Welcome to the very first episode of conversations with Coleman. I’m your host Coleman Hughes. The idea for this podcast is pretty simple. I talk to people who I find interesting. I have five or six really great guests already lined up who I won’t spoil now, but in the long run this podcast is an experiment and as a result I need your feedback. If you like the guests I’m getting let me know.
If there’s someone you think I should talk to who I might not otherwise think to talk to, let me know. If you like the podcast you can subscribe to it on YouTube, you can follow my Facebook page so you’re alerted when a new episode comes out. And you can follow me on Twitter where I will post the link to each new episode. Each episode is going to have both audio and video so you can watch it on YouTube or you can listen to the audio version on whichever podcast listening app is your favorite. So a few notes before I introduce my very first guest who probably doesn’t need much introduction. The audio on Sam’s end is not ideal. We try to have him record it, but we ended up losing that file. It’s neither horrible nor amazing and I hope the listening experience won’t be too bad. All of my subsequent episodes will have great audio on both ends of the conversation.
This conversation took place on July 12th shortly after I testified before Congress on the topic of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. We begin by talking about the ethical, practical, and political implications of paying reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. We talk about diversity and what’s reasonable to expect in terms of equal representation between different races and genders in a multi-ethnic society like our own. We talked about the prospect of living in a post-racial or colorblind society. We talk about how to interpret racial disparities in achievement. And Sam gives me some advice on how to deal with the future public shaming’s that I am probably destined to experience.
So without further ado, Sam Harris.
CH (Coleman Hughes): My guest today is Sam Harris, neuroscientist, author of The End of Faith: Waking Up the Moral Landscape, Free Will Lying podcaster extraordinaire and one of my personal heroes. Thank you for being on the show Sam.
SH (Sam Harris): Oh, well, thanks, thanks for jumping into this. It’s great to–you are one of my personal heroes now as well.
SH: So, um happy to be here.
CH: So I was thinking we would start off by talking about reparations if that’s okay with you.
SH: Right. This is a topic that I think is genuinely difficult, about which I don’t have a settled opinion so my mind is unusually open on this topic.
CH: Yeah, my mind is I think more open than you would expect it to be. You know I’ve, I’ve evolved in my thinking on this issue even in the past two, three weeks, just having had so much time to think about it, having gotten so much feedback. Obviously, I think my fans will know that I testified before Congress a few weeks ago against reparations. One of eight testifying. You can see the video on YouTube. And testifying for reparations for Bill H.R.40 was Ta-Nehisi Coates, Danny Glover and many others and, and then it was myself and one other person testifying against and that went pretty viral. I think that went more viral than anything that I’ve said or, or written.
CH: And a lot of the backlash was pretty ugly. It was a public shaming of a degree that I haven’t really experienced before and I want to talk about public shaming in general later because you’re a veteran of that territory.
SH: Yes, we’ve been shamed.
CH: Yeah, I think we should talk about reparations first. And you know, I think you can go back and look at what I said and what I’ve written about it in, in Quillette, but I think one mistake I made was, I guess trying to think about reparations with the logical half of my brain more than the emotional half because I think slavery and Jim Crow for many people just feel like an open wound, feels like something as a nation, we have not yet gotten closure about.
CH: And we can talk about why that is, but that that just is a fact I think at this moment. And the goal that I completely share with people who want reparations is to feel like slavery and Jim Crow are somewhat closed wounds, that the scar is healing nicely so to speak. The question is how do we get there? And I want, I want your opinion on this. Do you, do you see that as the goal and if so, do you see reparations as a way to get there?
SH: Well again, with the caveat that I haven’t thought a lot about this, I do not have a settled opinion on it, it seems to me that there’s a fairly straightforward ethical case for it. I mean there’s this obvious injury that you can bound historically in at least to a first approximation and you can link it up with a fairly obvious debt, I mean you can, you can make some argument about the the amount of wealth that was created and you, we have the history of wealth inequality that followed. It’s not nearly as clean as a more contemporaneous injury like paying reparations for Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust say, but it still is fairly easy to pinpoint the the moral problem. I think it’s very hard to make a practical case for it and I think it’s impossible at the moment to make a a compelling political case for it. I mean just take the immediate concern of the the next presidential election you know. My gut intuition is that pushing for reparations now among the Democrats is just a guaranteed way to get Trump elected for four more years. I think it’s a political non-starter that’s not going to prevent certain Democrats from from attempting it. So, even if the at the end of a long conversation I could say “I’m for reparations,” I’m not for reparations in this election cycle just ’cause I think it will guarantee Trump. So that’s the a, the a, so I think those are separable pieces. The ethical case is pretty clear, it’s just the issue you get into is that immediately bleeds into the practical case, I mean who pays and who gets paid, right, as and and how? What are reparations in this case and what are we actually correcting for? Are we correcting for the ambient level of racism that still exists to the disadvantage of African Americans, or are we correcting for identifiable theft for people who are the descendants of slaves, you know. And I mean, so there are many people who are black who probably inherit, certainly inherit whatever consequential racism still exists, but they aren’t descended from slaves, right? They’re immigrants or they’re, you know, their parents were immigrants. So how you reconcile all of that and that, that’s very difficult.
CH: Yes. So I, I like that you separate this into the ethical conversation and the practical conversation. I think most supporters of reparations limit themselves to the ethical part of the conversation, clearly because they have a better case there. But there have been some like like the economist Sandy Daredi, who have pretty persuasively worked out the practical side as well. He has a plan for how to determine who gets it and he sort of worked out many of the kinks in a way that, at least you feel as someone who still opposes most versions of reparations, that I, I can’t win the argument on the practicalities alone. But then there’s this third part, which is political, about which I completely agree with you. I mean, I think there’s something crazy about being blindsided by things over and over again so I was someone who was blindsided by Trump’s victory, absolutely blindsided and extremely distraught and I think we have to learn the lesson to not do things that are going to, to get us blindsided again in 2020. I think reparations is clearly one of those things given how un-, unpopular it is, but I want to wind it back to the ethical conversation for a second. Clearly reparations in general, I think are owed to the specific victims of a crime…
CH: …or, or something that was not defined legally as a crime at the time, but we look back on with horror. But it’s, it’s less clear to me that reparations are owed to the grandchildren for, for example of a a Holocaust survivor even um. Even if that Holocaust survivor weren’t weren’t paid at the time and should have been. What do you think of that? I think the median African-American in America is like 33 years old, right? Born in in the the 80s, right? Do you, do you observe that distinction or do you think because it wasn’t paid to my grandfather that in principle, I inherit what was not given to him.
SH: Well there, there just is this counter-factual case where had your grandfather had the average level of economic opportunity and and wealth accrual of, a you know, a white person in his generation, well, then there would have been more inheritance, there would have been something passed down presumably and if in your case it wasn’t, I mean, you can draw a fairly straight line there. And again, there’s the other side of the ledger always here. There are white people, there there are black people who are doing great, there’re white people who are doing terribly and it becomes, the moment you start talking about reparations, there’s a demand to focus on what what problem are you actually trying to solve in the present, right? You know, it’s like…
SH: …if, should middle class and wealthy African Americans get reparations when you have, when you can point to millions of people of you know, you know other groups who are doing badly to certainly certainly worse off than they are and if you simply look long enough, you would find disparities in in bad luck or you know historical contingencies that accounted for why they were doing badly and it’s, so where there’s a, there’s a, there’s an obvious question about where this stops, right? Because there’re, there’s so many groups that have been treated badly. Again not, the injury is not as salient as slavery and its aftermath, but I mean the Native Americans obviously have a case. What reparations are they owed and the history of colonialism will volunteer various cases, right? What look at, we can look at all of our misadventures the world over and ask, what is owed to, what is owed Africa for the centuries of pillage there? So there is a a concern about where it stops, but you you sort of have that concern whenever you try to right any wrong, right? So that’s not really a a knockdown argument against doing this. You know, you can’t have the perfect be the enemy of the good here.
SH: But it’s, it’s a hard case for me because the politics creeps in here too because the people who are who are arguing for reparations I mean someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates most of them, many of them, certainly Coates, I view as as bad faith actors. They’re just not not honest brokers of the ethical principles here and you get the sense that, I mean just imagine the world, just imagine the day after the fullest payment of reparations that’s conceivable, right? Then what happens? Coates certainly seems capable of saying: “If you think you can buy us off with a check of that size, of any size, you know, you’ve got another thing coming” right? Like so the goal posts will move and then you’re left with the question. Well, what was, what was any of this for right if this if if if the wound of slavery can’t be healed with anything as crass as a whatever it would be a six trillion dollar check, right? Well then, why did we go down this path in the first place?
CH: Yeah, there’s, there’s there’s a lot there. So I want to wind it back to you know, you…the counterfactual if not for slavery, Jim Crow, black people would have more wealth. That’s a very supportable statement, I think. On average, it’s clear…
CH: …that slavery, Jim Crow, especially policies like red-lining had a long-term effect on the median black person’s wealth even in 2019. The question is how much of the wealth gap would be closed if history had gone differently, more fairly. I’ve read a lot of Thomas Sowell and, and been very persuaded that disparities, indeed large disparities are the norm rather than the exception. And often it’s the case that the group that’s discriminated against has more wealth than the group that discriminated against it and the…
CH: … the with wealth…the example, I always give is that you know, that there’s a study from the early 2000s that showed the median Jewish household to have seven times the wealth of of the median conservative Protestant household. And I think many people aren’t sensitive too, many people I think naively assume that in the counterfactual everything would be the same. But that aside I think it’s, it’s clearly true that black people would have more wealth than they do now if history had gone differently. The reason that I don’t think of this in terms of the counterfactual so much is because I think it’s kind of beside the point. So for instance, if we’re going to start doing counterfactual thinking then we kind of have to do counterfactual thinking across the board and that then you you get, you get led to very repugnant conclusions very quickly. For example, where would I be if not for slavery quote-unquote, hypothetically, right? I would have been born in West Africa rather than in New Jersey, right? Does that mean slavery was good for me? No. I mean that’s that’s just the wrong way to think about it in my view.
SH: Right. Right.
CH: Because it’s just, besides being a kind of icky way of reasoning, I’m not sure it’s a very useful way of reasoning. I think it’s…
SH: Well presumably, you wouldn’t even exist. Well almost, almost nobody could say that everything would be the same except that they would have been born in another country.
CH: Right, but um, you know turning to this point, which is one I I really agree with and one that John McWhorter, McWhorter made as well is the goalposts are constantly shifting on the way we tell the narrative of what America has done to try to make up for slavery. When we…
CH: …instituted affirmative action, which is still ongoing, giving black people a leg up, in college admissions, diversity and inclusion programs in various sectors of the labor market….If you’re a minority business owner, there are set-aside programs that will allocate government contracts specifically for people like you. All of this is in the spirit of making up for the past, even though it’s sometimes you know, we’ve sort of we’ve sort of have to shift the rationale to diversity, perhaps because people are uncomfortable with making the case for reparations. But, even Ta-Nehisi has written in The Atlantic that the diversity rationale doesn’t make that much sense to him for affirmative action. Really, what makes sense is the the redress for history rationale.
CH: And you know, the reason I you know, I’ve I’ve kind of gotten away from the counterfactual way of thinking and also the reason why I tend to not think anymore in terms of comparisons to other examples of reparations is because I guess I’m less concerned with the principles involved and more more more concerned with getting to a place where this feels like a closed wound for people. And I, I….
CH: I think of the analogy of a person who has experienced some terrible trauma sometimes, often in childhood. I know people who experienced a terrible trauma in in childhood and really reconciled with it to the point where they’re not thinking about it all the time. They’ve really gone through what it takes to get past it. And then I know other people who experienced a trauma and as elderly people still talk about it almost every day, interpret their entire lives through through the lens of this trauma that happened to them and clearly have gotten no closure about it whatsoever. And the difference between the first person in the second person, it seems to me, isn’t so much about what the world did or did not give them, but much more about the way they reframed their own history. So I think that….
CH: …what, whatever reparations means and people are very quick to say it’s not just a paycheck, it’s much more. Other people will say it is a paycheck. So there’s a way in which reparations is talked about kind of like, I think analogy of the briefcase from Pulp Fiction where you never get to see what’s in it,
SH: Right. Yeah. Right.
CH: …but it’s amazing and it’s the best thing. But when whatever that is happens, is paid I think you’re completely right that Coates and others will say, and not completely without reason: “How dare you put a dollar value on slavery and Jim Crow!” They’ll be able to muster a considerable amount of moral outrage I think, just at the prospect of it. And frankly, I think it will be worse because I’ve heard from um, a lot of you know conservative fans of mine, yeah often white conservative fans of mine who actually do like the idea of reparations because they want to do it once and then they want to be able to say, “Damn it, you have been paid! Can you stop complaining about racism now?!? Can we please move on to another subject?” That’s what I hear sometimes and…
CH: …your combination of that plus the heightened moral outrage at having slavery monetized in this way, I think is is going to be a combination that makes race relations worse rather than better.
SH: Right. Right. Well the comparison between the two people real or hypothetical, one of whom seems totally resilient and I mean even in the extreme case, there are people who are clearly made stronger and more functional based on some early trauma, right? And then there, there are people, who as you say, whose whose lives are just diminished by it up until their dying day. You can draw that analogy to groups and to and to perhaps whole cultures. You know not, not all cultures are telling themselves stories that render them equally resilient or creative in the face of of various crises right. Now, this is just a kind of generic statement, which virtually has to be true, I mean, it’s practically a tautology of…If culture is doing anything to help or harm people in terms of how they function and we have different cultures that are not run in precisely the same software, well then, you’re going to see differences in that respect. And I think you know, we’re right to worry that there is a kind of religion of victimhood emerging on the left which of necessity has taken in more people of color or or disproportionate number of people of color. But as you said at the beginning, I believe you said this at the beginning, maybe this is I mean, this is a point, this is a point that you and I are both familiar with, that the most woke people, the people who are most trumpeting this victimology are are well-educated white liberals at the moment….
SH: ….but there are memes now that our enshrining victimhood in a way that seems quite unhelpful, you know. And you see people who, just as you don’t like to see people who are endlessly, you know, indelibly defined by the moments in their lives where they were victims, you don’t want to see whole cultures defining themselves in those terms. So yeah, I think the the argument for reparations would be if it held out a promise to actually reset this whole attitude with respect to the burden of the past. Either we are are effectively canceling the burden of the past or we’re not. And if it’s hopeless to even try well then, let’s not open the other wounds that would be opened or to create wounds that would be created by trying against the the will of surely some considerable number of of people.
CH: Yeah. It strikes me there’s an analogy to apologies here, which is something I’ve heard you talk about more and more recently. What is an apology? If I say something to my girlfriend that was, that really hurts her, right? And I apologize for it, if it’s sincere it gets accepted and then I’m kind of brought back to zero right, is like there’s…
CH: …no more. She’s not going to hold that against me tomorrow. When it works well, that’s the idea. It’s like really I really realized what I did wrong and then we get to a place where we’re healthy about the situation. We’re both mentally healthy. We have no resentments because we went through it. We we really did it. But one point I brought up, I I think I did in my testimony, is that the Senate and the House have both did formally apologize for slavery and Jim Crow in 2008 and 2009, kind of sort of under the radar. But you know at the time there was a black president. You might think that this was the perfect moment in a sense to kind of close the door not closed the door on history in the sense of ignoring it, but in the sense of our emotional relationship to it. Um…
CH: …but it but it didn’t happen and it’s not clear to me that the people demanding an apology are playing by the rules of apologies, if that makes sense.
SH: Yeah. Yeah. Well it also in this case who is apologizing? So if you’re talking about reparations, if you’re talking about money that has to come out of the pockets of every non-African-American American, you know, that is a material demand that is being made on people who were not alive during slavery or Jim or even Jim Crow and many of whom don’t feel at all personally culpable for what happened in the past. And the question is why should they, it’s hard to know what it means to own the past as the past recedes right? Insofar as there’s an economic argument you can say, well listen you are a beneficiary of whatever the you know, this corporation is a corporation that used slave labor. This Corporation is now worth billions of dollars and we can point to the people who lives have been made better on the basis of all this wealth. That same material debt that you know, whether or not anyone alive today would have sanctioned the use of slave labor presumably not you still benefited from it and there’s a transfer of wealth that makes moral sense here. But what someone like Coates seems to want is a vivid, you know epiphany on the part of every living white American that they are culpable, that we are culpable for a persistent level of racism that is totally intolerable and that explains all of the inequality and it is of a piece with the darkest part of our history and no, that on some level, no gains have been made and to and to cite any specific obvious gains. and I mean to say something, to be a white person and say: “Well listen. We had a two term black president, just had just what what are you what are you going to count as overcoming racism? You know, I voted for Obama twice. I ahh, gave money to his campaign. I was all-in on you know, the the the prospect of having a first black president and then I wanted him re-elected, right? So is that white guy really culpable for, in the primal sin of racism that Coates wants to redress. It’s a hard case to make, but this is where all the bad faith comes in. Because it’s a hard case to to make, it gets made dishonestly.
CH: Yeah, there’s another part to the, and we’ll get off this soon, but the last part that I hear often from advocates of reparations is the idea that we have yet to acknowledge our history. That part of what is meant, if if not most of what is meant by reparations is a serious interrogation of our past as a country. The idea being that what most white people think happened is we fought a Civil War and ever since 1865, black people were roughly treated equally and uh what we need to do is really correct our history and knock over all of the all of the resistance that white people allegedly feel to honestly acknowledging that slavery and Jim Crow happened and that many of the specific policies constituted like an extraction of wealth. And when I hear that argument what I think to myself is in the ten-thousand-year history of slavery, slavery is as old as civilization, has been practiced in nearly, nearly every civilization on almost every continent, on every inhabited continent in fact, what I think to myself is I don’t think there’s a single example of slavery that has been more studied than American slavery between the 17th century and 19th century. And what that suggests to me is that our our failure to get past race, which is a goal that not everyone shares and we we can talk about that, it’s not going to be helped by further study of the past. And as much as I like history, personally and I find history to be fascinating, this idea that we need to delve deeper into the past as a primary means of sort of reconciling ourselves as Americans…
CH: …doesn’t hold water for me.
SH: Yeah, well it it there’s no end in sight if you go down that path. I would I would agree with that. It’s again, if you have an identifiable injury that is easily bounded right where you can say like, well, you know, this is your your parents did this to my parents and here are the effects, right? Like we you you dumped toxins on our land and it’s going to cost a million dollars to clean it up, right? Those are debts that people and even previous generations can incur to to others. And so I wouldn’t want to close the door to reparations on the basis of past grievances that were formed in the past just across the board. But again with something this big and this complex and this old right, it’s it’s hard to see how it could ever really make moral or or practical sense that you and and then you’re then you’re, you’ll still be left with the present, right? You’re left with persistent inequality of various types in the present which you know, as you point out in in your writing, you know, and I believe you mentioned here briefly. Ah. There are all kinds of equality, inequalities that we never think to try to remedy, right? If you go looking for group differences if you look if you look at how Polish Americans compared to French Americans in their you know, economic well-being, well you’re going to find a difference right? I don’t remember who’s on top there, but any group that finds itself below a a significant number of other groups could say: “Listen. There’s got to be something fairly sinister that explains this because I wake up every day, you know, trying to gather as much wealth as possible and…you know as a French American, you know, it galls me that I’ve got the the Indians and the Nigerians and the and the Polish above me, right? No one would take that seriously, right? I mean probably, I presume no one would take that seriously and we want to get to a place where it makes no more sense to say that of any other group, right?
SH: So the question is how to get there.
CH: I was going to bring this up ah later, but let let’s do it now. So I think I coined this term I think, in my mind at least: racial gapology,…
SH: Mmhm. Yeah.
CH: …which is just the study of racial gaps. And on the left this takes the form of studying wealth gaps between blacks and whites, etcetera, um. On the right this sometimes takes the form of studying IQ gaps between races for example. And my sense is that all of that research, the whole category of taking one group to another, comparing some outcome is something we should become less interested in.
SH: Well, the thing is that, the crucial thing and this is this is what was so frustrating…
SH: …when I touch this topic on my podcast, you are guaranteed to find these differences. Like there’s no way, it would be an absolute miracle if you could segment the human population based on identifiable groups, you know, that differ with respect to the the genealogy and therefore the the genetic ah character of their ancestors and you have you have literally have human populations that lived apart significantly for thousands and thousands of years so they’re going to differ genetically. And then you have the differences of culture layered on top of that.
SH: Right? So you different groups, take you know to to be non-inflammatory, take the Norwegians and the the Japanese right? Or the Norwegians and the Italians, right? You can look at people and tell that they you know didn’t come from Norway or didn’t come from Japan, right? These people are different and they have different cultures. They have different languages. It would be an absolute miracle if everything we cared about were at the same mean level in those groups…
SH: …,right? So we know we’re going to find difference and and so to make, to to say that the mere discovery of of difference is a sign of ethical pathology or or or need be politically catastrophic or problematic.
SH: I mean, that’s just that just sets you up for an endless round of conflict. And there’s just, there’s, we will never get beyond this. So the question is what what is the status quo that is that is actually okay, right?
SH: And how do we actually identify real problems?
CH: Yeah. So I I feel like there are, I agree. I agree with that completely and I’ve even seen data showing IQ differences between different white ethnic groups, you know, if you, they did tests in the military and you found huge gaps sometimes between Irish and Poles and whatnot. And um you know, none of this stuff is intrinsically interesting to me. I I don’t think it is to you either. I mean, the whole, the , what was interesting about that whole debacle was that I don’t know that you’ve even mentioned IQ and race for 15 years in your career, right?
SH: Yeah. Yeah
CH: And then some people were painting you as quote-unquote “obsessed with the topic.” And so I I think there, I I agree with you that these, these data at the moment are very inflammatory. At least some of them are and…there are two approaches to that that that you might want to take to that. You might say: “Well we have to persuade people to understand that these differences will exist so that if they see them, they you know, they won’t have the they won’t have this aggressive emotional reaction. I agree with that perspective, but at the same time I think I think we should also persuade people and journalists and people who have platforms to talk less about racial differences and that it goes for IQ and it goes for wealth.
CH: I’m talking about scholars on both sides of the political spectrum here because as you noted, there there’s a twenty one cent on the dollar household income gap between white Americans of Russian descent and white Americans of French descent. If that were publicized in The New York Times, if we talked about that constantly, it could be possible that people that strongly identify with those ethnic roots, the French might think well, what the hell is going on here? Like now I feel I’m implicated. I feel the Russians are implicated. I’m going to try to find the source of of this disparity and you have all of the social fabric, tears in the social fabric that are happening between blacks and whites now happening, you know between French and Russians. And that seems to me like only downside, right?
SH: And no one’s looking for quotas and I mean so so the the context in which were having this conversation is one where people are…people on the left are imagining that unless you have equal representation of of identifiable minority groups in every field, you know, in software engineering at Google, in you know cardiology and in medical schools, unless you have you know, thirteen percent African-Americans there and 50/50, you know male female. And the pie chart has to look the same no matter where you, no matter what sort of pie you’re you’re baking, you know. But we’re not looking to do that with any of these other identifiable groups. You know, nobody’s saying: “Listen. I I think there’s not enough French Americans at Google…
CH: “Mmhm. Or, or the the…
CH: ..I I think four of the last five Oscar-winning directors have been Mexican, which is why I like…
SH: Right. Right.
CH: … when I hear that fact, I don’t really have any emotional affect about it other than like oh that’s that’s interesting. You know, there’s there’s something you know culturally that that that culture is producing a lot of great movie directors…
SH: Yeah. Right.
CH: …and if you’re going to look, so like I’m a musician. If I look at who has had the huge impact on world music, completely out of proportion, you’re going to be talking about black people in America or like I’ve met people from Eastern Europe…
CH: …who heard Tupac for the first time and it just touched them completely, right? Like something about hip-hop and the that visceral art form just completely transcended borders and is you know became popular in a way that many many other genres of music just haven’t, right? So that’s a disparity of a kind…
CH: …and you know there there there are infinitely many of these and you know…
SH: The problem there is that if you were going to try to understand that, I mean that that has some reason for being, right?
SH: I mean it’s obviously black culture has made a a disproportionate contribution to to music right, in the US and and therefore worldwide. So how do you explain that? Well, I think the temptation on the left would be to just say that on some level as a consequence of racism. Or you or you would have to be racist to be interested in why that would be the case, right? Or it’s synonymous with other opportunities having been closed to…
SH: … African-Americans. And there may be some truth to that. And there may be some truth to that in, with respect to any minority group that has a disproportionate level of success in one area. But I’m I’m I’m struck by your comment that many people don’t think we would, should want to get to a post-racial society because that seems to me to be the only, a firm ground here…
SH: …that we, the only, the only harbor we’re going to find ethically and politically is to eventually get to a place where the color of a person’s skin is deeply uninteresting. I mean, no more interesting than the color of their hair.
SH: Right. So like it’s just a no one’s saying” “Well listen. I don’t think there are enough blond people at Google, right? Or working in in STEM fields now. It’s just no one would think that, to ask the question and if you just give you actually could be true that if you if you compare the proportion of blond people or red-headed people would be easier to do in society with their representation in any specific field, you would find some anomalies, find something to use find over- and under-representation. And presumably you could you could tell some victimhood narrative around that or some something which would seem politically problematic just as no one would, I would presume no one would be tempted to do that today, right?
SH: It would it would have to seem just as fatuous if we if we actually arrived at the future I think we we want to live in, it will seem just as fatuous to do that with respect to skin color or the the the ancestry of one’s parents or anything else.
CH: Yeah, so I want to come back to the post-racial point in a moment. But very briefly…I think people tell very convenient post-hoc stories about why black people are so successful at music, for example. It’s not that the music industry wasn’t racist. The music industry was absolutely racist.
CH: The NBA was racist before black people got to it. It was, it was far more a story in my opinion of black people not being denied on the basis of undeniable skill…
CH: …if you’re talking about musical achievement. There just like the racism could not, it was met with so much opposition in the form of talent that it became obvious…
CH: …to people as a matter of human capital rather. I think people tell tell stories that are very convenient to preserve, have ,to have their cake and eat it too, to celebrate black people where black people have achieved far more than almost any other ethnicity and preserve the narrative that racism is is you know ever-present and somehow racism is still the cause of both success and failure. I think that’s…I, I don’t read history in that way, but I want to come back to this point of post-racial or or colorblind because these two words it seems to me right now are, they’re under attack. They’ve been under attack for for decades. They um, they really need a kind of PR campaign it seems to me…
CH: …because they have a terrible image right now. It like, you know, Bernie Sanders a few months ago said something like at this point we should be looking at a politician’s policies and you know skills rather than their skin color, which to me if you if you disagree with that statement, I mean, I almost, we we, I almost don’t even know what to think of…
SH: Yeah. Yeah.
CH: …I know you are like…But, but fifty years ago, he would have been lauded as progressive because he was essentially quoting Martin Luther King.
CH: What happened in 2019 is that he was mocked the next night by Stephen Colbert, right? Hardly like a pink hair…
SH: Right. I missed that (38:30 a bit unclear). Yeah.
CH: SJW…Like he was mocked for being an old white guy expressing this colorblind colorblind ethic. And….
CH: …I think that the fact that that’s the point we’ve come to, that, to say something like I try to treat people, you know not on the basis of skin, but on the content of character immediately marks you as naive, like you don’t get it. That that is crazy to me because most of the arguments against colorblindness are either complete caricatures or straw man or just non sequiturs. So like there’s the notion that colorblindness is a way of ignoring racial injustice for example. This is something that gets said, something like I am black. I will be treated as if I’m black. I will be treated in a different way. Therefore you can’t ask me to be colorblind. You can’t ask me to view my race as a trivial part of my identity because other people won’t. The thing is that that that just is a non sequitur like we know there are so many ways in which you are treated differently based on your appearance, right? Like…
CH: …you will treat tall people as more competent than short people. You know, they’re really…
SH: That, that, that’s actually a great example. It it never occurs to me to say this, but being short is…a serious disadvantage and I mean, especially if you’re a a man, right? So…
SH: … like like what it is, if you’re, if you’re I don’t know where the line is…
CH: It’s great on a, it’s great on an airplane, in coach….
CH: …But on a date…
SH: …Yeah. There are not that many…
CH: …on a first date, it’s not.
SH:.If you actually just pull women on their bias, the the variables that concern them, um when people have done these experiments where it’s just like how much more money you need to earn to compensate for each inch below whatever it is, you know five’ six”, it’s crazy, you know.
SH: …and and so that…
CH: But it doesn’t follow, it doesn’t follow that you should or that I should, as a short person view my shortness as an important part of my identity. It just doesn’t follow.
SH: No, no. No, I mean you just. There’s no group of people telling you every day that this has to be core to how you view every moment of dissatisfaction in your life, right?…
SH: …So everything that goes wrong between you and another person is very likely the result of their bias against your height, right? In the future… You could, you could definitely, there’s no question, you could tune that that framework up…
SH: …so that it would always be there, you know?
CH: And I’m sure there are some people in the Intel Community probably that that do that.
SH: Yeah, yeah. But there’s no… or or you know or being being ugly, right?…
SH: …And they like it’s you know, it’s just if you have you know, radically asymmetrical facial features, right?, there is no culture, there’s no society, there’s no group of people who think that’s an ideal of beauty, right?
SH: I mean, it’s just not. So you’re unlucky and me being beautiful is is an advantage. There’s just no question.
SH: And it is a transcultural advantage.
CH: And it it it just doesn’t follow from how people see you, that you have to see yourself that way. That’s just…
SH: Yeah. Yeah.
CH: But yeah, but yet that is one of the most common attacks on on colorblindness.
SH: And and there’s no group that is militating that you you need to to frame everything, but with respect to this variable, right?
CH: Mmhm. Mmhm.
SH: So…and there could be. I mean you could easily imagine people getting together saying: “Listen. This is, this has been intolerable. This has been, this. I’ve been a victim of this my whole life and there are millions of people like me and we need, you know, we need to deal with this.” Right? So…there’s enough human difference that that you can’t compensate for that is consequential and the truth is any given individual is just whoever they are, right? They had you have whatever luck you have, right? And it’s true that certain things set you up to succeed more or less effortlessly and certain and other things will require you to work with and what is inarguably a disadvantage given the society you’re in and…It’s not to say that there aren’t norms in a society that we should want to change. I mean, clearly there are norms we want we want to change or you know attitudes that we want to push back against. But the reality is that even if we complete just scrubbed our politics, and our institutions, and our social norms of anything that looked like a a a kind of indefensible bias, you would still have bias,…
SH: …right? You would still have people based on their evolved preferences and their cultural preferences that you can’t help but form, who are more attracted to some people than other people, right? And so then, so then so that that’s already an an inequality that’s just ,that you could you could complain about. You would still have, you’ll have a bell curve of talents over any conceivable talent, right? Whether you can quantify it or not, you’re just going to recog–recognize that some people are better at at certain things and others. Again, I was speaking about individuals and if you have one group that has a mean sense of humor on some sense of humor scale we could come up with of seven and you have another group that has a mean sense of humor of four and you happen to be in the group that that gets a mean of seven, that doesn’t mean that you’re funny right? I mean, you are as funny as you are, right?…
SH: …and and you know, you don’t, you never derive a real group benefit or or disadvantage is provided. You’re, we live in a society where you know, there’s enough equality of opportunity where you can, you can move to your strengths and you can you can try to you know, correct your weaknesses, you know?…
SH: …So we, obviously we want the the opportunities for education and medical care and every every good thing that supportive of people from the moment they leave the womb, we want this spread around as much as as we can. And we want to correct for inequalities there, but the idea that a sane politics depends on us getting some, it’s hard to imagine what an equality of outcome would even mean…
SH: …and there’s just too many variables to consider…
SH: …but it, getting to some equality of outcome everywhere, everywhere you look it just could never happen, right?
CH: Yeah. I I I agree with that. And yeah, I want to come back to colorblindness though, you know and look at some of the other arguments that are leveled against it. I think one is just a straw man, which is you know, when someone says quote “I don’t see color.” Right? Usually, if they’re a psychologically normal person, they don’t literally mean that they’re colorblind as in they…
CH: … can’t distinguish what, what they mean is “I aspire to be the type of person who treats people equally regardless of how they look,” right?
CH: And yet I think I think was Howard Schultz who said I don’t see color and was ridiculed for this. Perhaps rightly because that is a bizarre way of phrasing it. Taken literally, you know, it can’t be true. But shouldn’t we give him the the benefit of the doubt in the sense that he you know, he’s a CEO of Starbucks, he probably he he probably doesn’t mean that he does not literally see color, but really any expression that gestures in that direction now…
SH: But, just….What you want to get to and and many people can honestly confess is is a…an experience where it has, it isn’t salient in any, in any ethically or politically interesting way, right? I mean it’s like you don’t…again every hair color is is a great example. Like I see hair color, right? Obviously, you know, it’s like if you ask me what color someone’s hair is, I can tell you. But I’m never going through life thinking: “Oh, well she’s blond. She’s, she’s brunette. That’s gotta, sort of…I got to take that into account, you know,…
SH: …in the way I feel about this person. It has zero charge ever, right? And wouldn’t that be the world we want to live it right? I can… I just don’t understand someone who thinks we wouldn’t want to live in that world.
CH: What they say is…they never say straight up: “I wouldn’t want to live in that world.” What they say is: “That is naive. That is a way of ignoring racial injustice. Don’t you realize that to to extend the analogy— the hair color you’re born with determines your place in society. You will be treated as a blond or brunette. Therefore, it does matter. That’s what they say, right? Which again…it just strikes me as a non sequitur, right? The… Racism is precisely a failure of colorblindness. It is a lack of colorblindness, right? It is…
CH: It’s not. Colorblindness is the antidote to racism. And, as a matter of intellectual history, the people who promoted the colorblind ideas, we are talking A. Phillip Randolph, you know, the a ah the original leader of the March March on Washington movement the 1940s….
CH: Bayard Rustin, who organized the the March on, the famous March on Washington in 63. Martin Luther King, right? The notion of reverse racism, which is you know, if I were to say something against you as a white guy, you know, “Sam’s a white guy. He just doesn’t get it. He’s a straight white male, right?”
CH: The notion that I’m being racist to you is actually ridiculed on the left right now because…
CH: …at least certainly in academic circles, it’s seen as, you know, prejudice plus power and you have power as a white guy therefore and I don’t power so I can’t really be racist towards you. And people who cry reverse racism are, you know, basically, it elicits an eye roll. “These are just conservative trolls. They don’t really get it. They don’t care about racism. Ah. They’re trolling essentially.” If you go back and read A. Phillip Randolph, the the founder of the original March on Washington movement, he literally used the phrase “racism in (in) reverse” as something to…
CH: …to warn against black people participating it, right. This is not an idea that came out of 4chan. That’s kind of how it’s portrayed right now, but…it’s just not true as a matter of intellectual history and…I think that people try to retell history in a way or or conveniently ignore certain things so as to make their case seem more plausible today.
SH: Yeah, and you know, I I think this is another example where history is not helpful. I mean the the etymology of a phrase or the history of its usage shouldn’t constrain us in the present, right? And so like take take the shibboleth on the left. And in African-American circles that the most clueless thing you can say in response to a charge of racism is: “Wait a minute. Some of my best friends are black.” Like that is, that’s not only not exculpatory, that is just you are you have doubly condemned yourself to even think that should be, get you off the hot seat, right? I think that’s total bullshit. Now. There may be a historal reason why this came to be. I’m not actually up on the history. It could have been that the first usage of “some of my best friends are black” could have been literally out of the mouth of an obvious racist who was just you know, making a joke. you know? I don’t actually know where the phrase was first spoken. Perhaps you do, but….in the present when you actually look at what it would, what is entailed in overcoming racism and you admit that you’re in the presence of someone for whom is true to say that some of his best friends are black if that doesn’t mark a a stage of progress and probably final progress on the path out of a having a racist problem. (unclear; static) I mean by the word best friend…
SH: you know, or or what is what is possible to mean by best friend. And what is it everything is entailed in that? I mean, it’s not to say that there couldn’t be some residue of race, racial bias or or charge to race in general given the level the level of this expression in our society, but I mean, this even happens with people who are, who have an interracial marriages, right? They still like even even that is insufficient to to get out from under the shadow. I don’t know what world you think we’re going to get to if that’s not the important incremental progress.
CH: The thing is, it’s not even sufficient sometimes within the relationships themselves ‘cuz I mean, I I know two or three examples of kids, friends of mine, who go to Colombia or Barnard and are themselves a part of a black-white interracial couple that have been dating for years. And…
CH: you know, I think it’s it’s a testament to the power of ideas that multiple, I have multiple different stories, which I won’t tell in too much detail, of the black half of that partnership accusing the white half of racism, right?
CH: The same person that they sleep in the same bed as every night, knows everything about their history, is their, is their closest partner in life…But also just just being black at Columbia and Barnard in this environment, you are, not inevitably as I am proof of, but the tug of social justice thinking is so strong that I’ve seen the conflict even within relationships where like, you know, you’re having a fight with your partner that is about a completely non-racial issue, just a typical relationship fight and then because you’re black and it’s 2019 and you exist in this very niche subculture in which this sort of move is allowed…
CH: …you accuse your partner of being clueless as a white person, not just being clueless as your partner, right? I’ve seen this…
CH: … happen over and over again and it, you know. This stuff is invisible unless you’re you’re friends with the people, but it’s a testament to the the power of ideas that are academic to trickle down into social relationships and whatnot.
SH: There’s also the the experience that that I’ve had with people who, for whom the color of their skin is really not, is not very salient where you you you actually can become colorblind to a degree that that you know, does prop up Howard Schultz a little bit like I I mean, I I was always struck when I hang out with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, right? She is black, but
but she’s Somali…
SH: …but she’s did not have any of the African-American experience, right? And she just came from Somalia to Europe and now she’s in America, but…
SH: …you know, it’s just like she’s from another planet when you’re talking about these issues and I mean, I, this is a conversation I haven’t had with her. I’m sure she has some of the the black experience, whatever that is, even though it’s completely unsupported on her own side, you know just as she moves through life…
SH: …but I mean it is very easy to forget the color of skin around her because she seems to have forgotten the color…
SH: …of her skin. I mean that’s, there’s a post-racial experience you have with her which which um represents a fairly bright line to me of just what what is possible and why that couldn’t be possible by the millions, you know, I I don’t know.
CH: I’ve seen that attitude replicated with many black immigrant friends of mine. I’ve two pretty close friends ah from Jamaica, very very dark skinned.
CH: One of them, Camille Foster has a great podcast called The Fifth Column.
SH: Yeah, it’s great.
CH: …that I highly recommend. Um. He actually does not identify as black. And it’s…
CH: …so interesting translating…
SH: He must get some pain over that.
CH: He gets a lot of pain. I mean he articulates, he defends that position as well as it could possibly be defended. And he is one of the sanest people that I know so, you know people, you know coming from an American context, like a descended from slavery context, the context I learned about the African Americans’ experience was more reminiscent of the way black Americans tend to, rather than black immigrants. The first time I heard that I thought: “Oh God. He just, he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get what it is here, what race is here.” And then I have another Jamaican friend, Desiree Campbell, who does great YouTube videos who essentially had the same exact perspective. And I’m thinking there is something in the in the water here the culture how we talk about race that is pathological and we don’t even realize how how pathological it is until we see what’s possible from an outside perspective.
SH: I have the analogous experience with Judaism, right?
SH: I’m, it’s a slightly different thing but, because it’s not quite as visible although I’m always amazed that I can be visibly…
SH: …visibly picked out as Jewish. Like I I have had this experience several times where um occasionally Orthodox Jews will you know show up in a Starbucks, whatever to just you know, find a convert. And it literally, they’ll pick me out…
CH: (chuckling more strongly)
SH: …of go a crowd of people that’s like 30 white people. The guys make a beeline to my table, right? So, so ah it is visible in some sense. But um. You know, I feel totally unimplicated in in Anti-semit-, I mean anti-Semitism is a thing, right? It’s clearly a problem of some order. I have been the target of it at least online. I’ve noticed, you know, people attacking me as a Jew. It’s completely meaningless to me, right? Like so, but there’s no question that I could make it meaningful. Like if I was identified as a Jew, right? And it’s not that I’m aloof to the the history of anti-Semitism. I you know, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Holocaust and I you know, I’m totally aware that you know, this could become a significant problem again, and you know is a problem in in Europe to a significant degree even now. But it’s just personally, the difference between feeling personally implicated in this and not is is enormous.
CH: Mm. Mmm.
SH: And you know, it’s just I’m, I’m in a very privileged position where I don’t have to you know, it’s like I’m not being denied jobs because I’m Jewish. I mean, I’m not there’s no it’s not that level of a problem.
SH: But yeah, on some level it’s an accident of culture that I’m not foc-, I’m not seeing more things through that lens and you know. So what we want are, we want to engineer some happy accidents of culture that serve to break the spell. And the one thing I don’t see, in fact, the one thing I’m fairly certain can’t be true is there’s just, there’s just no way that caring more and more about race and racial difference, making it more and more salient in the way that that someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates does, there’s no way that is the optimal strategy to actually getting past it. It seems like absolutely the wrong algorithm to be running.
CH: Yeah. I think you and I are similar in that, you know, I’ve experienced racism. I have stories so to speak, not the worst stories by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t see my identity as deeply implicated in when, you know, when I think of anti-black racism. When I’m trying to assess the amount of racism in America, I try to think as an objective person not quote unquote “as a black man” despite the fact that I have some stories I could I could tell. You know it’s interesting. I think you’ll appreciate this, ah. So you and I both meditate and uh, I found out through your blog actually about the Insight Meditation Society…
CH: …where I’ve been on three retreats and I highly recommend it. I I, mindfulness has been a huge tool for me in my life, ah especially in the context of being publicly shamed…
SH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CH: …which perhaps we can touch on briefly. Yeah, but I think I went on a retreat maybe two years ago and I think, I sent you an email talking about the way in which social justice politics was beginning to infiltrate…
SH: Yeah, yeah.
CH: … in the retreat so they have this welcome packet and right at the beginning of the welcome packet, before the information about where the defibrillator was, was a list of all the ways in which white people are privileged, right?
SH: Right. Yeah.
CH: And I just saw this and…
SH: It blows my mind.
CH: I’m thinking like, I’m about to not speak for a week for the first time in my life and be kind of completely….
SH: …you’re already guilty of white privilege.
CH: (chuckles) Exactly. Not only do I have the immense privilege of doing this but, it is the least of my concerns that I’m going to experience racism here at a Buddhist Meditation Retreat, right?
SH: Given the explicit goal of meditation is to overcome concepts of all kinds…
SH: …and especially self-identity and the very notion of the self, right?
SH: The idea that you’re going to ramify this superficial level of difference in the information packet. Yeah, it’s just.
CH: Yeah, it was. It was…
SH: I I hit Joseph pretty hard. Once I received that email, I, he got he got an earful.
CH: I’m afraid. I’m afraid you’re going to have a reason to hit him a little bit harder…
SH: I’m happy to.
CH: …because it’s gotten worse.
SH: Oh, yeah?
CH: I I went on a retreat in March and it was great.
CH: You know, I I I just want to be very clear here. I love Insight Meditation Society.
SH: Oh, yeah.
CH: It is one of the most….
SH: It’s the best place to practice.
CH: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Now they have, wait for it, “people of color sits” one sit a day that is exclusively for people of color.
SH: Oh my God, so on so on a retreat, white people are told they shouldn’t come to that sitting?
CH: So yeah. So we have, there’s one sit in the evening, where if I want to as a black man, I can go to a separate room that is reserved for people of color. No white people allowed. And rather than do the group sit with everyone in the meditation hall, just do it with like me, one Chinese woman and an Indian guy. And the idea being because there’s no white people that I will I’ll have…
CH: I’ll have a better practice right?
SH: Oh that’s brutal.
CH: There’s so many layers of layers of irony to it. Like one is, what do I really have in common with this one Chinese woman? Uh um. Do I have more in common with her based on being a quote “POC,” this kind of weird umbrella category. And secondly, we’re all in here studying a philosophy invented by an Indian guy and you know, if we can’t, if we can’t achieve the colorblind ideal here…
SH: Yeah. Oh my God, yeah.
CH: …at this like extremely hippie open-minded, but like we have completely lost. That is the feeling I came away with and I actually did not go to go to the sit because I felt I would be going in bad faith and I was in such a un-ironic, non-writerly space.
CH: I was just trying to…so basically it offered many, many opportunities for observing my own frustration and letting it pass through me, but…
SH: Yeah, so no, I I I recall they would, they were having people of color retreats, right?, which…
SH: …I could sort of understand the justification for.
SH: But the idea that you would have a a special sitting within a a retreat that’s open to the general public, I mean, they’re like women’s retreats too, right?, what you which I can I can also understand the rationale for but…
SH: …and you know, teenager retreats. But the idea that you would need a room where you know, you know white people are not allowed in order to make everyone else feel comfortable enough in their practice…That is a a…Well, Joseph’ll hear from me on that topic. He doesn’t have the power to change this. I mean…
CH: Yeah. Yeah.
SH: …it’s not, not North Korea over there. He’s, um, he’s dealing with a board.
CH: Right. Right.
SH: That is I’m sure very woke.
SH: So yeah, but I will I will complain nonetheless.
CH: Yeah. Thank you. Um, I, before, before I let you go….
SH: As aside of my white privilege, that’s the worst thing I’ve heard all day.
CH: Believe me. It does not make you as mad as it made me on retreat. I was…
CH: …I was fuming, but I was in the perfect position to deal with my anger…
SH: Right, right.
CH: …constructively by breathing focusing on the breath. Before I let you go, I want to talk briefly about public shaming.
CH: This is a topic that had, that I’ve kind of been forced to think a lot about by being part of a public shaming. You, you’ve, I think weathered many public shamings. I feel your kind of a veteran of the territory.
CH: …and you’ve also thought a lot about it in addition to having experienced it firsthand. And, I guess I want to ask what have you learned firsthand from dealing with the public shaming from a psychological point of view? And from a societal point of view, what do you think we can do to push back against the, just the constant cycle of public shamings that are leaving careers destroyed,
CH: …families destroyed, you know, we rarely see what happens on the underbelly of a public shaming but just very briefly like, I’m having to have conversations with with my sisters and father about security. Right like….
SH: Yeah. Yeah.
CH: …that is something that I was, I I literally I broke into tears the other day just thinking about that because you know, these are decisions I’ve made that are now implicating my family members because people with platforms have named them and you know that that is…and I’m frankly one of the milder cases of public shaming, right? There are, there are people who….
CH: …were who have gotten it far worse, so ah so I put that to you.
SH: Yeah. Well, there are there are many pieces to it. I mean what’s, with the security piece is separable because it’s not necessarily the result of public shaming. Although that could be, you know part of it. And just as you’re as you become more visible, you’ll attract all kinds of unwanted attention and that just that comes with the territory, I mean. And they’re intelligent moves you can make to mitigate that but, you know, I mean some of the more troubling attention you could get might not be ideological at all. Just might be you know from crazy people right?, someone who’s infatuated with you or somebody who thinks you are sending the messages whatever said and that’s just every person who has a significant public profile has some level of that going on and that’s you know, that’s just a…It can be a problem, but it’s definitely separable from the kind of mob-like, you know, scapegoating and and shaming we’re seeing especially on social media. You know, I’ve stepped, I’ve stepped back from, I never used Facebook or really any other platform, apart from just a kind of as a, as a marketing tool, you know. I just I’ll post if I released an episode of my podcast today we posted it. I assume we posted on Facebook but you know, I never see what’s happening on Facebook. But I actually use Twitter and I I used to kind of get into the weeds with you know, what was coming back at me and I was certainly noticed when somebody with a blue checkmark would dishonestly, you know, circulate something that was designed to to smear me or… And I’ve pulled back like ninety-eight percent from Twitter at this point. I mean, I I occasionally, I’m using more and more that the way I’ve always used Facebook. And it’s just I push something out there. Occasionally, I mean I look at my feed, look at the people who I’m following just to see you know, what articles they’re recommending and you know, it does kind of curate my my news diet to some degree, but I see much less of what’s coming back at me. I mean, you know, like, you know, really cut it by a factor of properly almost a hundred so… You know, on some level I could be getting publicly shamed and not even know about it at this point.
SH: And I’ve you know, very consciously built my platform now where I’m as a immune as a person can be I think to the consequences of anything getting any significant momentum out there. So, you know if I had a job at CNN or if I had a job at a university if I was a you know, a research scientist at at a university and I was you know, we just had this conversation about race and I you know just went on record saying that you know, the defense some of my my best friends are black that that should be a good defense, right? Who knows what’s going to happen with that? Right? Someone’s going, someone someone will re-edit this podcast to make it even sound worse.
SH: Right? I mean they, they do that with my podcast. I’m actually, you know, for the most part and I you know, I don’t know who knows how bad it could get. I mean we’re now getting into the area of deep fakes where you know, you’re, you’re going to have a video of you saying things you absolutely never said and you know a million people could believe it. But I’m at a point now where I basically feel beyond caring about about any of that stuff and so I would, I would recommend you doing whatever you need to do to get to that place because psychologically…
SH: …it’s a much happier place to be. Now…there’s a spot on on this map of immunity to this kind of thing that I think you don’t want to occupy, which is a kind of…it’s possible to build your own echo chamber such that you’re only hearing from your fans and you’re, you’re getting captured by your fans, right? So you you’ve you’ve become I mean, they’re people who I see this happen to. I mean these are like someone like Candace Owens, right? I don’t, I don’t know Candace. For significant stretches of time, she can seem totally reasonable. Then you catch her on some other topic like global warming and she can seem you know, quite deranged. And no doubt there’s a lot she’s said that I’m unaware of. But, she seems to me to be someone who is very effectively building an echo chamber for herself where there’s no feedback that’s going to prove valid enough so that she’s going to course-correct on the basis of it, right? And it’s almost like a, it’s a fairly Trumpian exercise where it’s like like once you’ve, there’s a certain subset of fans that you care about and it’s and those are the only ones you care about, you’re never going to hear when you’re actually doing things that are in a larger context obviously idiotic or wrong or unethical or… So I’m very conscious in how I relate to my own audience and now speaking specifically about like my podcast audience of having kind of trained my audience to care about my being coherent and ethical and honest and my being disposed to reconcile apparent contradictions and things I’ve said or or done if that ever happens. So I thought I feel like I have an audience that is not, that is actually very quick to push back against me. Like I, I really don’t have an echo chamber of an audience, you know, and I I consciously go against my audience when I feel like there’s any significant subset of them that are that is wrong on a topic. Like when I discovered some percentage of my audience supported Trump, you know that didn’t cause me to shut up about Trump, that caused me to be, you know, go harder against, against him. And ah so I so I so I think the thing you don’t want to do is is decide: “Alright. I’m just going to listen to feedback I like.” Right? You can’t get into that spot and it’s, it’s easy to do that in this kind of forum because you’ll just select for especially if you become…and the other thing I was certainly wouldn’t want to see happen to you is you know,
you shouldn’t be someone who just focuses on you know, this particular culture war issue. I mean you have, you have such a wide range of interests and and such an obvious skill set that you know, if any of this matters, you’re you’re going to get to a place where you’ve said everything you have to say about race and you know, you’re just not going to, there’s other things to talk about, right?
SH: And so it’s going to, it’s going to come up not once a week or once an episode. It’s going to come up once a year right or once every five years. It’s sort of like, it’s sort of what’s happened to me on the topic of really atheism, you know, just look at the conflict between religion and science. I mean, you know at a certain point that was my thing and then it was kind of a side, you know light on, you know focusing uniquely on Islam, right? And I still have those things to say for the most part my my opinions haven’t changed, the world hasn’t fundamentally changed, but I have said more or less everything I can think to say on those topics and they they’re not intrinsically interesting to me. And so I’ve just moved on and it’s not that I won’t say, you know, if you know if there’s a terrorist attack and in you know major capital and it’s and it’s jihadists and nobody’s making sense and I have a platform, I might you know revisit the issue. But again, that will be a just a a specific moment of me saying a thing I’ve said a thousand times and then moving on. And and you know, I would I would assume that’s going to happen for you, you know, maybe sooner than you think on this topic. And then, I think you just want to so much of what’s comes back at you is so obviously in bad faith that even to interact with it is demeaning, right? I mean like you just, you essentially have to…I mean this is, this is a lesson I’ve been very slow to learn. I mean, for for, in the beginning I felt like I had to push back on this stuff, especially if it’s coming from some prominent person, but if it’s in sufficiently bad faith, there’s just no…in my world, you know, the great, the Glenn Greenwald’s and the Reza Aslan’s of the world, you, you just can’t push back. Yeah it, there’s something intrinsically demeaning about it and there’s just no, there is no, there’s no real outcome there. What you’ll begin to find is the people who followed your argument in the first place are with you and they see you as at minimum boring them.
CH: Mm. Mm.
SH: by, by feeling like you need to put out this fire um….or getting your hands dirty unnecessarily. And then the people who are incapable of following your argument or so wedded to their their ideology that they simply won’t, you’re not going to win them over. Yeah. It’s a happy day when you actually, it just never occurs to you to see what’s coming back at you on social media.
CH: Yeah. I feel like I’ve in the in the wake of my testimony before Congress, I’ve had something of a transformation in how I’m approaching this. So, I don’t know if, I think I have a similar disposition to you in the sense that I’m very concerned with the feedback I get because I’m afraid I got something wrong.
SH: Right. Yeah.
CH: … And I get things wrong sometimes…and sometimes there’s an excellent correction to one of my views that shows up in my Twitter notifications. So I felt that I have to look at it…
SH: Yeah. Yeah.
CH: … just in order to keep myself honest and a lot of my fans are I think similar to your fans. Even even if they generally agree with me will be quick to point out if I get something wrong and I really value that so I felt that I have to look at my notifications and then the other 90% of what I get is, you know a lot of it is ad hominem. And I think for a a long time I sort of tried to pretend that none of it got to me,…
CH: …but I think the truth is all of it kind of gets to me. And…
CH: …you know one I just read this book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.
SH: Yeah, that’s correct.
CH: And one of his observations after looking at many different case studies is that oftentimes the, the subject or object of a public shaming becomes numb to all these emotions, right? Like you choose or you get you switch into a mode where you’re just not feeling anything and that really resonated with me because as I left Congress, I don’t know if anyone got this on video, but it was me, my sister, my girlfriend, my friend and there there were just a crowd of people yelling the word “shame” at us at point-blank range…
CH: …at the top of their voices and my sister was yelling back and….people ask me how…
SH: Is that video everywhere? Is, is that video anywhere? Or is it, because I only saw what you were getting as you were testifying and even that was fairly colorful.
SH: Is is the rest…
CH: ….somebody did take this video and it was so deep in my Twitter mentions during when I was getting kind of ashamed that I didn’t I didn’t I didn’t think to like bookmark this to watch later. (Chuckles)
SH: Right. Right.
CH: But it’s somewhere deep in the internet. But people ask me: “What did you feel at that moment?” And the truth is I felt nothing. I felt…
CH: I was in complete kind of Zen Warrior mode like, get out of this building and leave.
CH: I didn’t feel fear or shame or… It was just nothing and I think a lot of my reaction to the public to the public shaming has been of that character. And it’s been at the same time as as I’ve sort of sort of started to allow myself to feel normal human emotions about being the object of a public shaming campaign, I’ve in the past 10 days been off of Twitter almost completely. And…
CH: …well I go on once a day for maybe three minutes, just to see if…
SH: Yeah. Yeah.
CH: …the algorithm has pushed up any great articles and then I’m that’s it.
SH: And yeah, yeah. That’s…that’s kind of like me. Yeah well I understand, you know, there’s definitely a time to pay attention to what’s coming back at you just on the on the off chance that some you know that some error’s being found and and like I actually that this this happened to me recently. I, I you probably followed the ah the Andy Ngo, you know Antifa drama where he was, he was attacked by Antifa. And I said something on my podcast about it and in the housekeeping and I mentioned, you know, I I mentioned this old man, there’s other video of an old man getting hit with a crowbar and I had just seen video of just an old man getting hit with a crowbar by Antifa, but it turns out there was video of him previously, you know with a telescopic baton fighting Antifa and then you know, finally, you know, he gets overwhelmed by by crowbar-wielding thugs. And so, somewhat, I just happened to look at you know, I I pushed this out. I just happen to look at my ad mentions and someone said you might want to revise this this bit about the old man because he’s not as innocent as you made out. This really changes your argument. So that was, I wouldn’t have found that for myself, right? I just, I’m not scouring the internet for other videos of this incident that I already thought I saw, right? So that’s very useful and perhaps inevitable, but you don’t want to live in your, in your Twitter feed at all because it is I mean, the other thing is you can clean it up by you can decide to only hear from people who are following you…
SH: …and have a confirmed email address and who don’t have a Twitter egg bio photo. I mean you can you can check these other boxes and that cleans it up immensely, you know, but it is just…it’s toxic to be thinking about what other people think of you all the time. Right? So you like and so if you can just live your life, so as to not be continually reminded of this, you know, chatter about you that’s got to be better unless you know, unless they’re really is an opportunity to to course-correct Because you’ve taken a position that was ill-considered or that’s the other thing what about you know, you being publicly shamed if you haven’t done something even remotely shameful, in fact, if your actual impulses are ethical and born of your concern for real problems in this world, it’s like there’s no place for it to land. You know, it’s like it’s like was for me in my criticism of Islam me spelling out the linkage between specific doctrines and and you know, jihadism and me worrying about this in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, right? When I have someone on Twitter of you know, even if they have, you know, two million followers call me a racist because I’ve said something about negative about Islam in this context, it’s I mean, one it’s a non sequitur so it doesn’t land for that reason because you know Islam is not a race but two you know, I know internally that my concern about Islam has absolutely nothing to do with race, right? I mean it’s because it has you know, I’m in total solidarity with the reformed Muslims and the the ex-Muslims who share the same racial characteristics that most Muslims do the world over if if if you’re going to generalize in that way but it’s just races orthogonal to the problem, right? So what you’re often met with in any bad faith criticism, you’re you’re met with a very energetic, you know, kind of laser beam intensity animus directed at you that is not actually directed at you, right? as like it’s not you, it’s not based on the actual content of your ideas, your actual motives, the real way you feel about people, the things you care about. So it’s like they have some fictional version of you that they hate right and that they’re determined to keep in play, right? There’s no, with these people, there’s no amount of clarification that will get them to recognize: “Oh actually, yeah you, this was mis-targeted, right? That’s not actually what you’re about or what you were thinking or why you were doing it .” That never happens. So it is a very different experience than actually doing something wrong, you know?
SH: …that you internally feel is wrong or for the wrong reason and then having that same spotlight shined on it…
SH: …and that’s honestly, that’s an experience I haven’t had you know. So like I’ve had I guess we should this is the first time I’ve even thought about this but we should probably differentiate public shaming that has no place to land because you know, the the “shame-ee” recognizes that it’s totally unwarranted and then public shaming that really does, you know, you you you did something wrong, you did something that’s either, you know, actually is humiliating or embarrassing or for which you feel like the need to apologize and you know people hate you for it and they’re not accepting your apology.
SH: That’s a very different world to be in.
CH: I want to go back briefly to a point you made about the Andy Ngo affair in Portland recently. I think you you said something along the lines of this is the kind of thing that probably could not have happened if not for Twitter, like the whole…
CH: …like people would…
SH: People would never have known. Yeah.
CH: …people would not have known necessarily who Andy Ngo was. They wouldn’t you know the whole, the whole thing. And one of the things that I’m also rethinking is my relationship to not just consuming Twitter but to consuming daily news in general. There was this recent study that will that Yascha Mounk wrote about in The Atlantic, which showed that basically any level of news consumption correlates with you’re being too alarmed about the opposing party. If you watch more news, you’re more likely to think that Republicans are far more radical than they are and vice versa.
CH: And so I read that and then I also you know yesterday I saw Aziz Ansari’s stand-up, ah his new Netflix special. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
SH: No, I haven’t seen yet.
CH: But he does one social experiment in the special where he essentially makes up a fake culture war controversy, right? He makes up a story about a pizza that had pepperoni in the shape of a swastika on it and…
CH: …half of people who saw the pizza thought it was a swastika. The other half of people thought it just looked like a normal pizza pie. And he asked people in the audience. Do you guys remember this story? It was in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Clap if you think it looked like a swastika. Some people clap. Clap if you think it looked like a normal pizza. Other people clapped. He even said, “Oh you you just clapped. You don’t think it looked like a swastika sir?” And he said, “Yeah. No, I remember. I remember that. You know, I don’t think I think it’s just, you know, a bunch of PC garbage”, you know. And he…
CH: …he just and then he reveals that he completely made the story up and…
CH: …it shocked me because you know, I’m someone who consumes a lot of news not because I love it intrinsically, but because I feel I should be informed and I’m questioning the degree to which my being informed, I’m ques-, I’m questioning the consequences of news consumption, essentially? What do you think about that?
SH: Yeah. Yeah, I’m going through a similar re-evaluation on my side too, because I mean if one that’s just there’s so much to keep up with and if you’re reading a lot of news every day, it’s in zero-sum contest with everything else you want to be reading, right? You just know you’re no longer reading books. I was noticing that it was getting harder to read books.
SH: Yeah, because I’ve just read, I was reading so many articles and you know, I felt a personal and professional commitment to just at least surveying all the news that day like I would I would turn every page in The New York Times just to make sure I least seen all the headlines. I’m not doing that so much anymore because it’s a little bit like we’ve sort of lost the weekly magazine as a as a framework through which to get news, but it used to be that you could read, you know Time magazine magazine once a week and be fairly sure that if a story was was significant, it would survive a a weekly new cycle, right? And I’m kind of resetting with that, you know, like it’s like if this if this thing is going to, is actually big, it’s going to be around in a few days and people are still going to be talking about in a few days. Unfortunately, it’s not quite true it with Trump because he’s there’s like there’s like no atrocity large enough to survive a a 48 hour news cycle because he’s going to do something else. But yeah, it’s I can see I mean that that’s a surprising result that that Yascha tweeted about, but it doesn’t really surprise me. But yeah, there’s a linear relationship between being informed journalistically, I reading the news and misconceiving the level of radicalization of the other party, you know. It’s depressing, but it doesn’t surprise me.
CH: Yeah, well on that depressing note, I’m going to let you go. Thank you so much, Sam for being one of my…
SH: (indistinguishable speech)
CH: …first guests here at ah Conversations with Coleman and ah…
SH: Oh a pleasure.
CH: …I hope to have you back…
SH: Yeah. Well, I’ll come back. We’ll talk about the philosophy of mind or something…
CH: Oh, yeah.
SH: …that is truly beyond identity.