Guest post: The assumptions Harris is making

Originally a comment by Anna Y on A really big blind spot here.

Peak meta indeed, since Harris isn’t even paying much attention to things coming out of his mouth in the course of this discussion itself. I think Klein is (maybe intentionally, to avoid pushing Harris’ buttons) missing a really low hanging fruit in what Harris says to defend his position.

I want to break down his points and emphasize the assumptions he is making, thereby demonstrating precisely what that fruit is:

“Well, what I mean by identity politics is that you are reasoning on the basis of skin color, or religion, or gender, or some particular trait, which you have by accident, which you can’t change — YOU FELL INTO THAT BIN THROUGH NO PROCESS OF REASONING ON YOUR OWN, YOU COULDN’T BE CONVINCED TO BE WHITE OR BLACK”

— in other words, you are white or black because YOU reasoned your way into it: it’s something in YOUR mind, rather than something in the minds of all (or almost all) of the people around you who treat you differently based on whether THEY think you are black or white.


— translation: your skin color is in your head the same way mine is in mine, and we can both come up with stories of how that’s been bad for us. That is LITERALLY his point here. Rather than focusing on ALL the reasons why it is an outrageous thing to think and say, I’ll take the most generous possible perspective: this alone demonstrates that Harris, just like faaaaar too many people on both the left and the right, is failing to understand something that should be glaringly obvious but apparently isn’t: whatever your “inside identity” is (i.e. what YOU think of yourself and how YOU identify) is completely irrelevant to other people because THEY can’t read YOUR thoughts. It is OTHER PEOPLE who look at you and “identify” you as “white” or “black” (or male, or female) and TREAT YOU ACCORDINGLY. This basic fact doesn’t sit right with a lot of people, especially a lot of Americans, because individualism is sort of an unofficial national religion here, and, as a corollary, the most popular collective delusion is that of being able to control how other people perceive and treat you. But, as a matter of actual fact, any given individual has NO control and very little ability to influence how other people see or treat them. This is actually a terrifying thought — it’s been a source of terror and despair for me personally for many years — so it’s understandable that Harris, among others, wouldn’t want to seriously entertain it. The problem is, however, that wishing something were true doesn’t make it so, as I’m sure Harris would agree (in a different context). He also happens to have been extremely lucky to randomly receive traits that are viewed favorably by people around him (his complaints about how unpopular being a white male is these days notwithstanding), and, given his favorable view of himself, he seems to much prefer to take credit for somehow earning that baseline favorable treatment from others (which is, again, understandable, especially given the alternative).

A side point about things being “incommunicable” to other people: I personally find that literally anything can be incommunicable if the people I try to communicate it to don’t want to hear it. I’ve gone to quite embarrassing lengths to try to get around such unwillingness of people to be communicated to, and found that this is very much a subset of the larger problem of being unable to control and having little influence over how other people treat you. So when Harris says certain things are incommunicable to other people who don’t share your identity, he may be unwittingly sharing how often he’s found people to be so frustrated with trying to communicate something to him (that he wasn’t interested in taking on board) that they basically threw up their hands in frustration and quit (though, again, to be fair, the pain and frustration of trying to communicate vitally important [to you] information to an unreceptive audience is so common among certain groups that the refusal to be drawn into yet another pointless session has become a common collective stance at this point).

So after having just said what he said, he turns around and says:

“This strikes me as a moral and political and intellectual dead end because THE THINGS THAT ARE REALLY TRUE, THE THINGS THAT WILL REALLY MOVE THE DIAL WITH RESPECT TO HUMAN WELLBEING — I view my career as being totally committed to amplifying good ideas and criticizing bad ideas, insofar as they relate to the most important swings of human wellbeing. My concern is, how can the future be better than the past? HOW CAN WE GET TO A WORLD WHERE WE CANCEL THE WORST EFFECTS OF BAD LUCK, GIVEN THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE HUGELY LUCKY AND SOME PEOPLE AREN’T? How can we cancel this, with respect to wealth and health and everything else? How can we get to a world where the maximum number of people thrive?”

— and it doesn’t appear to break his irony meter. Because, apparently, cancelling the worst effects of bad luck has NOTHING whatsoever to do with, oh, I don’t know, maybe not treating black people worse because they are black or female people worse because they are female — clearly this must be because being being black or female (or gay, or just fill in the blank, because it varies from place to place) is just a matter of some individuals being convinced that they are black or female or whatever, and if they just quit thinking that, everybody else will instantaneously go blind and deaf and amnesiac and just start treating them exactly the way they treat a white male. So yes, Harris has totally committed his career to amplifying good ideas and criticizing bad ideas, insofar as they relate to the wellbeing of people like Harris, who are SO incredibly rational that they KNOW their skin and cranium are actually transparent, forcing others to judge them by the contents of their character (unless those others are too irrational because of their commitment to identity politics, and obviously you can’t have a truly rational conversation with them).

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