23 March 2017
In episode 45 of his “Waking Up” podcast, I loved this piece by Sam Harris on identity politics, and wanted to capture it here for future reference:
As far as I can tell, becoming a part of a movement doesn’t help anybody think clearly, so I distrust identity politics of all kinds. I think we should talk about specific issues, whether it’s trade or guns or immigration or foreign interventions or abortion or anything else. And we should reason honestly about them.
And I’m not the first person who has noticed that it’s pretty strange that knowing a person’s position on any one of these issues, generally allows you to predict his position on any of the others. This shouldn’t happen. Some of these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s attitude towards guns be predictive of his views on climate change? Or immigration? Or abortion?
And yet, it almost certainly is in our society. That’s a sign that people are joining tribes and movements. It’s not the sign of clear thinking.
If you’re reasoning honestly about facts, then the color of your skin is irrelevant. The religion of your parents is irrelevant. Whether you’re gay or straight, is irrelevant. Your identity is irrelevant. In fact, if you’re talking about reality, its character can’t be predicated on who you happen to be. That’s what it means to be talking about reality.
And this also applies to the reality of human experience, and human suffering. For example, if vaccines don’t cause autism, if that is just a fact—which is what the best science suggests at this point—well, then to argue against this view, you need data. Or a new analysis of existing data. You need an argument. And the nature of any argument is that its validity doesn’t depend on who you are. That’s why a good argument should be accepted by others, no matter who they are.
So in the case of vaccines causing autism, you don’t get to say, “As a parent of a child with autism, I believe X, Y and Z.” Whatever is true about the biological basis of autism, can’t depend on who you are. And who you are in this case, is probably adding a level of emotional engagement with the issue, which would be totally understandable, but would also be unlikely to lead you to think about it more clearly.
The facts are whatever they are. And it’s not an accident that being disinterested—not uninterested, but disinterested, meaning not being emotionally engaged—usually improves a person’s ability to reason about the facts.
When talking about violence in our society, again, the facts are whatever they are. How many people got shot? How many died? What was the color of their skin? Who shot them? What was the color of their skin? Getting a handle on these facts doesn’t require one to say, “As a black man, I know X, Y and Z.” The color of your skin, simply isn’t relevant information.
When talking about the data, that is, what is happening throughout a whole society, your life experience isn’t relevant information. And the fact that you think it might be, is a problem.
Now this isn’t to say that a person’s life experience is never relevant to a conversation. Of course it can be. And it can be used to establish certain kinds of facts. If someone says to you, “Catholics don’t believe in hell”, it’s perfectly valid to retort, “Actually my mom is a Catholic, and she believes in hell.” Of course there’s a larger question of what the Catholic doctrine actually is, but if a person is making a statement about a certain group of people, and you are a member of the group, you might very well be in a position to falsify his claim, on the basis of your experience.
But a person’s identity and life experience usually aren’t relevant, when talking about facts. And they’re usually invoked in ways that are clearly fallacious. And many people seem to be making a political religion out of ignoring this difference, so I urge you not to be one of those people, whether you’re on the left or the right.