Code 21 Conference: Sam Harris Interview

Sam Harris was invited to speak at the 2021 Code Conference and you can watch the full lecture here. I reproduce some of it below. Harris said a lot of what I’ve been saying for a while now: that while the far right and far left are both dangerous, in many ways the left poses the greater threat in terms of cultural influence. Wokeism is becoming mainstreamed in a way that the sins of the far right are not, and the wokes are our future leaders, law makers, and justices.

“There’s derangement on both sides [of the right-left divide], but an asymmetry that’s very real. The far right is still the fringe, even with Trump. In terms of cultural influence, the Nazis don’t have real cultural influence; the white supremacists don’t have real cultural influence. The people on the far left, who are bending our conversation — who if you just did a keyword search for place in what they say, everything they say sounds like a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet. They have immense cultural influence. Every school in the country — certainly every private school, and many public schools — everything is being filtered through this woke outrage machine. It’s not that there’s no truth in it, it’s not that there’s nothing to worry about with respect to racism… But now we have new forms of segregation; we have areas of schools where whites shouldn’t enter… or you’re guilty of multicultural desecration. The proper goal of a society is to get to a point where we care less about the superficial differences between people (like race), not more. People who are living in a post-racial society — people who never cared about the color of anyone’s skin, or for that matter anyone’s sexual preference or gender identity — these people were living ethical lives, having broken out of what was truly a toxic past with respect to those forms of bigotry. But they’re now being told by the woke corner that it’s too soon (and that it will always be too soon) to say that you’re post-racial or truly blind with respect to these differences among people. Chelsea Handler just said it from this chair: ‘You as a white person have no standing, to say anything about race’. That’s madness; absolute madness. And the goal has to be where we arrive at a time where we simply don’t care about these things, anymore than we care about the color of someone’s hair…

We see people getting cancelled for using a term, even just to talk about the term. Not as a slur, but in an intellectual context, for example in English class to talk about Huck Finn. Or using it in a context where the only purpose of using it is to say, ‘This is how this word has to be avoided.’ These words are being treated as being magically destructive. Literally, like the term Voldemort. It’s a word that automatically demands punishment, even though everyone knows that you are not a racist. There are examples of people who have had their careers destroyed where everyone who was calling for their cancellation knew that they were being used as a scapegoat, to show allegiance to this doctrine. It’s a very childish relationship to language, among the many other sins intellectually that we might cite here. It’s a relationship to language that’s just not adult. We have to find the adults in the room, somehow, and get them to guide the conversation. And the problem is that our institutions have been so captured that they’re just not showing a willingness to do that.”

From the Q&A:

[Questioner #1] “I’m one of those women who was born without a uterus. So I’m curious. Help me understand why it is that in order to deal with these massive issues — climate change, the virus, etc. — why do we simultaneously have to dehumanize and de-legitimize transgender and non-binary folks who are speaking their truth about their identity. I don’t understand why those two things are in conflict.”

[Sam] “I would disagree with the premise of the question. I don’t think there’s anything dehumanizing about using terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to make a specific point. They’re not intrinsically dehumanizing. It’s certainly not denying the reality of transgenderism or the ethical commitment to the total political equality of those people. Wokeism is policing the language in a highly unrealistic way and making scapegoats of people who are actually on your side — people who actually want total political equality for people regardless of gender identity. And I’m not saying that language never evolves. We do learn to use new terms –”

[Questioner #1] “But it has real-world consequences. In many states trans-youth are not getting access to health care, they’re not being able to use the restroom, because of the actions and the words. These laws are coming out of the actions and words of the people you’re defending.”

[Sam] “Some of it is coming from a backlash, and we’ve got two extremes amplifying hysteria on both sides. And there’s this violent pendulum swing, even in the course of any given day, between the two. And what we need is a reasonable middle that is committed to political equality and has compassion as its moral ballast. Perversely, as you go farther to the left, you get really stark examples of moral confusion. There are people who would castigate me for what I just said to you, but are actually kind of agnostic about the treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Like, ‘Who am I to say that putting women in cloth bags is bad? That’s another culture, they’ve just decided that on their own. It would be my own colonialism and bigotry to judge that.’ No, you can’t have it both ways. There’s a lot of moral confusion proximate to your side of this debate, and that has to be sorted out. What I’m really arguing for is that the moral emergency parameter that we’ve put over it has to be relaxed. What we have now is a trigger warning standing in front of our entire civilization, from the point of view of the left. And I’ll grant you that you’re getting a reaction from the right that is of valid concern — it’s hostile, and it’s overreaching, and it’s amplified by real authoritarianism, and in some cases theocracy.”

[Questioner #1] “But that starts with you saying that I’m not a woman.”

[Sam] “No. You’re situation only makes sense by first acknowledging the reality of biology. The only way to discover that you are trans is to discover that you don’t feel compatible with the biology that was on your birth certificate. But now we have people who are literally saying that you shouldn’t put ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ on a birth certificate, because it’s so toxic for society to have made that decision. But again, what I’m arguing for is a conversation in which the temperature is turned down. Unless you’re someone like J.K. Rowling, your career can be destroyed for saying the things that I’ve just said about the term ‘woman’.”

[Questioner #2] “You talked about the left having a lot of cultural power and influence. But how does that connect when you compare it with the right, when they have more power in terms of the way the government operates?”

[Sam] “Well, I don’t think the right has the power in the U.S. at the moment. Look who’s president; look at Congress. It arguably did have the power under Trump, but the truth is that Trumpism is its own phenomenon. When you look at the level of policy commitment, it’s not even far right in most respect. Trump himself is a moral lunatic, don’t get me wrong. He and his personality cult pose an existential threat to our democracy. I think he’s the most dangerous cult leader on earth at the moment. But he’s not synonymous with the far right, and white supremacy, and all of that, even though he’s probably himself a racist of some sort, and he gratified the far right; but it’s not the same phenomenon. If you’re going to talk about the real far right, it simply has not captured our culture and doesn’t have the levers of power. But I’ll grant you it’s potentially scary and capable of violence, and it’s something we should be paying attention to.”

10 thoughts on “Code 21 Conference: Sam Harris Interview

  1. Total bollocks IMO

    However dumb the left can be, they aren’t climate change deniers and accelerationists like the mainstream US right wing

  2. I also completely and utterly reject this idea that “the left” are in control of culture.

    That’s just total fantasy. Most media is entirely controlled by people with corporate interests who’d rather see the far right win over a Sanders type Democrat. The same is true of corporations who occasionally pretend to be sympathetic to cultural concerns

    • You must be living in a completely separate reality, then. Or you do not know what “far right” or “left” actually mean.

      Look at our nation’s collective response to George Floyd, or any school shooting that gets massively overblown, or Covington, or January 6, or any number of incidents. Certainly, the right wing does not control the narrative in ANY of these instances. After all, look who controls the mainstream media. Look who controls Hollywood. Look who controls the education systems – colleges, public schools all doing nonsensical stuff like implementing “safe spaces,” diversity quotas, or teaching “Critical Race Theory” which is ahistorical nonsense. Look who controls all the big tech companies: Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Reddit, YouTube. Look who controls congress. It’s certainly not the milquetoast republicans, much less any ACTUAL far right people like the Aryan Brotherhood or something. The term “far right” has lost all meaning because it’s been thrown around to label everyone and their dog.

      American culture has been heading in a far-left direction for decades now. At best, you could say that we’re ruled by neoliberal corporatist interests, people like Biden, Harris, Pelosi, et al. – but that’s still left wing.

      • It’s tremendously terrifying how confident you are in expressing utterly insane and laughably bad opinions

        You think corporations like Apple are controlled by “the left”?

        You think Biden and Harris are “the left”?

        You think responding negatively to fucking school shootings and Jan 6th is “left wing”?

        My friend, you are an absolute fucking psychopath with the brain cells of a toad

  3. I do think Harris underestimates the climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers of the mainstream right. In some ways I consider the right more dangerous, but in other ways I agree with him that the left is more a problem than many are willing to realize.

    • I know people on the right, and I’ve tried to understand what various popular figures on the right are saying, and I don’t ever get the sense that (most) people are outright “denying” climate change.

      The mainstream republican opinion seems to be: “yes, climate change is a problem, but it’s not a catastrophic world-ending issue that the left makes it out to be; and it’s certainly not something which will magically be fixed by expanding the powers of the federal government.” I don’t really see anything flagrantly wrong with this standpoint, at least with regards to what our proposed response should be. Regardless of what your opinion is on climate change, I think every sensible person should recognize that it’s local/statewide/individual changes we should make, rather than sweeping ones on a federal level. Because as you’ve pointed out in your posts in the past, once federal government expands, it’s VERY uncommon/difficult for it to shrink back to its former size.

      With regards to vaccines, I know a lot of hardcore Trump supporters and >99% of them aren’t opposed to vaccines in general. They just don’t like the corona ones, and they especially don’t like federal/statewide mandates of a vaccine. (I even know some guys who LOVE Trump and they’re fully vaccinated!) Actual antivaxers – who oppose all vaccines because they “give autism” or something – are the fringe of the fringe; they’re even more uncommon than far lefties who think a 80% marginal taxrate is a good thing.

      From where I’m standing, the hardcore Trumpists seem to be on the side of “let’s not expand government further.” They’re certainly a lot less libertarian than I’d personally like, and I do have many problems with the right wing, but I hardly see them as being nearly as dangerous as the mainstream left at this point.

      • Many of my friends on the right are more skeptical of climate change than they should be (and they’re moderate, not far right), but you’re making fair points, and you’re obviously right about non-Covid anti-vaxxers being fringe. We agree in any case that the left is more pernicious than most good-willed people realize. Despite commenter “lythgoerobert”‘s objections, they have serious influence (as you underscored to him), and their influence will — guaranteed, mark my words — eventually make its way into legislation.

      • “The mainstream republican opinion seems to be: “yes, climate change is a problem, but it’s not a catastrophic world-ending issue that the left makes it out to be; and it’s certainly not something which will magically be fixed by expanding the powers of the federal government.”

        Blatantly insane opinion that goes against all scientific study, moron

        “From where I’m standing, the hardcore Trumpists seem to be on the side of “let’s not expand government further.”

        Literally 90% of Trump voters stated their number one issue in why they were voting for Trump to be dumb manufactured culture war shit, the kind scumbags like you and Harris love to stir up.

        74 Million people still voted Trump after he commited criminal negligence over blatant lies about Covid.

        Yet to you “the left are more dangerous” and “Trump voters only care about small government”

        People like you are legitmately fucking terrifying

    • Hilarious. I found the person with Trump Derangement Syndrome! Always gives me a good laugh whenever people like you can’t disagree without resorting to pedestrian insults and cursing.

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