In his Treatise on the Gods, H.L. Mencken observed that “any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.” Little could he have known in 1930 that in the year 2014, not only would people’s ideas be misunderstood, but that the media would thrive on outright distortions. As wonderful as the internet is, it’s driven too much by manufactured indignation and outrage, which is hardly surprising since they’re two powerful emotions that, when captured in a blog post, can generate lots of clicks and shares.
On Tuesday, I wrote about the increasingly slanderous nature of the attacks on atheists who criticize Islam. But it turns out there was one woefully errant broadside fired at Sam Harris that was intended to hit him for being a misogynist. That attack was launched by Amanda Marcotte, who thoroughly embarrasses herself with a vicious misfire on Harris in Raw Story titled, "Sam Harris doesn't know anything about feminism, decides to set feminist priorities anyway." Actually, he did nothing of the sort. Regardless, her piece begins, “Oh dear, Sam Harris is talking again, and as usual, mansplaining to feminists…”
The word “mansplaining” used to be a way to describe any occasion in which men speak condescendingly to women, and for a time the word was used more or less accurately. Unfortunately, now it is considered entirely appropriate for women to invoke it to simply describe a man’s position with which they do not agree. (Also see, “dudebro.”)
That’s precisely what happens in Marcotte’s piece, where she seizes upon another feminist’s seizing upon a point Harris made in his now infamous debate with Ben Affleck on Real Time With Bill Maher:
“Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984. But when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us.”
Incredibly, based on this one comment, Marcotte makes an array of assumptions about Harris' beliefs on women's issues. At no point does she introduce any other statements from Harris -- not from his Real Time appearance or from his ample writings. And so, what follows indicates that Marcotte either doesn't know Harris’ positions on women’s rights, or she does but has chosen to ignore them and ascribe to Harris positions he does not actually hold. Thus, Marcotte is being ignorant or deceitful. Take, for example, this statement:
"Harris is not particularly smart and thus struggles to understand that Muslims are a numerous and diverse population, and include the victims of theocratic violence as well as its perpetrators."
Even if Marcotte's only knowledge of Harris came from the Real Time exchange, she would have no basis for making the assumption that he "struggles to understand" that Muslims are also the victims of theocratic violence. On the contrary, he is acutely aware:
"As I have pointed out many times before, [secular liberals] fail to empathize with the primary victims of Islam —the millions of Muslim women, freethinkers, homosexuals, and apostates who suffer most under the taboos and delusions of this faith."
She then claims Harris makes more "ridiculous assumptions," but it turns out the only ridiculous assumptions being made are by Marcotte. And they are terribly wrong ones at that. She builds another straw man when she says Harris thinks, "By deciding to shift our priorities from protecting abortion rights at home to agitating against 'Muslim' abuses of women, feminists can be more effective."
At no point did he recommend a "shift" in feminist priorities, or talk about feminist priorities at all for that matter. He merely stated that liberals have failed when it comes to calling out Islamic theocracy. But this isn't going to prevent Marcotte from going on what's called at poker tables, full tilt:
"I’m not sure how he thinks this works. If we shut down Planned Parenthood and NARAL and instead just wrote a lot about how we think laws requiring veiling are bad, the only real result would be that women would go without health care here at home while countries with Islamic fundamentalist governments would likely double down to show those nosy Western bitches what’s up. Win, I guess? Only if you think women’s health care is kind of icky and you’re more interested in being bigoted than being effective."
Gibberish. At no point did Harris suggest shutting down any women's health clinic or abortion rights group. Moving on to Marcotte's next Harris delusion:
"By dismissing the pro-choice movement as a bunch of harpies going on over an occasional bombing, Harris is trying to distract people from the fact that attacks on reproductive rights are, in fact, a very big deal. Millions upon millions of women are affected. If you oppose, as Harris does, something like female genital mutilation but you don’t think it’s such a big deal to force childbirth on the unwilling, it’s excruciatingly clear that your concern is not protecting women..."
Harris does think it's a big deal to force childbirth on women. Here's what he wrote in Letter to a Christian Nation, where he calls the anti-abortion position "highly immoral":
"Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral -- that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more 'moral' energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide. It explains why you are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research. And it explains why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year."
Finally, we arrive at Marcotte's final misguided indulgence -- Harris' alleged assumption that the "Muslim oppression of women’s rights is objectively more damaging than the damage done because of forced child-bearing." She proceeds to make the fair point that it's difficult to quantify oppression, calling it "absolutely gross." Yet she cites no instance of Harris attempting to "objectively" prove such a contention. What he has said, however, and what should be obvious to any thinking person whose vision isn't obscured by the blinders of all-accepting multiculturalism, is that by and large women in Muslim-majority societies are more oppressed than those say, in the West.
Marcotte is obviously free to disagree with Harris and espouse her feminist worldview -- something she would not be able to do in many countries where Islam is the dominant faith -- but to so severely mischaracterize the views of Harris and those who think similarly, is intellectually dishonest and reprehensible.
This post originally said that Marcotte's article appeared in Slate. It was published in Raw Story.