Sam Harris doesn’t know anything about feminism, decides to set feminist priorities anyway
Oh dear, Sam Harris is talking again, and as usual, mansplaining to feminists about how we need to give up caring about the human rights of women in Christian-controlled nations because he believes that such care somehow deprives women in Muslim-controlled nations of their human rights. (Personally, I thought it wasn’t feminists who were depriving women of human rights, but you know, the sexists that run countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.) In the classic stance of the mansplainer, Harris lets it be known that having no fucking idea what he is talking about doesn’t mean he can’t be the self-appointed expert over people who actually know things like facts. Libby Anne zeroed in on one particular statement Harris made regarding abortion rights.
Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984. But when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us.
Libby Anne tackles the most obvious mansplaining fail:
Violence against abortion clinics and abortion providers dates back to at least the 1980s and continues in the present. Eight doctors or clinic providers have been murdered, the last one only five years ago. In fact, the clinic that was bombed in the 1984 incident Harris mentions was bombed again in 2012—and completely gutted as a result. I hear of arson and death threats, and it shakes me. I’ve served as an escort at my local Planned Parenthood clinic. It can be very scary—for all involved. Women often have their license plate numbers recorded by anti-abortion protesters calling them “murderers,” and in some areas of the country doctors who perform abortions have to wear masks when entering clinics to protect their identities. Just recently a writer for the high-profile National Review called for hanging women who have had abortions.
Please read her whole post. But I want to talk about the implications he’s working here, most of which are false. Libby Anne deals with one—his implication that caring about anti-choice violence somehow prevents us from doing something about what he considers the much worse problem of “Muslim” violence. (Harris is not particularly smart and thus struggles to understand that Muslims are a numerous and diverse population, and include the victims of theocratic violence as well as its perpetrators. But that’s another whole package to unpack.) But I would like to deal with three more of his ridiculous assumptions.
1) By deciding to shift our priorities from protecting abortion rights at home to agitating against “Muslim” abuses of women, feminists can be more effective. I’m not sure how he thinks this works. If we shut down Planned Parenthood and NARAL and instead just wrote a lot about how we think laws requiring veiling are bad, the only real result would be that women would go without health care here at home while countries with Islamic fundamentalist governments would likely double down to show those nosy Western bitches what’s up. Win, I guess? Only if you think women’s health care is kind of icky and you’re more interested in being bigoted than being effective.
2) That the abortion issue is a narrow concern about occasional Christian terrorist violence. Nope. Anti-clinic violence sucks, but the much bigger concern is theocratic stripping of abortion rights—as well as access to contraception and general access to health care. By dismissing the pro-choice movement as a bunch of harpies going on over an occasional bombing, Harris is trying to distract people from the fact that attacks on reproductive rights are, in fact, a very big deal. Millions upon millions of women are affected. If you oppose, as Harris does, something like female genital mutilation but you don’t think it’s such a big deal to force childbirth on the unwilling, it’s excruciatingly clear that your concern is not protecting women—or even just women’s genital area—from unwarranted incursions from theocratic misogynists. You just don’t like Muslims and want everyone else to share your obsession.
3) That Muslim oppression of women’s rights is objectively more damaging than the damage done because of forced child-bearing. Harris’s argument rests on the assumption that there’s an objective measure of harm and since, by his reckoning, Muslim oppression objectively hurts more than Christian oppression, then it should take up all the oxygen available. It’s an offensive argument on its own, but it fails on its own terms. Unsafe abortion, nearly all of which is done illegally because of abortion bans, kills 47,000 women a year around the world. In comparison, Pakistan, which has the worst “honor killing” culture in the world, from what I understand, lost 1,000 women to it. I couldn’t find the worldwide numbers, but odds are that unsafe abortion deaths outnumber honor killings many times over every year. And that’s just a very narrow comparison of two ways theocratic oppression of women kills. Reduced access to contraception and abortion also contribute to high maternal mortality rates around the world, including in the U.S.
It’s absolutely gross to reduce the issues to these numbers, of course. But that’s my point. If you’re going to start arguing over what is “objectively” a bigger problem, then you have to face down statistical realities like that. Or you could grow the fuck up and realize that it’s rarely, if ever, as simple as counting dead bodies.
Of course, the fact that he openly misrepresented the extent of anti-choice violence shows that he wasn’t ever really interested in actual statistical evidence to begin with.
But beyond just the gross accounting to try to create “objective” measures in the Oppression Olympics, if one is going to be concerned about the lost educational and employment opportunities that women must suffer because of restrictions they face in Iran or Saudi Arabia, it seems really weird to get all shruggy when faced with the fact that forced childbearing has a similar effect on women’s education and employment opportunities in Christian nations. But of course, Harris doesn’t actually care about that. Feigned concern over women is just a weapon he uses to push his untenable argument that there’s something specific to Islam that makes it inherently worse than other religions, despite the fact that the likelier explanation for Islamic fundamentalism has more to do with geopolitics than the specific teachings of the Koran vs. the Bible.
People are drawn to what they advocate for due to many reasons: Personal experience, ability to make change, intellectual interest. Policing other people’s priorities is a waste of time, especially considering that most people don’t care about most of any of this. But okay, if Harris wants an explanation, I can give it for myself. I spend a lot more time writing about reproductive rights than the oppression of women under Islamic fundamentalism for a number of reasons:
1) I can be more effective. Iranian mullahs only care what I think to the extent to which they can do the opposite. In contrast, in the U.S., I can help move and inspire people and perhaps even make change for the better.
2) I have more interesting things to say. A lot of what drives Islamic fundamentalism is due to war and colonialism, which I’m just not an expert in. I *am* an expert in gender politics and how reproductive control affects them, so I’ll stick to educating people instead of spouting off on what I know nothing about.
3) I don’t have white savior complex. Just as I don’t want a bunch of know-nothing busybodies like Sam Harris trying to tell me what my priorities should be, I assume feminists in Muslim countries don’t want me or people like me doing that to them. I realize that empathizing with people that don’t look exactly like you isn’t Harris’s strong suit, but I think that it’s a smart move generally to make.