In terms, unpack (LH:#), aka "break something down" (Harris, 2014), refers to the act or process of taking a packed statement, such as "Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas", and taking out and examining the specifics of its contents, the statement conceptualized as "luggage", its parts conceptualized as the travelling material. Unpack, said another way, can refer to taking ancient stored away ideas, concepts, creed, or law, etc., typically religious concepts, e.g. "sin", or "apostasy", and opening up their highly condensed or packed storage container, taking all the pieces out, and examining or labeling what exactly is stored away, in that luggage, in modern open daylight dialogue.
The term was popularized by Sam Harris, in his various YouTube debates, particularly in his 10M viewed 2014 debate with Ben Affleck on Islamophobia, liberalism, and religious tolerance.
In 2005 to 2015, Sam Harris, in his various YouTube debates, on atheism vs theism, began to use the phrases: “let’s unpack that idea” or “let me unpack that for you”, in respect to theological ideas and doctrines, that had been so packed away, over the centuries, that they needed to be unpacked and brought out into fresh light to see just what was in those stored-away suitcases and storage packages.
Harris vs Affleck
On 3 Oct 2014, Sam Harris and Bill Maher debated Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof on the topic of “liberalism” in respect to various Islamic beliefs and practices, where in “unpack” and “luggage” were employed as metaphors; the main part of the dialogue is as follows:
32:26 Maher: Okay. So the other thing we want to talk about of course is that you and I have been trying to make the case—I think, I have anyway—that liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. This is what I said on last week’s show. Obviously I got a lot of hate for it. But all I’m saying is that liberal principles, like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals, these are liberal principles [applause] that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.
Harris: Yeah, yeah. Well, liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy.
Maher: Right [laughs].
Harris: They’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984, but when, when you want to talk about the treatment of women, and homosexuals, and freethinkers, and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. And the crucial point of confusion – [applause] yeah, thank you.
Affleck: Thank God you’re here!
Harris: Yeah. Well, I mean the crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.
Harris: And that is, uh, intellectually ridiculous, and even it gets [conflated with] race.
Affleck: So hold on – are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that? So you can say well this is—
Harris: I’m actually well-educated on this topic.
Affleck: I’m, I’m asking you. So you’re saying– if I criticize that— you’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing. That if you are critical of something—
Maher: Well it’s not a real thing when we do it.
Affleck: Right. [audience laughter]
Maher: It really isn’t.
Harris: I’m not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people. And that’s a problem.
Affleck: That’s big of you.
Harris: But the—
Maher: But why are you so hostile about this concept?
Affleck: Because it’s gross! It’s racist! It’s disgusting!
Maher: It’s not. But it’s so not.
Affleck: It’s like saying, ‘You shifty Jew.’
Harris: Absolutely not.
Maher: You are not listening to what we are saying!
Affleck: You guys are saying if you want to be liberals, believe in liberal principles like freedom of speech,
Maher: Right, right.
Affleck: Like, um, you know, we are endowed by our Cre -- uh forefathers with [inalienable rights like] all men are created equal.
Harris: Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam—
Affleck: Of course we do! No liberal doesn`t want to criticize bad ideas.
Harris: Okay, okay, but Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.
Affleck: Jesus Christ!
Maher: That’s just a fact.
Harris: So we have, we have ideas like blasphemy, apostasy
Affleck: It’s not a fact. It’s an ugly thing to say!
Kristof: There’s one basic liberal principle of tolerance.
Harris: Well, let me unpack it, let me unpack it.
Maher: But not for intolerance.
Kristof: No of course not, but the picture you’re painting is to some extent true, but is hugely incomplete. It is certainly true that plenty of fanatics and jihadis are Muslim, but the people who are standing up to them, Malala, uh—
Harris: Malala is [fantastic], yes.
Kristof: —incredible Mohammad Ali Dadkhah in Iran, in prison for nine years for speaking up for Christians. A friend that I had in Pakistan who was shot this year, Rashid Rehman, for defending people accused of apostasy—
Harris: Okay, but Nick—
Kristof: —those are Muslims too.
Affleck: Or how about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to the store, [applause] have some sandwiches, pray five times a day—
Maher: Wait a second.
Affleck: —and don’t do any of the things that you’re saying all Muslims [do]
Harris: Okay I’m not, wait, wait, wait, wait.
Affleck: That is stereotyping.
Harris: I’m not saying all Muslims believe that.
Affleck: You are taking a few bad things and you’re painting a br—the whole religion with that same brush.
Maher: No, no. Let’s get down to who has the right answer here. A billion people, you say? All these billion people don’t hold any of those p—
Affleck: A billion five or something.
Maher: Don’t hold these pernicious beliefs? I would—
Affleck: No. They don’t.
Maher: That’s just not true, Ben. That’s just not true.
Harris: Ben, can I just express how I think it breaks down in terms of belief among Muslims?
Affleck: You haven’t even defined—
Maher: You’re trying to say that these few people, that’s all the problem is, these few bad apples. The idea that someone should be killed if they leave Mu—the Islamic—
Affleck: That’s horrible. That’s just horrible.
Harris: That is center-of-the-fairway Islam.
Maher: Wait, but wait, you’re saying that the idea that someone should be killed if they leave the Islamic religion is just a few bad apples?
Affleck: The people who would actually believe in an act that you murder somebody if they leave Islam is not the majority of Muslims at all [unclear].
Harris: Okay let me, let me break this down for you. Okay we –
Affleck: You are trafficking—
Harris: As you say we have 1.5, 1.6 billion Muslims. Now—
Affleck: Second biggest religion in the world, a quarter of the people of the population on earth.
Harris: Ben let me – let me unpack this – let me unpack this for you.
Affleck: Please do, I’ve been waiting, luggage has been sitting there packed up.
Harris: Just imagine some concentric circles. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise—
Affleck: Horrible bad people that—
Harris: They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them, we have Islamists, these are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to, to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. That – that – those two circles arguably are 20% of the Muslim world. Okay this is not the fringe of the fringe.
Affleck: What are you basing that research on?
Harris: A bunch of poll results that we can talk about. So, to give you one point of contact, 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted. 78%. So I’m being conservative when I roll this back to 20%. But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims who can right—can honestly look at ISIS and say that does not represent us, that we’re horrified by that, but they hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals that are deeply troubling. So, so these are not Islamists, they’re not jihadists, but they b—
Harris and Uygur
On 23 Oct 2014, Harris in his 3-hour interview with Cenk Uygur also, used the term “unpack”; the following is the first dialogue:
Uygur [23:10]: I want to read some of your quotes, now again there are many many like this, but to give people a sense of what I’m referring to, okay? So, you say at one point: ‘it is time we recognize and oblige the Muslim world to recognize that Muslim extremism is not extreme among Muslims. The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying. Islam is all fringe and no center.’ Give you just one last one here: ‘unfortunately, in the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals, the jihadists, the murderists of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel, are the best examples of the doctrine in practice.’ So those are two of many quotes along those lines.
Uygur: Sam, when people read those, can you not see, that at a minimum, people view those statements, as giving people permission to genialize about Muslims? That you’re not just saying Islam, that you’re not just saying fundamentalists, which is a point we often make, you’re saying that they are the center of Islam. So, when you say that, it seems that you are generalizing about Muslims?
Harris: ‘Well, let’s unpack this a little bit. So, on many of these points, you are talking about a majority of Muslims believing ‘X’. So, you’re talking about 75 percent. So, if it’s a belief that the Quran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe, that is incredibly well-subscribed. Every poll I’ve ever seen on that, put’s [belief in] that at 90 percent.
Uygur: A Christian poll would be the same.
Harris: It wouldn’t be the same. We can talk about those polls, but it’s not in fact the same, it’s half of that. [24:43]
By about 2017 or 2018, the term "unpack" had become so culturally prevalent, that articles were being written attempting to traced the etymology back into the 20th century.
The following is a variety of religious luggage, available for sale, that is "packed" or can be backed, showing "blessed", "Jesus" (and other words), "✞=♡", and "Hijab is my crown":
The following, to give some context to the metaphor of unpacked luggage, is an image of Mobile Dog Gear brand luggage semi-unpacked and labeled:
Hence, when one "unpacks" thing such as blasphemy or apostasy, one ends up with debates such as above.
- Unpack T-Shirt – Shop.SamHarris.org.
- Affleck, Ben; Kristof, Nicholas; Harris, Sam; Maher, Bill. (2014). “Debate: Radical Islam” (YT) (txt), Real Time with Bill Maher, Oct 3.
- Harris, Sam; Uygu, Cenk. (2014). “Clear the Air on Religious Violence and Islam” (YT), The Young Turks, Oct 23.
- Hoerger, Jacob. (2017). “Unpacking ‘Unpacking’: How Language Became Luggage”, Medium, Sep 8.
- Mobile Dog Gear – JuniperUnltd.com.
- Unpack – UrbanDictionary.com.
- Unpack (2004-present) (US) – Google Trends.
- Unpack (1800 – present) – Google Ngram.