Ben Affleck’s Melt Down on Bill Maher

06 Oct

Over the weekend, Ben Affleck had a total melt down on Bill Maher’s show. This post is not to bash Affleck or Maher; it is not to take sides in the debate; it is not to discuss the pros or cons of Islam. I want to break down the discussion, the interaction between the parties, so that when you have a discussion where you are in Affleck’s position, you can better understand what is happening, which could help you better navigate the discussion.

I want to start by breaking down the main points of the argument.

The Discussion

Sam Harris sets the base for his argument thus: “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards muslims as people.” Before he can finish his thought, Affleck interjects, “Hold on — are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam?”

Affleck is not even listening to the argument. He is so ready to defend his belief that he questions Harris’ authority on the subject. This diversionary tactic is common in conflict. Affleck then continues to drag the discussion off topic by claiming that questioning Islamic teachings is racist. As he continues to melt down he states that “we are endowed by our Fore Fathers with inalienable rights….” After agreeing that we (referring to Western Liberals) have to be able to question bad ideas, Sam Harris doubles down on his argument: “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”  At this point, Affleck is so lost in his anger that he grasping at straws and while declaring his own evidence, that what Harris and Maher are saying is not true, and offering no evidence, he demands to know the evidence of the other side. When offered further evidence, Affleck simply gets dismissive. “Alright, let someone else talk. You’re doing a lot of talking.”

Michael Steele jumps in and re-frames Harris’ argument beautifully, “You’re saying that the strongest voices are coming from those who are jihadists and extremists and that represents a bigger piece of the pie than we often think is true.” He then goes on to state that what is lacking is the amount of national and even global news coverage of Muslims who stand up to radical ideals.

This begins to move the discussion forward but Ban Affleck cannot help himself and launches back into the fray. He demands to know, “What is your solution, to just condemn Islam?” Then, rather than waiting for an answer, he launches into his own set of points on why the West is to blame for radical Islam. Affleck’s final point is typical of this kind of disagreement, “I’m telling you that I disagree with you… and I don’t understand you.” He then cycles back into false claims and blame shifting. In so doing, Affleck reinforces Harris’ primary argument, that “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards muslims as people” by accusing Harris and Maher of condemning muslims as people because of radical ideas.

Conflict and Identity

Ben Affleck presents several common diversionary tactics in this discussion that many people use when they fight or argue with someone else.

  1. Discredit the other party – “Are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam?” Because if you’re not, I don’t have to listen to you and your argument is invalid. Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Have the patience to hear the other person out. It does you on harm to listen to and consider the other party’s point of view.
  2. Making grand claims – You’re racist! Insert prejudice, bigot or any other “othering” word here. There are around 1.5 Billion Muslims around the world. Exactly which “race” is being targeted? Making grand, false claims is a diversionary tactic designed to confuse the other party. The only reason I would need to confuse the other party is if I have NOTHING to argue with. Don’t fall into this trap. Listen, think, consider, then respond.
  3. Being dismissive – Dismissing the other party simply because you do not agree with them is childish. Denial prevents both sides from moving toward understanding.
  4. Blame shifting – Blame shifting is designed to move the discussion to another topic and move away from the topic at hand. It’s also a move designed to grab power in an argument because, when I blame shift, I control the topic, which means I’m controlling the discussion.

By avoiding these four diversionary tactics, we can move toward discussion and understanding. Building understanding is a corner stone of conflict resolution. If you find yourself doing one or all of these in an argument, as yourself, why am I doing this?

The answer might surprise you: the argument threatens part of your identity. This post is already getting lengthy so I’ll leave some links at the bottom for you to further explore the relationship of identity and conflict. I will leave the discussion on this thought. Ben Affleck appears to whole-heartedly believe that if you question the teachings of Islam, you are a racist. This explains his inability to even listen to someone challenge that. It threatens part of his identity (he is not a racist). If he listens and considers what Harris and Maher have to say, then he may have to admit that he is racist. This is a misunderstanding on Affleck’s part, but he won’t allow himself to get far enough to realize that his assumption is wrong.

When we fail to allow ourselves to listen to other points of view, we remain mired in our own world and deny ourselves opportunity for growth. When we allow ourselves to listen to other points of view and consider them, we allow ourselves the opportunity to better strengthen our own belief, or question that belief if we find it lacking.

Extra Reading

Unpacking things: This blog post was written at the end of my undergraudate studies and contains material from a capstone paper that I wrote.

Construction of Online Identity: This blog post is a portion of a paper written for one of my graduate classes, Social Dynamics of Communication Technology.

Books to Read:

  • Identity and Vilence: The Illusion of Destiny
  • Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity

Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Conflict Studies


2 responses to “Ben Affleck’s Melt Down on Bill Maher

  1. Kirsty

    October 12, 2014 at 8:11 am

    This is a very thought provoking post. Any suggestions for how to respond to one behaving this way?

    • Reese

      October 12, 2014 at 10:25 am

      Kristy, that is a great question. I would begin by meeting the other person where they are and having them help me understand his/her action. As s/he explain his/her thoughts and feelings, you will be able to help him/her understand the misunderstandings and miscommunications that are happening without accusing him/het of blame shifting or whichever behavior(s) s/he is exhibiting.

      This approach has two outcomes, hopefully. First, the other person will better understand your argument. Secondly, you will better understand the other person. Understanding reduces fear. Understanding my not lead to agreement, however. Understanding creates space for growth and provides both parties the choice to accept it or reject it.

      Have I answered your question?


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