Sam Harris needs to publish his conversation with Omer Aziz

Posted on March 7, 2016


On December 27, 2015, Yale law student Omer Aziz wrote an article for Salon blasting Sam Harris. In this article, Aziz ranted and rambled endlessly about Harris without pausing for breath. He demonstrated that he was unfamiliar with Harris’ actual views and, like so many others on the Regressive Left, decided to hold Harris accountable for contrived and grotesquely distorted versions of his ideas that Harris has addressed and clarified ad nauseam in writing and in live interviews. Even more strangely, Aziz even goes so far as to accuse Harris of voicing his views solely because of the money involved in doing so. For instance, Aziz wrote:

There are few get-rich-quick schemes left in modern publishing, but one that persists could be called Project Islamic Reformation. Writing a book that fits in this category is actually quite easy. First, label yourself a reformist. Never mind the congratulatory self-coronation the tag implies; it is necessary to segregate oneself from all the non-reformists out there. Second, make your agenda clear at the outset by criticizing what is ailing Islam and Muslims. The Qur’an is a good place to start because Muslims, especially in the Middle East, surely treat their holy book more like a military instruction manual than anything else. Third, propose a few solutions. Lest you be accused of nuance, the more vague and generic these are, the better. Fourth, soak up the inevitable publicity that awaits, and with it, your hard-earned cash. Voilà!

Ignoring the snarky-amateurish nature of the writing itself, Aziz’s goal here is clear: you don’t need to grapple with actual written arguments if you can simply undermine the author’s motives. That anyone can get through Aziz’s Salon piece without the mental red flags of bias, dishonesty, and hyperbole being raised is beyond me.

After the publication of this hit-piece, Harris reached out to Aziz and invited him to air his grievances and discuss this article on his Waking Up podcast. To the surprise of many, Aziz accepted the invitation. This podcast was highly anticipated by both sides of the debate. Harris later came out and mentioned that he and Aziz spoke for nearly 4 hours, and that the discussion was so poor and boring that he decided not to publish it.

I immediately thought this was a bad move on Harris’ part, and thought that he should publish the episode, regardless of its entertainment value, for several reasons. First, Aziz could easily accuse Harris of not releasing the audio to cover up a full and complete take-down of Harris’ views. And lastly, even if it was boring and unproductive in Harris’ view, it has tremendous value in revealing Aziz’s purported dishonesty and unwillingness to participate in a meaningful conversation. Taking a purely cost-benefit approach to the question of whether or not to publish the conversation, the least costly mode of action would be to simply publish it. Take the figure below (keep in mind that I weighted the costs and benefits of each option according to my own personal criteria, but I feel that most people will agree with the general direction, if not magnitude, of my assessment):


Assuming that Harris was honest regarding his reason to not publish (and I see no reason to doubt his honesty given his track record of honest, open discussions) we can see that the highest payoff comes from publishing the audio. In this option, there is a small cost associated with boring the audience, but there are many benefits that Harris seems to have overlooked. For instance, it serves an educational role in revealing how to (or not to) have difficult conversations. It further serves to expose the dishonesty and poor reasoning of a very harsh and incessant critic, and also shows the world your commitment to keeping things transparent. These are all  valuable, and suit the aims of Harris’ podcast well in general.

As I predicted, Aziz has just written a new article on Salon accusing Harris of censorship for not publishing the podcast. At this point I don’t see any option for Harris other than publishing the unadulterated audio on his podcast or elsewhere. If there truly is nothing to hide (which is almost certainly the case) Harris can silence Aziz’s accusations before this turns into an even bigger headache.

In a recent episode of Waking Up, Harris seems to imply that releasing a 4-hour boring podcast is the equivalent of making people listen to it. But this simply isn’t the case. He isn’t making anyone listen to it if he releases it; he is just giving people the option to listen to it. He could even provide a content warning in the beginning of the podcast, reminding people that the conversation was sub-par and incredibly boring. I think Harris should simply give people the option to bore themselves.

POSTSCRIPT (3/9/2016)

Sam Harris has just released a new podcast episode where he discusses the recent fracas over his choice to withhold the content of his discussion with Omer Aziz. In it, he actually releases several audio snippets of his discussion with Aziz in order to counter some of the more egregious claims Aziz made in his most recent Salon article that I linked to above. These clips certainly highlight Aziz’s dishonesty and deceptive portrayal of the discussion and Harris’ tone. While I am happy that Harris commented on this and allowed us to hear parts of the discussion, I still feel that this will only make things worse by providing his critics with more ammunition.

For instance, now Aziz and others can claim that Harris cherry picked parts of the discussion that fit his narrative. And I almost guarantee that this is what will happen in the next few days. Furthermore, Harris claimed in this discussion that Aziz could say anything that he wanted to and Harris wouldn’t edit him in any way. That’s all fine and good, but only remains true if he chose either to publish or not publish the entire audio. Now that Harris has released several short snippets of the audio, he will be accused of editing what Aziz said. And this would actually be a valid criticism. Harris should have either stuck to his guns to not publish the audio (which still leaves Harris open to critic’s accusations) or simply should have published the whole thing in response to the backlash (best overall option to avoid criticism).

I really wish Harris would just release the audio on YouTube or some other medium so he can put this whole thing behind him. I am already seeing some of my Facebook friends posting Aziz’s Salon article and heralding it as the ultimate Harris take-down. This article is making its rounds, and I feel that Harris should just release the record so that his critics have one fewer arrow in their anti-Harris quiver.

POSTSCRIPT #2 (3/12/2016)

I must be some sort of psychic! A few days ago I said that Harris releasing snippets of his podcast with Omer Aziz would only cause more problems because “now Aziz and others can claim that Harris cherry picked parts of the discussion that fit his narrative. And I almost guarantee that this is what will happen in the next few days.” And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Aziz published an article in the Huffington Post titled Free Speech and Fanatics: A Final Rejoinder to Sam Harris. In this article, Aziz states the following (bold mine):

By way of background, the neuroscientist Sam Harris published a short booklet on reforming Islam, I reviewed it critically and argued that it was simplistic and unoriginal, Harris publicly invited me for a discussion on his podcast, I publicly agreed, we debated about Islam and terrorism for four hours on his podcast, and then he refused to release it, saying it was “boring.” When I objected to this purge in an essay for Salon, Harris produced a second podcast in which he aired three selectively edited and redacted clips from our talk to unwitting ears–despite saying in one of the clips that he would explicitly not do so. Each of these excerpts were instances where Harris was lecturing me about one of the many issues we discussed, the last clip cutting off just as I was about to rebut his points. As of today, Harris steadfastly refuses to air the complete audio.

It is getting just too easy to predict the course of childish outrage from Aziz and other regressives. Thankfully, it seems as though Harris, after enduring a Twitter shit-storm for the last week, has agreed to post the entire audio to shut his critics up.

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 4.43.09 PM

Hilariously, the podcast episode is titled The Best Podcast Ever. I am glad that Harris came around and published the audio, even though it does provide Aziz with an unearned podium. Perhaps Harris will be more selective in the future regarding who he allows on his podcasts. However, I hope Harris continues to have these sorts of conversations and allows us to listen in. These conversations, no matter how frustrating they must be to participate in, still have tremendous educational value, or at the very least help expose the dishonesty of his critics.

I may just be a masochist, but I will absolutely listen to every excruciating hour of this podcast and post a short reaction article to this blog. For any readers that were brave, stupid, or masochistic enough to listen to a significant portion of this podcast, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section.