Or maybe you just don’t like HIM …

Let’s play a game of “You Just Might be a Don Quixote”, starring Ophelia Benson. Remember that for our purposes here a “Don Quixote” is out gamely tilting at wind wills in support of a cause, seeing giants where none exist. Well, Benson has decided to comment on Sam Harris … again. What did he do wrong this time:

I went to his blog to look for his post on liberals and Islam, and in the process of looking (which I haven’t completed yet because I paused to say this) I read the first sentence of the first post.

From time to time one discovers a person so good at his job that it is almost impossible to imagine him doing anything else.

It’s just odd, and stubbornly clueless, that even now, even after a big disagreement with a lot of feminists about the way he talks about women, he does that. I think most intellectual types have learned not to do that by now, and it sticks out that Harris hasn’t. The End of Faith was like that on every damn page, and after awhile I couldn’t stand it any more.

So what is he stubbornly clueless about? Oh, right, he used “his” in the statement in reference to “person”. Which must mean that he thinks of men as the default and women as the other, and so, hey, this is proof of his sexism! Right?

Or, perhaps, that she’s seeing giants where there are none. The issue here is that Harris, in context, ends up referring to a man. And it’s perfectly reasonable in the context of a discussion where you are going to end up referring to a man to, well, refer to it in the general statement. In fact, despite what Benson says here:

(There’s a bit of extra humor in the fact that he did manage to say “a person” instead of “a man”…but just couldn’t manage the follow-through.)

… it actually would have worked better for him to say “a man” in the above and make it abundantly clear that he was talking about that specific person, and not making a really general statement. In order to claim that he’s acting in a sexist way — even unconsciously — you’d have to argue that this reflects his thinking of “male” as the default … and particularly as “male” as the default or the common or the normal with respect to that really desirable behaviour. But since in this case he’s referring to a man specifically, even unconsciously the most reasonable conclusion is that he simply thought of it in the context of that person, not as a general statement. And presume that he would do this if the situation was reversed.

Now, the counter to that is what Benson said: that he did this in “The End of Faith” a lot and so it’s consistent with how he writes. I skimmed through the first few pages and he does talk a fair bit about “man’s inhumanity to man” and things like that, and uses the male pronoun for a lot of cases. Of course, that’s in a section where he’s talking about people like suicide bombers and the like, and especially where he’s talking about negative traits. I do recall that he often tends to vary his examples more often, sometimes choosing male examples and sometimes choosing female ones, and often uses female ones for positive assessments even if the context is such that they aren’t what you’d commonly see there, or rather that they aren’t traditionally female roles. Sure, being hesitant to assign women a negative trait is probably still sexist under the broad definition of the term, but it’s not something that I’d think feminists would get that upset over.

And Harris may simply be unable to think, in writing, in the supposed “gender neutral” terms. It may sound odd to him to use “they”; even though I use it, it does still sound odd to me. He may simply be used to doing things that way, and so the best response would be to simply say “Can you at least alternate the default once in a while?”. Not an insistence that he’s being stubbornly clueless. BTW, note that using the term “stubbornly” there requires conscious interaction there: you can’t be stubbornly resisting something that you simply aren’t aware is a problem or an issue.

Before going back and skimming “The End of Faith”, I thought that this was a prime example of Don Quixotism: seeing a giant in something and going out bravely to fight it despite reality not being that way. Now, I still think it’s an example where the problem doesn’t justify the complaint, although I will concede that this is one case where Harris might want to teach himself to clean up his language use a bit, even for no other reason than to get people to stop complaining about it. This case, in isolation, is absolutely not a problem; if this is indeed standard and Harris has not learned to at least in general do it differently, then it’s something that he might want to work on.

What it says about him in general, as a person, as a feminist? Not one thing.


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