The Internet powerfully enables the spread of good ideas, but it works the same magic for bad ones—and it allows distortions of fact and opinion to become permanent features of our intellectual landscape. Consequently, the migration of our cultural discourse into cyberspace can injure a person’s reputation in ways that may be impossible to remedy.
Anyone familiar with my work knows that I have not shied away from controversy and that many of my views defy easy summary. However, I continue to learn the hard way that if an issue is controversial, and my position cannot be reduced to a simple sentence, my critics will do the work of simplification for me. Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. Anything can and will be said at your expense—or falsely attributed to you—today, tomorrow, and years hence. Needless to say, the urge to respond to this malevolence and obfuscation can become irresistible.
The problem, however, is that there is no effective way to respond. Here is a glimpse of what it is like for me to sit at my desk, attempting to write my next book, while persistent and misleading attacks on my work continue to surface on the Internet.
* * *
I receive a stream of emails demanding to know why I continue to ignore Theodore Sayeed’s demolition of me on the website Mondoweiss. The answer: I’ve never heard of Theodore Sayeed or Mondoweiss. A subsequent glance at his article reveals misrepresentations of my views and tendentious maneuvers that seem to have been made in very bad faith. Engaging with this sort of thing only gives it greater currency—or so I like to believe, given that I have no time to engage with it. Strangely, my commitment to safeguarding my time doesn’t stop me from spending half an hour writing personal emails to a handful of readers explaining why I think a response to Sayeed is beneath me.
Another flurry of emails arrives alerting me to a very personal and misleading attack on me (along with a few friends and colleagues) now lighting up Alternet—a website that has distorted my views in the past. Many readers want to know when they can expect my response to “The 5 Most Awful Atheists.” I read this poisonous and inane concoction written by a deeply unserious person who has made no effort to understand my arguments, and I decide that the best thing to do is to forget all about it.
Predictably, this article refers to the fact that I have discussed the ethics of torture in the past—and it does so in order to brand me as a moral lunatic. From reading this piece, and hundreds like it, one would never imagine that my position on torture is more or less identical to the one prescribed in that handbook of evil, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Read the entry on torture there, especially the section entitled “The Beating,” and then tell me that being categorically “against torture” is a morally uncomplicated stance to adopt.)
However, I then hear that the article has been gleefully endorsed by that shepherd of Internet trolls PZ Myers, amplifying its effect. Soon thereafter it appears on Salon, under the slightly more restrained title “5 Atheists who ruin it for everyone else.” Will I now respond? The temptation is growing. But I have 5,991 unread emails in my inbox and a book to write.
I check my email again (this is always a mistake), and discover that one of my pen pals considers my failure to respond to Sayeed a telling sign of intellectual dishonesty. She goads me with the following:
So, the same response to Jackson Leer’s [sic] deconstruction of your work. What, precisely, was “too idiotic to merit a response?” It seemed like a very fair and factual attack on your work, although I must admit it’s been sometime [sic] since I read The End Of Faith.
The blow lands and jogs my memory. Jackson Lears: He was the historian who wrote a blistering review of my work in The Nation. Although I linked to his essay on my website, I did not answer it either—apart from saying that it “may be the most idiotic and unbalanced response to my work I have ever come across.” Perhaps I should have tackled Lears. The Nation, after all, is a “real” magazine—albeit one that gets less online traffic than either Alternet or Salon, and not much more than PZ Myers’s odious blog.
What my email correspondent could not know is that I contacted Lears in the hope of doing something more interesting and productive than writing a long and boring rejoinder to his long and boring review. After his piece appeared in the The Nation, I sent Lears the following email:
Over the past month, many people have written to me insisting that I comment on your recent review of my work. I have occasionally responded to negative reviews, op-eds, and other written attacks in the past, but your Nation piece was so long and unremitting that it is difficult to know where to begin. And, because I do not recognize myself in your review, I am struck less by your specific points and more by the distance between us. The juxtaposition of my work and your reaction to it reveals, more than anything, just how difficult communication can be.
So, rather than respond to your review with a separate volley of my own, I’m wondering if you would be willing to explore our differences in a written exchange. This might have some of the characteristics of a debate, but I’m more interested in it being a conversation, or mutual interview. We could publish it on my blog, and perhaps cross-post it on the Nation website.
Lears appeared to be quite surprised by this overture, in light of the harrowing he had given me, but, alas, he found that he did not have the time—or, I suspect, the desire—to attempt a meeting of the minds. Needless to say, I sympathized on both counts. Who has time for any of this?
Another attempt to write, and another email (I may be procrastinating):
I’m a little late to the controversy, but I’m so glad your recent posts on profiling are getting you the attention you deserve. Meaning, you’re finally recognized as the bigot you are. It was all there in End of Faith, now it’s apparent to everyone. Only die-hard fans will remain… Glad your 15 minutes are up.
You might think that it’s the triumphant ill will expressed here that gets under my skin—but you would be mistaken. What bothers me is the persistence of misunderstanding. I can’t shake the feeling that if I just wrote or spoke more clearly, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.
What is the “controversy” that my correspondent finds so gratifying? A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on profiling at airport security checkpoints. Given that I suggested (twice) that white men like myself also fit the profile of a possible terrorist, I would have thought that charges of “racism” would be off the table. Not so. In fact, people like PZ Myers continue to malign me as an advocate of “racial profiling.” I have written to Myers personally about this and answered his charges publicly. His only response has been to attack me further and to endorse the false charges of others.
I do not think that I am being especially thin-skinned to worry about this. Accusations of racism and similar libels tend to stick online. If my daughter one day reads in my obituary that her father “was persistently dogged by charges of racism and bigotry,” unscrupulous people like PZ Myers will be to blame.
My correspondent is right about one thing, however: It was all there in my first book, The End of Faith. Since the moment I began criticizing religion in public, I have argued that Islam merits special concern—because it is currently the most militant and retrograde of the world’s major religions. This has always made certain people uncomfortable, because they find it difficult to distinguish a focus on Islam—specifically, on the real-world effects of its doctrines regarding martyrdom, jihad, apostasy, and the status of women—from bigotry against Muslims. But the difference is clear and crucial. My criticism of conservative Islam has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or nationality. And, as I have often said, no one suffers the consequences of this pernicious ideology—the abridgments of political and intellectual freedom, the mistreatment of women, the fanaticism and sectarian murder—more than innocent Muslims.
In the hopes of achieving some clarity on the issue of profiling, I let the anti-profiling security expert Bruce Schneier write a guest post on my blog. I then engaged in a long and rather tedious debate with him. It seems that few minds were changed, including my own. I heard from many readers who took my side in the debate—including those who have worked in airport security, U.S. Customs, the FBI, Delta Force, fraud detection, and other areas where real-time threat assessments must be made. I also received unequivocal support from Saudis, Pakistanis, Indians, and others who are regularly profiled. However, I heard as well from many people who thought that Schneier mopped the floor with me. Some of these readers continue to wonder why I, being ostensibly committed to reason, haven’t publicly conceded defeat and changed my view.
There seems to be a consensus, even among my critics, that no one does airline security better than the Israelis (even Schneier admits this). But, as I pointed out, and Schneier agreed, the Israelis profile (in every sense of the term—racially, ethnically, behaviorally, by nationality and religion, etc.). In the end, Schneier’s argument came down to a claim about limited resources: He argued that we are too poor (and, perhaps, too stupid) to effectively copy the Israeli approach. That may be true. But pleading poverty and ineptitude is very different from proving that profiling doesn’t work, or that it is unethical, or that the link between the tenets of Islam and jihadist violence isn’t causal.
Schneier’s argument against profiling has almost nothing to do with the reasons that many people find profiling controversial. But none of my critics seemed to notice this. Nor did they notice when Schneier conceded that the most secure system would use a combination of profiling and randomness. He simply argued that profiling for the purpose of airline security is too expensive and impractical. But I am not being vilified because I advocated something expensive and impractical. I am being vilified because my critics believe that I support a policy that is shockingly unethical, well known to be ineffective, and the product of near-total confusion about the causes of terrorism.
Again, a feeling of hopelessness descends. I am confident that offering this brief postscript will prove counterproductive. Simply raising these issues—even to clarify misunderstandings—does little more than inspire trolls. If I cannot get my critics to acknowledge that I wasn’t advocating racial profiling—how can I discuss any serious and controversial issue online?
It is difficult to overlook the role that blog comments play in all this. Having a blog and building a large community of readers can destroy a person’s intellectual integrity—as appears to have happened in the case of PZ Myers. Many people who read his blog come away convinced that I am a racist who advocates the widespread use of torture and a nuclear first strike against the entire Muslim world. The most despicable claims about me appear in the comment thread, of course, but Myers is responsible for publishing them. And so I hold him responsible for circulating and amplifying some of the worst distortions of my views found on the Internet.
Incidentally, readers often ask why I haven’t enabled comments on my own blog, since they build a sense of community and generate traffic. Needless to say, I know that I have many smart and knowledgeable readers who have valuable insights to share on any topic I’m likely to touch. My reasons for not enabling comments are essentially the same as those given by Seth Godin on his blog. You can read his justification here. I also can’t spare the time to read hundreds of comments in an effort to determine whether they would contribute, however subtly, to the problem of noise and defamation that has now sucked me into its vortex. This is not to say that I don’t care what my readers think. As you can see, I do. And I do my best to read your emails. But generally speaking, I’m at the limits of my bandwidth and have to draw the line somewhere.
None of us know what our online lives will look like in five years. But we know that the Internet does not forget. And every day I confront the evidence of harm done to my reputation, and to the reputations of others, by people who seem accountable to no one apart from a growing army of trolls.
Find this article online at: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/wrestling-the-troll/