Playing Dumb – The Masochism of Misrepresentation

10 Jan
Playing Dumb – The Masochism of Misrepresentation

Thanks to incremental advances in scientific knowledge, gaps in our collective understanding reduce over time. We may someday discover the boundaries of the universe. We might work out how to view dark matter. It’s possible that we’ll uncover incontrovertible proof of the existence of parallel universes. We may even gain a true understanding of the popularity of televised cooking competitions.

There are, however, some mysteries that seem destined to remain inexplicable. For an example of such phenomena, look no further than in the apparently boundless ability of ostensibly unimpaired people to grossly misunderstand virtually every statement ever uttered or written by American author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

If it’s fair to say that anyone is ‘blessed’ with a gift for communication, I think Harris surely qualifies as such a person. Ask any self-proclaimed Harris fan what they like most about his work and I’m sure the majority will converge on an admiration for his ability to explain complicated topics in a manner that makes them effortlessly easy to understand. He employs pitch perfect analogies and razor-sharp eloquence, along with “crystal clear writing and an economy of words” (as Michael Shermer puts it) to deliver a calm, measured, and systematic approach to thoughtful dialogue and ethical conundrums. His positions are invariably nuanced and meticulously thought through, and his explanations for his views are highly articulate, and surgically precise.

And yet, his capacity for being wildly misconstrued would be no less gargantuan if he were speaking Martian.

It is possible however, that in describing these “misunderstandings” as incomprehensible, I am of course overlooking the only possible solution that makes sense of this puzzle of the ages. And that is that the puzzle itself doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. There is no mystery. People are simply maliciously and dishonestly misrepresenting Harris’s arguments on purpose.

This however, necessitates the existence of another bafflingly strange phenomenon, namely that there is a collection of human beings in this world who use their platforms for the sole purpose of conclusively demonstrating their own pathological dishonesty and/or abject stupidity, to as wide an audience as possible. Not inadvertently, but with intent and forethought. They enthusiastically dance into the glare of the spotlight, and loudly announce their most flawed and unsavoury character traits through a virtual megaphone.

This should be a virtually impossible phenomenon to imagine among psychologically normal people, when considering the natural human desire for self-preservation, and the protection of one’s own reputation. But nevertheless, it seems that this counterintuitive gaggle of individuals exist, and in apparently large numbers.

When Harris used the example of rape to illustrate the Naturalistic Fallacy, debunking the silly notion that ‘natural’ is essentially synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘desirable’, Ahmadiyya Muslim spokesman Qasim Rashid, circulated a meme designed to imply that Harris endorses rape. Upon explaining the context of his statement and how deceitfully it had been misrepresented by Rashid, in a podcast discussion with writer Omer Aziz, Aziz immediately blamed Harris for his own misrepresentation.

An audibly frustrated Harris countered with the following rebuttal:

“I was talking about the naturalistic fallacy! It’s called the naturalistic fallacy for a reason. The idea that everything that is natural is somehow good, is obviously wrong and I was proving that it was wrong by reminding people that rape, among other things that we’re desperate to get rid of like tribal violence, is perfectly natural. And if someone can go back and take the sentence out of context, and then pretend that you are using it in defence of rape, if you’re going to say that’s a justifiable thing to do intellectually, you’re no one worth talking to.”

When Harris theorised about how the deterrent of mutually assured destruction is rendered redundant by the suicidal nature of jihadism, memes were created and distributed calling him a genocidal fascist maniac, and author Chris Hedges repeatedly accused Harris publicly and in absentia of favouring the eradication of the Middle East by means of a nuclear first strike.

A particularly dubious Twitter user who calls himself Sacha Saeen (not his real name) has seized the opportunity to carve out part of this market for himself, devoting a presumably inordinate amount of time to scouring podcasts and video presentations for material that he can deceptively edit out of its vital context and circulate among his fellow trolls hoping for a big name retweet, and invariably receiving it.

Saaen, like the more high profile liars whose attention he courts, apparently has no concern about being viewed as even remotely honest or as operating from a position of good faith. And his apparent disregard for his own reputation is so thorough that he will often post an audio clip of Harris making a statement, and add his own misquote of Harris’s words to the same Tweet. This is bafflingly masochistic behaviour and I honestly struggle to think of a more transparent and conclusive way for anyone to demonstrate their abject dishonesty than to attribute a false quote to someone, and to present it side by side with their actual words.

To my mind, this conduct has rarely been more decisively demonstrated than when Saeen posted an extract of episode 90 of the Waking Up podcast, in which Harris and his guest – security expert Gavin de Becker – talk about the benefits of trusting human intuition in identifying potential danger. De Becker criticises the uniquely human trait of consciously ignoring such intuitions and acting in perilous opposition to them in order to appear polite. He illustrates this phenomenon by posing a hypothetical scenario in which a lone woman willingly boards an elevator (“a steel soundproof chamber”) with a man who makes her feel instinctively afraid or uncomfortable, for the sole purpose of not offending him.

Harris expands upon this by remarking that the skin colour of the precarious looking stranger on the elevator could be a potential factor in influencing the woman’s counterintuitive decision to board it:

“These moments of negative intuition can be in contradiction to a variety of social norms that well intentioned people want to adopt…If you’re a white woman and the elevator doors open, and the man on the elevator who makes you uncomfortable is black, well you may just get on that elevator perversely to prove to yourself and to him that you’re not racist.”

Behold how Saeen characterises this fascinating discussion on the irrationality of human behaviour, the influence of societal pressure, and the tendency to prioritise the feelings of others over our own safety:


I submit that there are only two reasonable conclusions to deduce from this: Either Saeen is irretrievably dense and has spectacularly failed to comprehend what Harris and de Becker are talking about. Or he understands it perfectly and has decided to knowingly misrepresent these observations for the purposes of smearing Harris as a despicable racist.

The preponderance of evidence would suggest the latter as the most likely possibility. I find it astronomically implausible that genuine misunderstandings of Harris’s concise and lucid statements could occur with such frequency.

This unscrupulous behaviour from Sacha Saeen is seemingly unending and received much attention when he tweeted a minute long excerpt of a podcast discussion between Harris and his collaborator/friend Maajid Nawaz, in which they appeared to approve of imposing an immigration restriction upon Muslims. This clip was posted with a comment which described Harris’ statement as “eloquently genocidal”, as though immigration restrictions logically and ethically equate to herding Muslim citizens into gas ovens.


But that was the least of Saeen’s duplicity. Harris was in fact describing, rather than proposing, a common position against Muslim immigration that he himself does not share, for the purpose of rebutting it. Spotting an opportunity to smear Harris however, Saeen carefully cropped out the preceding comments which make it clear that he is recounting the stance of others rather than presenting his own views:

This is kind of a gut reaction that I know millions upon millions of people are having to things like what we just saw in Germany — the recent atrocity at the Christmas market.” “I think many people will feel…

Both Harris and Nawaz have stated on numerous occasions, including in the very same podcast that Saeen referenced, that they do not support Muslims travel bans, and so not only has Saeen attributed a position to Harris that is the precise opposite of the one he actually holds, but he has also disingenuously described this false position as equivalent to genocide. It’s genuinely difficult to see how the deceit here could be any more thorough.

This phenomenon of “misunderstanding” the words of incredibly articulate and concise people is not limited to the output of Sam Harris. Saeen’s most recent venture into this toxic fraudulence occurred in relation to a speech given at Harvard University by Cognitive Psychologist Steven Pinker.


The summarised “quote” provided in Saeen’s tweet looks on the surface like an endorsement of the white nationalist tropes trotted out by nefarious clowns like Richard Spencer and his band of Aryan pillocks. Or that’s at least what Saeen would want you to believe it represents. But what happens if we listen to the whole speech? Is there anything further we can deduce from a contextual analysis of Pinker’s words?

Taking a mere 8 minutes out of your life to watch the full video before smearing a respected public figure as a fascist, is apparently too much to ask of some people. If they were to do so, it would become abundantly clear that Pinker is talking about the psychological role that politically correct censorship of certain truth statements can play in “radicalising” intelligent people and leading them to reach “repellent conclusions”. In other words; he’s providing an explanation for how otherwise intelligent people can become brainwashed into supporting nefarious movements.

And what are some of these truth statements he’s referring to? Handily, he provides examples in the very same speech:

  • “Capitalist societies are better than communist ones.”
  • “Men and women are not identical in their priorities, in their sexuality, and in their tastes and interests.”
  • “Different ethnic groups commit violent crimes at different rates.
  • “Worldwide, the overwhelming majority of suicide-terrorist acts are committed by Islamist extremist groups.”

These specific examples are used precisely because they represent valid statements of fact amply supported by data, which can be (and often are) hijacked for reprehensible purposes by fascist ideologues. Pinker then goes on to explicitly denounce this kind of bigotry, racism, prejudice, and discrimination by pointing out that there are extremely powerful counter-arguments against the bigoted conclusions the Alt-Right draw from such facts. He then spends much of the rest of his presentation making these counter-arguments against bigotry and racism.

And so in the space of eight minutes, Pinker has not only denounced the arguments of the Alt-Right, but he has debunked them, all the while highlighting how this “radical” and “repellent” movement twists perfectly legitimate data to reach “the most extreme and indefensible conclusions possible.”

This would seem to be something of hurdle to overcome in presenting Pinker as sympathetic to Alt-Right racism, and so Saeen simply cuts all of this material, as is his wont, and presents an edit which is incredibly unrepresentative of the message Pinker was espousing. Once again, I submit that there is simply no other way to view this than as an example of bewilderingly improbable stupidity, or of conscious and malicious distortion. And once again, I strongly suspect the latter.

Sam Harris has often used the following apt analogy to demonstrate this disingenuousness:

“Imagine I wrote the following: ‘Black people are apes. White people are apes. We’re all apes. Racism doesn’t make any sense.’ Let’s say that’s my full quote. Glenn Greenwald, Murtaza Hussain, Reza Aslan etc and literally thousands of their fans, would feel no compunction at all in summarising my view as a shocking instance of racism – saying that ‘Sam Harris says that black people are apes.’ Full stop.”

It is genuinely hard to see how this is not precisely the disgraceful conduct we are encountering from Sacha Saeen. Sure, the words quoted are not obviously distorted beyond all recognition, but the context of the missing comments gives the statement a completely different meaning. Saeen doesn’t want you to understand what the speaker is saying, he simply wants you to think that the person he’s vilifying is a racist, and he will eagerly engage in the most unethical and underhanded tactics imaginable to give this impression.

This kind of trolling would barely warrant a mention were it not for the sizable audience Saeen is able to reach, illustrated here by the below screenshots posted by the excellent @Halalcoholism and accompanied by the apt Mark Twain quote “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”




During a 2008 debate in New York City, Christopher Hitchens countered this kind of behaviour in the form of a typically withering putdown, delivered directly to his opponent Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who had attempted to publicly misrepresent his antagonists claim:

You be very careful sir. A second ago you mentioned the term character assassination. Be careful that your character doesn’t commit suicide in front of everyone in this room. Don’t you try and misquote me in front of everybody, you’ll only succeed in looking even dumber than you do already.”

Hitchens’ assessment of this despicable and masochistic conduct was characteristically accurate. Enthusiastically advertising your own helpless inability to grasp the simplest concepts, or publicly demonstrating a commitment to vindictive dishonesty that borders on sociopathy, should amount to reputational suicide. It should disqualify you from serious consideration, as it essentially leaves people with no options to explain your behaviour other than spiteful dishonesty or ground-breaking idiocy. Why people like Sacha Saeen think that either of these conclusions is a good look, remains the ultimate mystery.


Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Misrepresentation, Politics



18 responses to “Playing Dumb – The Masochism of Misrepresentation

  1. ALe

    January 10, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    Oh gawd, I see PZ Myers, Dan Arel, and CJ Werleman in that screencap…the circus is in full attendance.

    Part of the reason clowns like Sacha do what they do is because they know they can get away with it. They know that a significant chunk of their audience is already confirmationally biased, primed with a chip on their shoulder regarding people like Harris and Pinker, and so Sacha can simply say something that confirms what they’re already inclined to believe and they won’t fact-check him on it at all.

  2. David

    January 10, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    There are certainly people on the left, especially those who are seemingly obsessed with identity politics, who willfully misrepresent. You give an extremely good analysis of this type, using examples. However, the rest, the not well-known ones on the left, in fact the complete unknowns, the ground troops and retweeters, who make up the greater proportion, I believe do not intentionally misrepresent. But neither are they unintelligent. Rather, they have their narrative to uphold to themselves, their worldview. If they sense that is under threat, even a bit, from some valid argument or position, they interpret a word, phrase or concept in a completely different way to how those they oppose interpret it. These people would genuinely believe that, for example, Sam Harris thought black people are apes and by that he meant that white people are better, even if he said white people are also apes. It’s a case of trying to squeeze reality into a framework of thought, into a theory. I know, I’ve been there. I used to think in this way. The most simple example is say Farage saying he believes in limiting immigration to achieve better integration. This is interpreted as him disliking foreign people. It is a source of constant frustration to see many of my friends, university educated (for what it’s worth), being so indulgent and, to me, vain in their way of thinking about politics and social issues. They seem rigid, not curious and out to fit the world and all in it to their worldview, otherwise it would mean thinking a bit more, which it seems they’re not prepared to do.

    I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate. What a writer! A serious talent. I don’t agree with all he says, especially on politics, but I simply have to deeply admire his integrity. He’s also a very easy person to read. I was put off by the length of this book before starting, but it’s like reading a very well-written series of lucid blog posts. I also listen to Sam Harris podcasts quite a bit. I agree with your view of him and his talents.

    • Torbjörn Larsson

      January 10, 2018 at 11:12 pm

      • Michael pye

        January 14, 2018 at 1:13 pm

        You missed Davids point. Your taking other evidence to support your believes around Farage. David was pointing out that Farage’s statement was misrepresented and taken out of context. Believe it or not we liberals are also prone to cognitive biases.

    • bellefleur2016

      January 11, 2018 at 1:51 am

      The Black Slate is great as is The Better Angels of Our Nature.

    • SL

      January 11, 2018 at 6:44 pm

      Excellent thoughts and summary you give here. I can easily identify with you when you say you know because you used to think this way. I did as well. I had not come to the realization yet that, not only was there a fierce divide to seemingly every issue, but that there were people who would devote incredible amounts of time to intentionally misrepresenting some relatively unimportant piece of information, for seemingly no apparent reason other than a self-satisfying cackling laugh.

      The bottom line is that in today’s world of mass information and social media, it requires a relentless and concerted effort of making sure you are being shown the whole picture, and it takes an equal effort to abstain from the ravenous lynch mob shaming tactics that seem to just overtake people’s minds and spread like a virus. It is unfortunately much easier and more satisfying for many to bypass any sort of deeper research and accept the information being presented, which also happens to make them feel validated in what they already believed.

      Even if I do feel I’ve confirmed someone is a bigot or a racist or a nazi or just quite dumb, I don’t need to participate in making sure they know I believe this. Taking this approach will also prevent a person from accidentally shaming someone or ruining someone’s life after being duped by one of these trolls.

  3. aranknowles

    January 10, 2018 at 11:33 pm

    But Sam Harris does deviate into racism, yet he’s seemingly too smug to even listen to criticisms put against him, brushing them off in a kind of impudent and obnoxious manner, continually claiming – along with his fans – that he’s been decontextualised, even when he’s quoted. Glenn Greenwald’s Guardian article about New Atheism and Harris addressed this issue well, exposing the problems in Harris’s attitude. Sam, unsurprisingly, wasn’t having any of it.

    He has a disappointing and perverted view of Islam, which tends to legitimise racism via the guise of his eloquent academic language; and his views can indeed act as a gateway for many people to enter into the ‘Look, I can’t be racist to Muslims. What race is Islam?’ tent in order to justify anti-asian racism. This may not be his fault directly, but he, as a supposedly smart person, should be aware of the effect his material has on the world. A quick scroll through the comments on his YouTube videos on Islam would testify to this statement.

    He hardly refuted the proposition he set up with the ‘What’s the fucking point of having more Muslims’ point in his podcast; he has essentially ignored all political and economic motives for invading the Middle East and why Muslim men fight, focusing more on religious influences, thus absolving the West’s influence in destabilising that region and causing some of the problems that have arisen; and he also interviewed Anne Marie Waters the other week, who is a known far-right racist, and he practically endorsed Charles Murray, a propagator of the racist Bell Curve theory. His also friends with Douglas Murray, another articulate and sheepish racist, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another legitimiser of bigotry, whose pointed agenda against Islam is built mostly on anecdotes and lies about her own life story. There’s other examples, including his essentially shutting down the perspectives of non-white people by dismissing the credibility of identity politics, tacitly silencing non-white POVs regarding how their black identity is affecting their life, all whilst he himself has carved out a decent living in the anti-religion, anti-Islamic market — but you can read the criticisms yourself.

    He has his problems, which deserve to be pointed out. You make it seem as if he’s a completely innocent man whose words have been unfairly misconstrued by the mean SJW trolls.

    • lordyj

      January 11, 2018 at 9:04 pm

      I think you are a living example of someone who has a world view and attempts to force the facts to fit it. Your list of people you denigrate and the unsubstantiated accusations you make about them expose your bigoted and deeply held biases. Throw off your programmed blinkers.

    • Michael pye

      January 14, 2018 at 1:24 pm

      You changed the question from misrepresentation of quotes to is Sam Harris a good person. This is exactly the kind of bias David mentions. It makes separating arguments from argurers nearly impossible. It is also a liminal (boundary) concept. Once you accept you are doing this your worldview changes. Farage was a good example as it shows the effect crosses the political spectrum. This doesn’t mean you are wrong (though it obviously increase the likelihood), but it should make you realise how vulnerable your worldview and ideas are.

  4. bellefleur2016

    January 11, 2018 at 1:50 am

    I’ve defended Harris on Twitter from people who’ve read Greenwald et al. and swallowed their intellectually dishonest smears. It’s very frustrating. No intellectual integrity and I’m sick of it. Great blog post 🙂

  5. David

    January 11, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Torbjörn Larsson… not sure what your point is.

    aranknowles… your comment tends to prove one of the points made in the blog post. Personal accusations with nothing to back up your allegations against, for example, Douglas Murray or Anne Marie Waters. Or just because you say they’re racist, does that mean they are?

  6. tbonejames

    January 11, 2018 at 6:13 pm

    It’s a shame that the people who are sucked in by smears of Harris cannot take the time to listen to even a few minutes of his podcast (in context), so convinced are they of his racism/sexism/etc. Thanks for this great post – I hope that it changes some minds, although people who think poorly of Harris seem to be uncommonly stubborn in their hatred of him.

  7. Jake Sevins

    January 12, 2018 at 1:29 am

    I’ve studied this phenomenon before. It works like this:

    1) I don’t like Sam Harris
    2) I see a Sasha Saeen quote that I know is a misrepresentation
    3) I retweet it anyway because I would like it to be true and its hateful message makes Dr. Harris seem like a bad guy

    In other words, many people who like these mischaracterizations know they aren’t true, but don’t really care because thinking they’re accurate makes them feel good. And for many people, that’s what they care most about: feeling good.

  8. timdamra

    January 14, 2018 at 1:59 am

    It never ever ceases to amaze me how far Sam Harris’ fanboys will go to defend him and his shitty arguments and talking points! Ironically, they are just as zealous and reactionary as the people they despise the most: religious people.

    I’ve benefited a little from Sam’s talks about AI or meditation, but I avoid him like the plague when it comes to religion or politics, and for a very good reason; the analysis he offers regarding these subjects is always extremely simplistic and hardly ever realistic or pragmatic. He always tends to exaggerate his “criticisms” of Islam and heavily downplays the role of Western interventionism and geopolitical power struggle in his take on conflict in the Islamic world. That’s obviously a part of his ongoing bid to discredit Muslims and Islam, and that shows a clear bias and agenda that Sam has. Literally no one is saying that Islam shouldn’t be criticized as Sam claims, that doesn’t mean that academic standards should go to hell if you do so!

    There is a lot of valid objections and criticism against Sam Harris, and it comes from very credible people; some of them are among the top intellectuals of our times:

    -Noam Chomsky – MIT professor
    -Glenn Greenwald
    -Robert Pape – Univ of Illinois professor who conducted largest study abt terrorism
    -Murtaza Hussain
    -Chris Hedges – Pullitzer prize winning jounalist
    -Prof. Frank Atran
    -Mehdi Hasan
    -Jonathan Haidt

    I already know what the responses to me will be, thanks in advance!:

    -“bad faith actor”
    -“intellectually dishonest”
    -“ad hominem” – (Harris’ fanboys love to use this word lol)
    -“you took him out of context” – (thats what he does to an entire religion lol)

    • Another Damo

      February 17, 2018 at 11:40 pm

      Great post. I think there are a few other points to be made here. People like this Saeen clown never post under their real names but they slam public figures who risk personal security and reputation by putting their views out there, openly and honestly, as themselves. Secondly how do we know these malicious twits are not paid “bad actors” representing a coordinated campaign to create confusion and disunity within liberal western democracies? And finally it’s worth noting that In the old days some journalistic ethics would have prevented maybe 90% of such blatant smearing but now we have no gatekeeperes in social media so anything goes in the town square. Again, Thanks for a great post.


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