The Necessity of being Divisive

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by Neil Godfrey

Prominent bloggers are picking on Sam Harris again.

First there is P.Z. Myers,

There he [Ed Brayton] goes again, picking on the distinguished and august Thought Leaders of Atheism, in this case Sam Harris. It’s easy to do; there are a lot of buzzwords that trigger my rage, and Harris is fond of trotting out indicators of inanity like “identity politics” and “politically correct” and, of course, “divisive”.

I’m not on board with everything I read by PZ so of course I waited till I read Ed Brayton’s post myself:

I am not going to accuse Harris of being a white supremacist, as many have done. I’m going to take his argument at face value and presume, for the sake of argument, that he means well by it. But he’s still utterly, flagrantly, dangerously wrong. A quote from that podcast:

“My tweet was actually fairly carefully written. I mean, it starts with ‘In 2017 all identity politics is detestable.’ And of course I’m thinking about the West, and I’m thinking primarily about America, I was commenting on Charlottesville. And I believe this, you know, I think Black Lives Matter is a dangerous and divisive and retrograde movement, and it is a dishonest movement. I mean, that’s not to say that everyone associated with it is dishonest, but I find very little to recommend in what I’ve seen from Black Lives Matter. I think it is the wrong move for African Americans to be organizing around the variable of race now. It’s *obviously* the wrong move, it’s *obviously* destructive to civil society.”

Ed proceeds to dissect the details of the above but I quote and comment on just one point:

Second, why is “divisive” a bad thing? Can you name a single example of progress in our society or any other that was not “divisive”? The push to end slavery was divisive, so much so that it sparked a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died; does that mean we should not have pushed to end slavery? The fight for women’s suffrage was divisive. The fight to end segregation was divisive. The fight for LGBT equality is divisive. Every single movement that resulted in a more fair, just and equal society was divisive. So why do people make such an accusation, as if it was somehow a strike against movements for social progress rather than a point in their favor? This is just lazy, sloppy thinking, and once again the use of buzzwords in place of serious argument.

Authorities do not change their actions because of opposing arguments and certainly not because of appeals to morality. Activism, to be effective, needs to find ways to impose mounting costs on authorities while they continue an objectionable course of action. Remember Vietnam.

Without divisiveness we leave the way open to unchallenged tribalism. We allow injustices, crimes, to go unchallenged.

To bring it back to a pabulum level, I sometimes read of the “need” for atheists to stick together for the sake of the “atheist movement”. If I had ever thought that the only alternative to religion was to join another movement I don’t know if I would ever have stepped out as an unbeliever.

One person once objected to the way other “Christ myth” proponents were critical of the work of Acharya S / D.M. Murdock. He tried to argue that “mythicists” should stick together. I could not think of a more certain way to making them an easy and justifiable target.

The very concept of free speech was from the beginning based on the conviction that the best and true ideas would win out if all could be openly expressed.

Or must free speech be allowed only within the confines of a nonthreatening, even docile, filter?

When living in Singapore I read an article in a local newspaper boasting that a meeting between a member of the government and a local community demonstrated that Singapore is indeed a free society. The article described the polite way people posed questions to the government member and how he had an opportunity to hear all viewpoints before explaining to them the reasons for a government action. It was all a very “open” and “free” exchange, demonstrating “democracy” in action. It reminded me of what I have seen of similar “freedoms” in action in interviews with persons who were once part of Hitler Youth. They said that there were encouraged to ask questions about what they were taught, but they always had to ask in “a good attitude”. That is, they were free to raise criticisms of the Nazi party so long as they demonstrated that they were keen to understand and submit to the “correct answers” to such criticisms.

That’s how to avoid divisiveness while maintaining the “right of free speech”.



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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “The Necessity of being Divisive”

  1. What Harris seems to be unaware of is that *any* sort of change is going to be ‘divisive’. The whole point of any protest is to set oneself in opposition to the status quo. Yes, BLM is divisive in that it stands opposed to racist attitudes evidenced in American society in general and our law enforcement agencies in particular. Likewise the civil rights movement as exemplified by leaders such as Martin Luther King was ‘divisive.’ And the abolitionists in the era before the Civil War. If Harris’s biggest worry is that we shouldn’t rock the boat, it would appear that he’d end up on the wrong side of history again and again.

    It’s too bad would-be ‘thought leaders’ are so often siding with complacency rather than justice.

    1. I’ve never found Sam Harris to be even interesting let alone a leader, and the sorts of people that I hear talking about him at all refer to him as Ben Stiller.

  2. I think this applies to the players taking a knee for the national Anthem at sports ball games too, and those dead set on enforcing the existing practice. How else to draw attention to their concerns?

  3. “The push to end slavery was divisive, so much so that it sparked a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died;” I was a bigger issue then that and a man of your statue should know the other issues that where higher up the list.

    1. The civil war was pretty explicitly about slavery. This shouldn’t even be up for debate when any person can just go to a library and read the slave states’ declarations of secession. They basically say “we’re seceding because our economies depend on slavery, and the north’s anti-slavery sentiment is ruining our economies”.

      1. Secession was pretty explicitly about slavery. The federal government’s decision to respond by invading the south was pretty explicitly not about slavery.

    2. My understanding is that the arguments that the war was “really” about states rights have come from historians with clear southern sympathies/biases.

        1. After 150 years, there’s no need to weave a new tapestry of cherry picked details. If you read between the lines you can tell the only real problem for the North was that most people were racists, as they still are today, and would not give one whit for a black person, but the moral religious teachings of the time was that slavery was wrong, “even” for black people, and that was what made the difference. Religious people then as now were only willing to go so far as to end slavery, not to actually give any other rights to black people, which took another hundred years to accomplish and not easily then either.

      1. Wilburforce had the advantage that British industry, aside from some shipping, was not dependent on slavery. In that time religion (morality) was a force opposed to slavery specifically, not a statement on racism, but today religion is in defense of economic inequality (effective slavery) and open racism.

  4. I had already been an atheist for several years by the time Sam Harris and the other Horsemen rose to prominence. I didn’t pay any attention to any of them at that time or since, although I was compelled to read their books because of fundamentalists telling me that these men, especially Sam Harris for some reason, are my leaders. Fundamentalists decided that for me. So I read all their books and I wasn’t at all impressed, and I’m still not. So why should anyone think that these men, or PZ Myers or Jerry Coyne, are my leaders? Simply because their tone can be weaponized against the movement as a whole.

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