypocritical and one neither Hussain, Aslan, or Greenwald is making.

  5. Aha...finally in the last two sentences your agenda makes itself known. Your beef is not with the ad-hominem attacks or polemical style of Harris, but rather your disagreement with him on foreign policy (or Muslim) issues. You, like seemingly every critic of Harris, is also a Muslim apologist...Did you feel nice and warm and fuzzy as if you were fully embracing multiculturalism as you penned this nonsense??