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Sam Harris
Are we too self centred to be reasonable?

Today I was introduced to a new phrase “Trump Derangement Syndrome (or TDS for short).

If I were to try to “steelman” TDS, I’d say it was the habit of attacking Donald Trump or believing that he’s bad for America and the world, because of a blind acceptance of left wing ideals, or of the mainstream media’s biased, anti-Trump narrative.

I discovered this term in a comment thread where a number of people were saying that the fact that Sam Harris suffered so badly from TDS that it was unbearable to listen to him anymore. They cited a conversation Sam had with Dilbert creator Scott Adams as a particularly strong example.

I’m not sure if it would be fair to describe Scott as a Trump supporter, but he has certainly been something of a Trump apologist at times. And given that I was intrigued to hear what Sam was being so unreasonable about, and I’ve long been trying to gain some actual insight into why people support Trump in any way, I decided to give the conversation a listen. I’ve linked it above if you feel like doing the same.

Whether you find this discussion to be a staggering effort by Scott to justify Donald Trumps lies and/or ignorance, or a staggering failure by Sam to look at Donald Trump’s presidency through any filter but his personal dislike of the man, is likely to be based on your existing political leanings. But I did find this statement that Scott makes near the beginning of the discussion interesting:

Generally I don’t have a firm position on the big international stuff, and on the smaller local stuff, the domestic stuff, I’m in favour of people doing whatever they wanna do as long as it doesn’t affect me.

This too can be interpreted in a number of different ways. On the one hand, it could be seen as the expression of a “live and let live” policy. A view that people should be free to live their lives as long as they don’t harm others.

On the other hand, it could be taken to demonstrate that Scott really doesn’t care about what happens in the rest of the world as long as he is okay. Certainly it seems impossible to be ambivalent about Trump’s attitude towards the truth, immigrants, minorities, his staff, and even his own wife, unless your only concern about these things is how they affect you.

I’m not trying to make a moral judgment here per se. I’m trying to point out that the job of creating a better society (which is ostensibly a political leader’s job and to a lesser extent the job of each voter) has to, by definition, include a willingness to concern yourself with things that don’t affect you personally. Without this will, it’s possible to wait and see, or justify anything, because you don’t really care about the consequences as long as you can be confident they won’t affect you.

Maybe this is the reason for the starkness of the divide between us politically at the moment. It seems like the political fringe on the left and right (which is increasingly becoming the political mainstream) is arguing against the things that do, or that they fear will affect them, and wilfully ignoring the things that affect people that are not then.

As much as I disagreed (and was occasionally exasperated) with Scott during this conversation, I feel like the way he’s thinking is being employed by people all the way across the political spectrum. The blind spots were seeing in the thinking of otherwise intelligent people don’t seem to be explainable in another way.

"What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly."
Can We Pull Back From The Brink?

Speaking of things you should listen to, and in the interests of exploring challenging points of view, I’ve just finished the latest episode of Sam Harris’ podcast “Making Sense”. Given current events it won’t surprise you to hear that it’s about the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing debate on racism and police brutality in America. But Sam comes at it from an angle which few have had the knowledge or the courage to approach it from.

As he recognises, many of the things he says will be controversial purely by virtue of the fact that he’s a white man speaking on the topic of race. In fact it’s worse than that; he’s a rich, white, middle-aged, cishet male. Some of his arguments run so counter to the feelings and intuitions we have after watching yet another black man die on our screens, that it’s tempting to dismiss him precisely because he is those things. But to do so would be a disservice to a genuine attempt to have a real conversation about the topic at hand.

I don’t agree with everything Sam says here, but I do think he hits the nail directly on the head when describing what true progress on the problem of racism would look like. Namely, that “more and more people, and ultimately all people, would care less and less, and ultimately not at all, about race.”

He goes on to make the point more eloquently:

How many blondes got into Harvard this year? Does anyone know? What percentage of the police in San Diego are brunette? Do we have enough redheads in senior management in our Fortune 500 companies?

No-one is asking these questions, and there’s a reason for that; no-one cares. And we are right not to care. Imagine a world in which people cared about hair colour to the degree that we currently care, or seem to care…about skin colour.

It’s undeniable that there are people on all sides of the issue who through anger, hatred or their own racism, are actively working against the goal of creating a society like the one described above. But it should be obvious that as long as skin colour matters, to any of us, racism will never end.

There’s a difficult balance to strike here. Representation matters, history matters, and we can’t simply decide that skin colour doesn’t matter whilst living in a society where it clearly does. But if we want that to change, we have to be willing to recognise that anger, however justified, won’t solve this problem. Dismissing the opinions of people who are the wrong colour won’t solve this problem. Refusing to engage with dissenting opinions won’t solve this problem.

We need to talk, and now more than ever, we need to listen.