Twisting Words to Advance an Ideologically-Driven Narrative

Cenk Uygur in 2010
Cenk Uygur in 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bill Maher, Maajid Nawaz, Peter Boghossian...I don't know how they do it. I don't know how they stay sane in the face of the near constant barrage of crap that comes their way. I'm not talking about reasoned criticism or disagreement. I'm not even talking about mockery, ridicule, or derision. I'm talking about those who intentionally twist their words and lie about what they say to a gullible audience over and over again.

Who is doing this? Some of the more prominent examples include Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, Chris Hedges, and Cenk Uygur. Those with much smaller platforms doing this sort of thing are too numerous to list. Collectively, many are now referring to them as the "regressive left."

I suspect that every blogger, vlogger, podcaster, or author must learn eventually that there are people out there who will intentionally misrepresent what one says. Some might do it just for traffic (i.e., good old-fashioned rage blogging), but I'd guess that most do it to promote an ideologically-driven agenda. It often begins innocently enough, as the content creator encounters what might initially look like fair criticism that contains a misunderstanding. He or she responds, attempting to correct the misunderstanding (e.g., "Actually, that is not what I said at all. If you re-read that paragraph, you'll see that I said..."). And then it becomes clear - sometimes right away and sometimes only gradually - that the other party knows full well what one said but is determined to distort it.

I've had plenty of my own experiences with this, so I know how frustrating it can be. I generally end up feeling mad at myself for not recognizing what I was stepping in much sooner. But what got me thinking about it again recently was not a direct experience I had, but a YouTube video I watched.

If you have not heard of the Rubin Report, check it out. The video in question is the first episode, and Rubin's guest is Sam Harris (see below).

They discuss many interesting topics, but the part that really caught my attention was when they address the five main lies Sam's critics have spread about him. Now, I can't pretend that I have read every word Sam has ever written or tweeted, but I have read The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason a couple of times, caught the Ben Affleck nonsense on Real Time With Bill Maher, watched several interviews with Sam, including the 3-hour interview with Cenk Uygur for The Young Turks, and followed Sam on Twitter. And on this basis, it seems quite obvious to me that the views he has expressed are vastly different from the views he has been depicted as holding on Islam and Muslims, racial profiling, and nuclear first strikes, just to name a few.

I try to put myself in Sam's shoes, as well as the shoes of Ali, Maher, Dawkins, Nawaz, Boghossian, and others. I see many of them struggle with how much effort to expend attempting to correct misinformation spread by bad actors who have no interest in correcting their lies. Do they respond to the crazy allegations and risk legitimizing their source, or do they ignore it and pass on an opportunity to correct the record? It is an unenviable position in which they find themselves.

Even as I wrote that last paragraph, I found myself thinking that someone who has already made up his or her mind about some of all of these individuals will inevitably come along, read these words, and descend into outrage. I can hear it now: "So, you're saying we can't criticize Sam Harris? Talk about hero worship!" And I'll stupidly respond, "No, that isn't even remotely close to what I am saying," knowing full well that it doesn't matter. The other party is not interested in what I'm saying. He or she had embraced an ideologically-driven narrative and is merely seeking to confirm it. Whatever you or I might say is going to be filtered through that narrative with as much distortion as is necessary to maintain it.

Dave Rubin often tries to end each episode of his show on an optimistic note. It isn't always possible, but I love that he tries. Given the topics he regularly addresses (e.g., religious extremism, threats to free speech coming from his political home on the left), trying to find a shred of hope is important. I'm not sure how hopeful this is, but I do find inspiration in how Dawkins, Harris, Ali, and the others keep going in spite of this. They get far more of it than we ever will and manage not to give up or be driven crazy. Maybe there's some hope after all.