Sam Harris’s Anti-tribalism Report Card
Is the anti-woke crusader as good at transcending tribalism as he says he is?
A couple of weeks ago the well-known author and podcaster Sam Harris, speaking on the podcast Decoding the Gurus, said he feels “animus” toward me and New York Times columnist Ezra Klein. This isn’t shocking; Ezra and I have both been critical of Harris, and it’s natural to feel animus toward people who criticize you.
Plus, Harris has a habit of complaining that people who criticize his views are misrepresenting them, and in the past he has accused me and Ezra of that. So animus makes all the more sense.
But it turns out the story is more complicated than that. Harris says he doesn’t feel animus toward everyone who misrepresents his views. Take New York Times podcaster Kara Swisher. “Whenever she talks about me, she gets something of significant consequence wrong,” he said. “And yet I don't feel the same animus toward her that I feel toward Robert Wright or Ezra Klein, because honestly I find her more likable as a person.”
The good news is that, in this same podcast, Harris misrepresents my views. Which means, presumably, that I’m entitled to feel animus toward him—a prospect I admit to finding in some respects appealing.
But I’ll hold off on that for now, and say something semi-nice about him: His unflattering characterization of me occurred during a long conversation about the problem of tribalism, and I found the conversation illuminating.
Not all the illumination was intentional. Though Harris spent some time fruitfully analyzing the problem of tribalism, he also spent some time (in my view) illustrating it. But, either way, the illumination comes at a good time for me.
I’ve been thinking about starting a regular or semi-regular newsletter feature about tribalism, and that might include periodically commending people who exhibit anti-tribal behavior and chastising people who exhibit tribal behavior. But doing that would require figuring out what exactly constitutes commendable anti-tribal behavior and what constitutes deplorable tribal behavior. That’s harder than it may sound, and Harris’s podcast conversation drove this point home. Much of it consisted of Harris rebutting charges that he’s tribal and claiming to in various ways be non-tribal or anti-tribal. And judging the merits of these charges and rebuttals turns out to be complicated.
But judging is a job somebody’s gotta do! Besides, playing judge will help me clarify my own thinking about the problem—the problem of tribalism, and the problem of labeling behavior tribal or non-tribal or anti-tribal. So I’ll now review a few of the issues that emerged in the course of Harris’s podcast conversation, giving Sam credit when I deem his behavior commendably anti-tribal and taking off points when I deem it tribal.
Here, then, is Sam Harris’s anti-tribalism report card—his grades along four dimensions of anti-tribal conduct, along with extensive comments from the grader:
1. Accurately representing the views of people in tribes you consider adversarial: C-
The tribalism part of the conversation starts about an hour into the three-hour podcast, when Chris Kavanagh, one of the podcast’s co-hosts, mentions to Harris “one of the stronger critiques… that have been leveled at you in particular. It's the issue of tribalism and the extent to which you've transcended that.”
Harris professes familiarity with the critique: “The two people who made it, I think, most clearly—maybe many people have made it, but I'm aware of Ezra Klein making it and I’m aware of Robert Wright making it: that I'm tribal, you know, I'm claiming not to be playing identity politics, but I'm playing it as much as any social justice warrior. I can live with the illusion of not playing it because I'm a white guy. And as a white guy, you just take yourself as kind of the generic standpoint of truth and objectivity and science. And you're not seeing that you're being tribal in the same way that someone who says I'm a lesbian and I need to talk about gay rights.”
Actually, I’ve never made that critique of Harris. Ezra Klein did make it, but my critique, published in Wired three years ago, was different: It was that, though Harris fashions himself as someone who is inordinately good at transcending the psychology of tribalism, he in fact (like the rest of us) evinces the cognitive distortions that are critical components of that psychology, and sometimes he evinces them in a tribal context. I gave examples of him displaying, in particular, the cognitive distortions know as confirmation bias and attribution error—but those examples didn’t involve identity politics or social justice warriors or his whiteness or any of the other stuff he mentions.
It’s possible that Harris’s mistakenly attributing Ezra Klein’s critique of him to both Ezra and me is another example of such a cognitive distortion. Harris seems to see (not implausibly) both Ezra and me as adversaries, and human beings often seem to look hard for commonalities, connections, and coordination among their adversaries—sometimes to the point of exaggerating their extent or imagining them when they aren’t there.
In fact, I’ve started to wonder whether this tendency might deserve to take its place alongside confirmation bias, attribution error, and other such distortions as an official cognitive bias. Maybe you could call it the “united front” bias, since it can make you see your adversaries as constituting a more united front, in some sense of that term, than they in fact constitute.
The tendency to see connections among our perceived enemies doesn’t always play out in a tribal context, but it can, and the tribes involved can be very big. During the Cold War, America’s leaders often overestimated the extent of concord and coordination between China and the Soviet Union, thus laboring under what historians would later call the “myth of monolithic Communism.”
Anyway, whether or not this kind of thinking deserves to be known as a cognitive bias, and whether or not Harris’s false perception that Ezra and I were making the same argument evinces it, Harris did mischaracterize my position. It wasn’t a particularly consequential mischaracterization, and I certainly don’t think it was intentional. (I did mention, in that Wired piece, a recent debate between Harris and Klein about race and IQ, and perhaps this reference to Ezra made it easier for Sam to somehow conflate our arguments.) Still, if you’re going to get high marks for anti-tribalism—which Sam seems to think he deserves—you have to work extra hard to characterize the views of your adversaries accurately.
So in this department, Harris does not conform to best anti-tribal practices, and I’m taking off points for that. Hence the C-.
2. Being willing to criticize members of your own tribe: A-
Early on in the conversation, Kavanagh confronts Harris with this question: Doesn’t he sometimes extend more charity to people in the groups he’s part of—such as anti-woke people broadly or the specific group of anti-woke people that used to be known as the “Intellectual Dark Web”—than he extends to people in other tribes?
Kavanagh’s co-host, Matthew Browne, later brings up a counter example and commends Harris for it: his criticism of Bret Weinstein, a friend of Harris’s, a fellow opponent of all things woke, and a fellow charter member of the IDW. After Weinstein started using his podcast to inveigh against Covid vaccination and sing the praises of ivermectin as both a preventative and a treatment for Covid, Harris spoke out against him.
I agree that Harris deserves credit for this. On the other hand, he wasn’t the only member of the tribe formerly known as IDW who took out after Weinstein, and it’s pretty clear why others joined him: Weinstein was saying misleading, and in some cases flatly untrue, things that, if taken at face value, could get people killed. It had gotten to the point where Weinstein was bad for the tribe’s brand, an embarrassment to people associated with him.
I don’t think the tribemates of Weinstein’s who criticized him did so just because he had become bad for their brand, but I think this fact makes their criticism less remarkable and commendable than it otherwise would have been.
That’s why Harris doesn’t get an A. Still, he gets an A-.
3. Cognitive Empathy: D
The only time I’ve heard Harris talk about why Bret Weinstein says misleading things about the prevention and treatment of Covid, he alluded to Weinstein’s longstanding suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry and his broader suspicion of powerful institutions. Based on what I know about Weinstein, the idea that these suspicions played a big role in shaping his views on Covid seems like a fair surmise. So here Harris seems to be adroitly exercising something I consider an essential tool in the war on tribalism: “cognitive empathy”—that is, trying to understand the perspective of other people and why that perspective makes sense to them (not to be confused with ‘feeling their pain,’ which is emotional empathy).
But this explanation of Weinstein’s false or misleading statements contrasts notably with the way Harris explains statements he considers false or misleading when they emanate from an adversarial tribe, especially if they’re directed at him. His go-to move when faced with harsh criticism is to say not only that it misrepresents his views but that the misrepresentation is intentional and conscious—“dishonest,” as he likes to put it, and as he repeatedly puts it in this podcast.
This is actually a fairly common human reaction to harsh criticism. Still, it’s surprising that, in Harris’s case, it seems to be so rarely amended by subsequent reflection. After all, he professes conversancy in the kinds of cognitive biases that shape the psychology of tribalism. So you’d think he’d understand that when his adversaries scan his arguments for things to criticize, they’re prone to confirmation bias; they’re so eager to find evidence that conforms to their negative opinion of his work that when they find it they don’t do the due diligence required to make sure they’re not taking it out of context or neglecting countervailing evidence. (I have myself committed this sin in the course of criticizing Harris. For details, read the italicized note I’ve added to the bottom of my 2018 piece about his tribalistic tendencies.)
Yet time and time again, Harris depicts his ideological adversaries as consciously dishonest—even while professing a view of the human mind that acknowledges the distorting power of unconscious forces.
Again, I think Harris’s appraisal of Weinstein’s motivation is a solid exercise in cognitive empathy. It’s also a case where understanding a person’s motivation is exculpatory—at least in the sense of absolving Weinstein of the charge of intentionally misleading his audience. But depicting a tribemate’s motivation in a flattering light doesn’t get you a lot of points on the anti-tribalism scorecard. And if you often depict the motivations of people in opposing tribes in a much less flattering light, your overall cognitive empathy grade will suffer: D.
4. Being fair to someone in an opposing tribe even when that costs you support within your own tribe: A+.
Harris said during his Decoding the Gurus conversation that Trump’s infamous “fine people on both sides” remark was misreported by the mainstream media—that in fact, far from including white supremacists and neo-Nazis in that formulation, he explicitly excluded them. And, since Harris is an ardent anti-Trumper, he says he deserves credit for thus defending Trump publicly.
I agree. So in this department he gets an A+.
By the way, I too am an anti-Trumper, and I too have pointed out that Trump’s “fine people on both sides” remarks were mischaracterized. In fact, six months ago in this very newsletter, I documented how egregiously the New York Times mischaracterized them. So I’m afraid I have no choice but to award myself an A+ in this category along with Harris.
Attentive readers may note that Harris’s accurate characterization of Trump’s remarks could in principle have been included in section #1: Accurately representing the views of people in tribes you consider adversarial. In that event Harris’s overall grade in that section would have come out as a B. But if I had gone that route I would have deprived myself of the pleasure of giving Harris that C- and the pleasure of giving myself an A+. So I found a different path.
Harris’s overall grade: B-
My overall grade: A+ (Unless I add in the lapse I parenthetically alluded to in the “Cognitive empathy” section, which would have gotten me low marks in the “Accurately representing the views of people in tribes you consider adversarial” department, thus bringing my overall grade down to around a B-. After careful consideration, I’ve decided not to add that in.)
One big takeaway:
What I’m about to say may sound like the product of a cognitive bias, but: I think the Decoding the Gurus conversation validates the approach I took in my Wired piece about Harris’s tribalism. That approach involved focusing on the cognitive biases that drive tribalism, and doing so in various contexts, ranging from those that are pretty clearly tribal to those that are less so.
Why do I consider my approach validated by this conversation? Well, the short answer is that I think Harris does a good job of pointing to various ways in which “tribes” is a messy concept. And since that short answer is by itself a bit cryptic, I’ll elaborate on it… but not now. I plan to spend the next couple of Monday newsletters talking about the psychology of tribalism, and on one of those weeks I’ll do the elaborating.
Another thing I’ll do in the coming weeks is answer a question that may have occurred to anyone who both read this piece and listened to the podcast conversation it’s based on: Why didn’t I give Harris credit for extending, as he put it, “an enormous amount of charity to Osama bin Laden”? Doesn’t his seemingly sympathetic characterization of bin Laden’s psychology and motivational structure (which he says is based on insights he gained via meditation and psychedelics) qualify as a commendable extension of cognitive empathy to a member of an enemy tribe? Stay tuned for the answer. (Plot spoiler: No.)
Meanwhile: Feel free to comment, below, on this whole idea of a regular or semi-regular newsletter feature on tribalism and anti-tribalism, possibly including evaluations of people who behave tribally or anti-tribally “in the wild.”