“If videogames have taught me anything it’s that, when you run into enemies you’re going in the right direction.” - Anonymous
There are No Get Out of Jail Free Cards
Criticism and scrutiny should always be an equal opportunity endeavor. If we value the ideal of equality we must concede that it should apply to all, regardless of status or station. Regardless of past deeds or transgressions. This applies not only to the rights and freedoms we would bestow upon ourselves and others, but also to the implementation of criticism and scrutiny. If we choose to wear kid gloves when dealing with certain individuals, we venture into the realm of hero worship and show a propensity for inequality based on our own personal biases.
I am an equal opportunity asshole in the sense that I give no one a free pass when it comes to intense criticism and scrutiny. I do not subscribe to the notions of exceptionalism or “won status”. There is nothing one can do that puts them in a position outside the realm of intense criticism and scrutiny from me. I don’t care what you’ve contributed in the past; if you’re wrong about something then I will criticize and scrutinize you just as vehemently as I would anyone else. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Bill Maher, and everyone else many seem to consider the “atheist elite” are not above my criticism, nor should they be for anyone. But oh how triggered some get when you dare to equally challenge their heroes just as you would any other man or woman.
Yet, in the interest of equality and intellectual honesty we must be willing to offer criticism of these men and women equal to, if not greater than, that which we would offer anyone else. We must also invite such criticism of ourselves and not shy away from the reality that we are only human and we can be wrong from time to time. We should welcome such criticism if we value intellectual honesty and personal growth. It is only when we can admit that we are wrong and change our views that we have the opportunity to truly grow as individuals. To refuse to invite this is to become stagnant, whither, and die intellectually.
Not Politically Incorrect… Just Incorrect
When Bill Maher had Milo Yiannopoulos on his show not long ago I stated emphatically that this was a mistake on his part. To offer Milo an even larger platform I argued would only serve to bolster his rhetoric and serve to gain him an even bigger spotlight. When Maher then went on to handle Milo with kid gloves and even offer credibility to Milo’s insanely false notion that we should all be worried about which restrooms transgender folks use because it supposedly puts women and children at greater risk and said such a notion was “reasonable”, I spoke out vehemently against Maher doing this. When he “jokingly” asked another panelist what they thought about “weirdos” using the restroom, I spoke out saying his “joke” was not funny in the least as it served to demean an entire cross-section of our citizens. Before the Milo incident he stated that transgender issues were “boutique” issues that weren’t important enough to be taken seriously before the “more important” issues had been dealt with and I spoke out then saying that these issues are ethical issues that should not be belittled or demeaned by calling them “boutique” issues that don’t deserve our time and attention.
Rather than seeing skeptics taking an intellectually honest look at whether my criticisms have merit, I instead had several in our community getting angry that I would dare to call out a man with “won status” who has “done so much for the atheist and secular community”. How dare I offer valid criticism of that man! I was told that I was throwing out the baby with the bath water. Nevermind whether or not my criticism is valid. Nevermind that Maher’s own words and actions are what indicts him. Nevermind that it was not Maher who shone the light upon Milo that caused the temporary hiccup in his career, but rather a video made by Kevin Logan highlighting Milo’s statements in an interview with Joe Rogan over a year before Milo came on Maher’s show which was finally given the attention it deserved when some sought out a way to minimize the damage Maher’s interview had done. And nevermind that it was Maher’s interview which ultimately has led to Milo receiving $12 million to grow his own platform and spread the white supremacist right wing message of the “alt-right”. Nevermind all that. What’s important is protecting our would be figureheads even when they show themselves to not be allies of one of the most discriminated against and vilified minorities within our own community.
Maher’s interview did more to further Milo’s career than Milo had ever done on his own and guaranteed that Milo will be able to continue spreading his message of hatred and division for years to come. But by all means, let’s pat Maher on the back and give him an attaboy for his huge mistake and abject failure.
Junk In, Junk Out
Now, perhaps I haven’t alienated enough of you with my criticism of the almighty Maher. Let me go one step further and offer criticism of one of the higher ranking “elites” in the atheist community. So let’s talk about Sam Harris and his interview with Charles Murray.
Some have labeled Harris a racist for even venturing to have a discussion with a man such as Murray. I won’t go so far as to level such a claim against Harris and quite honestly I don’t believe it’s intellectually honest to do so. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have criticism of that exchange to offer.
My issue is not that Harris would interview someone such as Murray, but that he would offer some amount of credibility to the false notion of “race realism” and the terrible junk science behind it. My issue is that he tossed Murray soft balls and acquiesced to Murray’s victimhood complex giving credence to the notion that Murray has been mischaracterized as a white supremacist. My issue is that Harris called Murray’s junk science “just facts” that some just don’t want to accept.
For over a decade Murray’s work has been thoroughly refuted as being biased and using sources that are at the very least dubious in nature. Murray set out to offer a conclusion that aligned with his own personal bias and used methods that were scientifically unethical and failed to follow the scientific method. He then withheld his work from peer review before its release knowing full well that his peers would see his work as being exactly what it is; an excuse for racism cloaked in junk science. Murray is free to contend that this was not his intent, but the very nature of his work and the clear biases within it tell a very different story. Furthermore, further investigation by multiple independent studies have shown rather thoroughly that IQ testing is an extremely flawed method with which to determine intelligence on the sort of broad spectrum which Murray applies it in his work.
Because of all this, I take serious issue with Harris defending it in any way as being valid. Furthermore, as a scientist himself Harris should have approached Murray’s work as a scientist would approach any other scientific principle being asserted. In short, Harris should have done his homework and challenged Murray and his work as the junk science that it is. Instead he offered credence and validation to it which has had the effect of causing many to jump onto the “race realism” bandwagon which has caused many white supremacists to view Harris as being “on their team”. The ramifications of Harris’ interview are far-reaching and have had a rather divisive and detrimental effect on both the atheist community and those outside our community.
Just imagine if Harris had Ken Ham on and gave credence to the junk science Ham uses to assert the scientific validity of the flood myth and young earth creationism. I think we’d all be losing our minds if that happened. But he does just that with a “race realist” and people are leaping at the chance to embrace this nonsense.
Our Biggest Fans Should be Our Most Strident Critics
Now, with all that being said, I still respect the contributions of both Harris and Maher to the cause of forwarding secularism and secular principles. But their “status” does not alleviate them from criticism in my book. In point of fact, their “status” and reach should mean that we have an obligation to hold them to a higher standard than a common blogger or “Twitter scholar” if for no other reason that they wield a greater amount of influence. Because of that greater influence their mistakes can do greater harm, just as their successes can do greater good.
We owe it to ourselves and to the idea of intellectual honesty to refuse to place anyone on a pedestal or be dogmatic in our “following” of anyone. If we value intellectual honesty criticism must be a weapon that we employ equally against all bad ideas. We must not succumb to the notion that any are above criticism. We must reject the notion of “exceptionalism” and “status” when choosing to level criticism. We cannot elevate figureheads in our own community to the level that like Trump they believe they can shoot someone in the streets and still have our fealty.
Respect does not demand kid gloves or walking on eggshells, but integrity does demand that we face each idea equally and treat each idea with equal skepticism, criticism, and scrutiny. It is only because I do respect the work such men have done that I feel such a need to offer criticism when they are wrong, because to do anything less diminishes my own integrity. And I hope that everyone out there has enough respect for me to call me out when I’m wrong and offer a reasonable criticism of me or my work so that I can examine such criticism and if I find it valid I can change my views and grow intellectually. Only those with a fragile ego view criticism as a personal assault; and we have no room for fragile egos in the intellectual world.