On the Mechanics of Defamation


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Let me briefly illustrate how this works. Although I could cite hundreds of examples from the past two weeks alone, here is what I woke up to this morning: Some person who goes by the name of @dan_verg_ on Twitter took the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith out of (its absolutely essential) context, attached it to a scary picture of me, and declared me a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Then Reza Aslan retweeted it. An hour later, Glenn Greenwald retweeted it again.

By Sam HarrisRichard Dawkins-Foundation

That took less than two seconds of their time, and the message was sent to millions of people. I know one thing to a moral certainty, however: Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

No matter how completely opposed I may have been to another person’s views, I have not behaved like that. I have never knowingly distorted the positions I criticize, whether they are the doctrines of a religion or the personal beliefs of Francis Collins, Eben Alexander, Deepak Chopra, Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, or any other writer or public figure with whom I’ve collided. The crucial boundary between hard-hitting criticism and defamation is knowing that you are misrepresenting your target.

Here is the statement in context (p. 52−53):

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

There is an endnote to this passage that reads:

We do not have to bring the membership of Al Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center are beyond our help—and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of Al Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept. 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.

The larger context of this passage is a philosophical and psychological analysis of belief as an engine of behavior—and the link to behavior is the whole point of the discussion. Why would it be ethical to drop a bomb on the leaders of ISIS at this moment? Because of all the harm they’ve caused? No. Killing them will do nothing to alleviate that harm. It would be ethical to kill these men—once again, only if we couldn’t capture them—because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

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