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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/19/14

Sam Harris and Bill Maher are not racists!

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They're cultural chauvinists. It's different.

On Friday October 3, talking heads Bill Maher and Sam Harris both said some things on Maher's HBO show that resulted in the consternation of many progressives. Highlights included "Islam is the mother load of bad ideas" (Harris) and Islam is "the only religion that acts like the f*cking mafia, that will f*cking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book" (Maher). Actor and director Ben Affleck was also on the show at the time. He argued cogently against judging Islam by the conduct of its most heinous dictatorial authorities, making this excellent (and immediately forgotten) point:

We've killed more Muslims than they've killed us by an awful lot . . . And somehow we're exempt from these things because they're not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident--that's why we invaded Iraq

Affleck, Maher and Harris
Affleck, Maher and Harris
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Affleck's implicit reasoning is pretty sound. Let's say it's okay to judge Islam for the way a few mostly-Muslim countries treat women, LGBT people, atheists and political dissidents in their societies (potentially pretty badly by global standards, let alone Western standards). It should also be okay, then, to judge American-style liberal democracy and individual liberty by the way elected leaders in the U.S. treat people of all kinds in the rest of the world (also pretty badly by global standards)[1].

As reasonable as the main thrust of Affleck's implicit argument was, the on-show remark that the media best remembered was also the least defensible: Affleck described Islam-bashing as "gross" and "racist." Judgments of grossness are subjective and thus not subject to scrutiny, but there are widely-shared criteria for judging things as racist, and Islamophobia does not technically meet them.

By any understanding of racism that makes "race" central to the concept, it is not racist to hate, slander or wish ill against a religion, ideology or culture. Disliking Christianity, Dominionism, Judaism, Zionism, Islam, or Islamism for their respective cultural, ideological or religious content is not the same thing as disliking those of African, Asian or Aboriginal descent for their skin color or other physiognomic features [2].

In Maher and Harris's case, however, there is not only expressed dislike but also a declaration of worldview superiority that is backed up by the violent military muscle of a globally dominant hyperpower. The correct term for asserting, from a position of dominance, that your own worldview and culture is glorious and superior and that the worldviews and cultures under your jackboot are barbaric, backwards and inferior is "cultural chauvinism." It is not racism per se.

Cultural chauvinism is potentially smarter than racism because it does not necessarily invest in scientifically implausible beliefs such as that having certain skin pigmentation or physiognomic features causally affects one's intelligence or moral character. Other than that, though, cultural chauvinism and racism are pretty much peas in a pod.

Some individuals lack the capacity or desire to apply the Golden Rule across diverse domains, and many of them tend to liberally employ either racism or cultural chauvinism or both. These interpretive filters are usedl to justify the oppression, theft, rape, torture and mass murder of other people when that seems expedient.

Unfortunately for Harris and Maher (who both protested, accurately, that they are not racists) this common ground between the twin imbecilities--racism and cultural chauvinism--means that there is very little moral ascent to be gained from denying one's taint by the former when one is so obviously embracing the latter. Nazis, after all, probably did not slaughter six million Jews (and several million other people) in death camps out of racism per se. Certainly racism guided scientifically preposterous Nazi theorizing about the Jewish "race" vs. the Aryan "race", but this racism might be considered more symptom of than cause of their exterminationist policies. At the end of the day, Nazis probably killed Jews for the same reason they killed all their other death camp victims: because they considered Jews to be a religious, cultural and/or ideological threat. The perceived shape of Jewish noses, in other words, was probably not the primary reason for their being genocidally targeted.

Likewise, Sam Harris and, to a much lesser extent, Bill Maher [3] embrace the most sickening and morally eviscerating War on Terror policies--policies whose hundreds of thousands of noncombatant victims are almost entirely Muslim or the children thereof--not out of hatred for the somewhat darker complexion that Muslims tend to have on average relative to wealthy white non-Muslim Americans like themselves, but rather out of hatred for what they see as the inferior and barbaric religious beliefs, cultural practices and ideological inclinations of Muslims. To all the U.S.-murdered and U.S.-tortured Muslims in the world, though, this may seem like a trivial distinction.

To be fair, cultural chauvinism is not always a slippery slope to thieving mass murder and torture of other human beings. Indeed, chauvinism, like racism, might often be considered as much symptom as cause of the atrocities associated with it. For instance, one theory of 21st century American jingoist imperialism runs something like this: Muslim nations have things that we want (e.g. oil), and in order to obtain those things we have to kill, oppress and steal from the Muslims sitting on them (and, regrettably, a lot of their children too). And it is much easier to kill, oppress and steal from people considered racially inferior--or culturally, religiously or ideologically inferior if there is a taboo against racism (which there is). By this analysis, racism and cultural chauvinism may often be considered more as noxious byproducts of sociopathic greed rather than as major causes of anything by themselves.

To be even fairer, chauvinism--or at least a kind of proto-chauvinism--may sometimes be justified. It can be worth taking a chance on chauvinism to combat a really bad idea or practice that has gained popularity in some culture, particularly one's own. It is, as Harris noted, unwise to have a taboo against criticizing bad ideas. If some other religion, ideology, nation or culture starts committing slow motion ethnic cleansing, for instance, we should not give the offender a patronizing postmodernist pass. Nor, of course, should we take the atrocious behavior of their leaders as an excuse for murdering, raping, torturing and robbing the population at large. But we should at least feel comfortable criticizing these leaders as well as the ideology (or distortion thereof) that they propagate. And if our own government is giving those leaders a lot of money and political support for their slow motion ethnic cleansing, we should feel especially comfortable asking our government to stop doing that.

However, as Affleck's best points implied, attacking the bad ideas associated with one's own culture should, under most circumstances, take precedence over attacking the bad ideas associated with someone else's. That is only practical--we know our own culture better than other cultures and we are more collectively responsible for the atrocities and stupidities of our own culture than for the atrocities and stupidities of others.

Sometimes the atrocities and stupidities associated with another culture get so out of hand that it warrants a proto-chauvinistic shift of attention and opprobrium, but the devil is in the details of where you set the line that other cultures must cross to warrant such a shift. My own instinct is to set it where Affleck implicitly sets it: when the behavior associated with other cultures is more atrocious, on average, than the behavior associated with our own. I would not set the line where Harris implicitly sets it: when salient self-appointed representatives of those cultures do anything at all that can be identified as bad [4].

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Ian Hansen is an Associate Professor of psychology and the 2017 president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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