So you’ve probably seen Ben Affleck take on Bill Maher over the latter’s criticisms of Islam by now. The clip from last Friday’s Real Time With Bill Maher was nearly everywhere and led to a lot of differing opinions over who came out looking best. Who knew?
Well you might remember that Maher wasn’t alone in that interview because was joined by author, atheist, scientist, and philosopher Sam Harris. Not content with just letting the video speak for itself and allowing people to make their own decisions, Harris has struck back at Affleck via his blog/web site:
I admit that I was a little thrown by Affleck’s animosity. I don’t know where it came from, because we hadn’t met before I joined the panel. And it was clear from our conversation after the show that he is totally unfamiliar with my work. I suspect that among his handlers there is a fan of Glenn Greenwald who prepared him for his appearance by simply telling him that I am a racist and a warmonger.
Whatever the reason, if you watch the full video of our exchange (which actually begins before the above clip), you will see that Affleck was gunning for me from the start. What many viewers probably don’t realize is that the mid-show interview is supposed be a protected five-to-seven-minute conversation between Maher and the new guest—and all the panelists know this. To ignore this structure and encroach on this space is a little rude; to jump in with criticism, as Affleck did, is pretty hostile. He tried to land his first blow a mere 90 seconds after I took my seat, before the topic of Islam even came up.
When it comes to public spats, this probably ranks fairly low on the excitement meter. What it carries is a hot button topic that everyone has an opinion on. The ability for hindsight is probably what spurned Harris into writing this response in the first place, giving him the ability to address some of the points that didn’t have as much gravity at the time:
As many have since pointed out, Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims. Our statements were “gross,” “racist,” “ugly,” “like saying you’re a shifty Jew” (Affleck), and a “caricature” that has “the tinge (a little bit) of how white racists talk about African Americans” (Kristof).
The most controversial thing I said was: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” This statement has been met with countless charges of “bigotry” and “racism” online and in the media. But imagine that the year is 1970, and I said: “Communism is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” How reasonable would it be to attack me as a “racist” or as someone who harbors an irrational hatred of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, etc. This is precisely the situation I am in. My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences—but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people.
And the tension on the panel only grew. At one point Affleck sought to cut me off by saying, “Okay, let him [Kristof] talk for a second.” As I finished my sentence, he made a gesture of impatience with his hand, suggesting that I had been droning on for ages. Watching this exchange on television (his body language and tone are less clear online), I find Affleck’s contempt for me fairly amazing.
You can read the full statement over on Harris’ web site and gauge your own opinions on the situation. I personally tried to keep out of it on my end (apart from calling Maher a douche), but there were plenty of disagreements on Twitter and in the comments.
At least these aren’t people fist fighting and trying to kill each other over their beliefs. There’s a enough of that floating around across the globe and we don’t need anymore. Reasoned discussion is a great thing.