Saturday, June 4, 2011

Guts and Self-confidence vs. The Cowardly Lion

I have an infinite number of double categories to describe people, in one of my favorite phrases, "There's two kinds of people...," but the one I will dwell on here in particular are those who want to know what reality is, and those who don't.

People that want to be efficacious and successful in life fall into the first category. Those that don't give a damn about any kind of success, existential, spiritual or otherwise, fall into the second.

I think this categorical distinction applies to both Christians and the Left, among whom advocates of reason hope to make inroads. People make errors, but in the first category, it's errors of knowledge or reasoning that lead them to believe "God" or "Marxism" is somehow representative of what reality is, and so they are sucked in to the miasma of faith in God or faith in Society.

Errors of metaphysics. A malevolent universe premise might especially predispose them, but many other factors come to play.

What I'm suggesting is that before engaging in discussion with someone, it's fruitful to first determine what category someone falls into, to know the basic premise at work.  If you know someone is struggling to identify the true nature of reality so that they can be successful in life (at a much deeper and broader level than economic success), that can help focus your arguments towards them.  If you know they aren't, don't waste your time.

This is why I never dismiss people out of hand just because they call themselves "Christians" or "Very Left". Buried deep down inside, hidden from view there may be a solid core of allegiance to reality and reason buried somewhere, and I've seen and known too many people who suddenly "got it" and said, "I was wrong -- to hell with that!"


This makes it all the more ridiculous when I see, as I have lately, so many avowed Objectivists running around and condemning other Objectivists over nuanced differences of opinion on complex subjects. They seem to have decided that reason is not their forte and have dedicated themselves to the proposition that emotion, condemnation and ostracism is preferable to an argument. In theory, it ought to be easier to have a reasoned argument with someone who agrees with you on 99% of the corpus of Ayn Rand's works rather than someone raised on, say, Catholicism or Marx.

While I'm on my rant, I note that this approach was so not what Ayn Rand did. She would engage with anyone, and took the larger view of her long-term objectives when she did it.

For instance, recently a story was recounted by Harry Binswanger of AR's appearance with [philosopher] John Hospers at a major university. Hospers behaved as a royal ass, and according to Harry, AR gave a very reasoned response to him. On other occasions (for instance, the famous Phil Donahue interview) AR would make an issue of rudeness -- but she never ran. As Harry tells it, she didn't walk away from Hospers, either, though he certainly deserved it in spades. No. He wasn't the audience. He was the means to the bigger audience. Instead, she ignored his rudeness and gave reasoned responses to her main audience -- everyone else in the auditorium.

Contrasts in approach can be very effective to convince people just who is the more reasoned.

More Objectivists need to remember this. I'm not pointing fingers at anyone here, but at the larger audience. Public conflict is a way to reach a lot of people, that is, that "first category" of people that I was talking about.

Unfortunately, lately I'm seeing too many Objectivists online (ie, Facebook, or as it ought to be called, "In Your Face with a Book") giving up on reasoned arguments and substituting the uppity "about-face" to diss others instead. It's so easy after all. You don't need to think or reason or put together a coherent response. You just demand they agree with you on everything, and if they don't, you slap them in the face with a haughty air of moral superiority and walk away.


Yes, there's a formula for impressing the world with Ayn Rand's philosophy -- claim to be her advocate and then practice the opposite of what she did in her own life. I can just hear what she would have said to that.

But I don't think any of those who are doing it would have had the guts to do it in her presence.

For an example of greater guts and and self-confidence, look at Francisco d'Anconia. A man who always had an answer in any social situation -- and he never ran away, even when surrounded by wolves.
    Standing unnoticed on the edge of the group, Rearden heard a woman, who had large diamond earrings and a flabby, nervous face, ask tensely, "Senior d'Anconia, what do you think is going to happen to the world?"
    "Just exactly what it deserves,"
    "Oh, how cruel!"
    "Don't you believe in the operation of the moral law, madame?" Francisco asked gravely. "I do."
    Rearden heard Bertram Scudder, outside the group, say to a girl who made some sound of indignation, "Don't let him disturb you. You know, money is the root of all evil--and he's the typical product of money."
    Rearden did not think that Francisco could have heard it, but he saw Francisco turning to them with a gravely courteous smile.
    "So you think that money is the root of all evil?" said Francisco d'Anconia. "Have you ever asked what is the root of money?...
    There were people who had listened, but now hurried away, and people who said, "It's horrible!"--"It's not true!"--"How vicious and selfish!"--saying it loudly and guardedly at once, as if wishing that their neighbors would hear them, but hoping that Francisco would not.
    "Senor d'Anconia," declared the woman with the earrings, "I don't agree with you!"
    "If you can refute a single sentence I uttered, madame, I shall hear it gratefully."
    "Oh, I can't answer you. I don't have any answers, my mind doesn't work that way, but I don't feel that you're right, so I know that you're wrong."
    "How do you know it?"
    "I feel it. I don't go by my head, but by my heart. You might be good at logic, but you're heartless."
    "Madame, when we'll see men dying of starvation around us, your heart won't be of any earthly use to save them. And I'm heartless enough to say that when you'll scream, 'But I didn't know it!'--you will not be forgiven."
    The woman turned away, a shudder running through the flesh of her cheeks and through the angry tremor of her voice: "Well, it's certainly a funny way to talk at a party!"
    A portly man with evasive eyes said loudly, his tone of forced cheerfulness suggesting that his sole concern in any issue was not to let it become unpleasant, "If this is the way you feel about money, senor, I think I'm darn glad that I've got a goodly piece of d'Anconia Copper stock."
    Francisco said gravely, "I suggest that you think twice, sir."
His opponents did the running. Not Francisco. (And of course, this was Ayn Rand.)

But it does require a much greater self-confidence and knowledge and committment to reason.

---- Postscript ----
The day after posting my comments above, a friend remarked that Ayn Rand did break off with John Hospers, with the implicit question of whether that refuted my argument. I replied:
____, yes, Ayn Rand did break off relations with Hospers -- as she absolutely should have. Hospers demonstrated an extreme form of dishonesty. But I don't think this can be equated to a lot of the superficially childish histrionics that takes place on Facebook.

And merely because AR had every right to walk out of that auditorium the moment Hospers pulled the stunt he did, she didn't blindly exercise that right without considering what would advance her greater goals -- she was above all, rational. She had an audience, and a forum, and bad as Hospers behaved, she had an opportunity to reach many active minds with a reasoned argument. She seized it.

How many people on Facebook do that? Instead of using disagreement and conflict as a chance to set an example, to make a reasoned point that will impress others with the rightness of their point of view and with their dedication to reason, they oh-so-often degenerate immediately into name-calling, "de-friending" and moral posturing to prove who is the most loyal supporter of this or that person.

Give me one example where Ayn Rand ever engaged in that kind of sycophantic behavior? Or one example where Leonard Peikoff ever did it? 
In any case, AR's dissassociating from Hospers makes the point my comment started with -- which category of people was Hospers in? Those with fealty to reality, or those with fealty to whim? Clearly the latter, as he revealed. That he concealed it from her showed he was irredeemably dishonest. He was a lost cause.

We could psychologize his motives, or AR's motives for dealing with him in the first place (I doubt she was completely unaware of his intellectual dishonesty -- she was too smart for that) but it's irrelevant, because the second point of my comment remains correct: there's a lot of behavior from Objectivists or wannabees that is completely contrary to Ayn Rand's own approach to spreading ideas or persuading people, and I think they ought to know it.

To put it bluntly: they are acting as a discredit to reason, to her philosophy, and to her memory. They don't practice what they preach, they don't practice what she preached, and they don't practice what she practiced. They are acting as   very   poor  advocates for Objectivism. 
AR upheld reason, not just as a process of thought in the cloistered isolation of one's mind in an airtight room with the door sealed shut, but also as a means of rational persuasion -- to be out there in the world building arguments to reach people, because it's only by reaching people that we can effect cultural change. I'm not fabricating any motives for her here. She wrote about it enough, as when she said (in "What Can One Do?" -- in her book, Philosophy: Who Needs It) that people should speak out in any forum, in any way they can. She also wrote major novels to that same end.

But what's the point of anyone else following her example to build a base of intellectual support for the principle of reason (which was above all else what she stood for) if they then go around condemning and ostracising everyone who lacks the omniscience to see how to properly apply those principles 30 seconds after learning their validity?

It's just asininely ridiculous.

Hell, I couldn't get every electrical engineer on the planet to agree on the application of Ohm's Law in every instance (I could tell stories). But I don't respond by climbing on my soap box and shouting into a megaphone that they're worthless individuals who deserve to burn in hell and anyone who thinks otherwise or consorts with the guilty or consorts with those who consort with the guilty (ad infinitum) shall burn with them. No. I build something that works. There's my ultimate argument and my proof.
Obviously, if someone is dishonest -- sure. You dissassociate, and that might (emphasize "might") demand some public statement. Sometimes, even if someone is basically honest but incapable of following a reasoned argument for whatever reason of predisposition, or is simply rude or obnoxious, you might dissassociate just because they're irritating and maintaining contact does nothing to advance your agenda -- but that doesn't require public displays of breast-beating accompanied by a Tarzan yell of their moral worthlessness. You just pull away until such time as they start behaving as adults and keep open the possibility that they will clean up their act with time, maturity, thought and greater understanding.

But a lot of the "de-friending" and other infantile behavior I'm seeing doesn't even rise to this level. It's got the most superficial kind of rationalization to support it, which amounts to the psychology of a bully who can't marshall a reasoned response to someone more eloquent, so he resorts to the only weapon in his arsenal of ideas -- a punch in the nose. I notice a common thread of this, over and over and over again, among too many of those who climb on a soap box and revert to condemnation when they can't find the words to persuade another mind, as if their failure to construct a reasoned argument is prima facie evidence that the target of their condemnation is dishonest and unreachable.

That's just absurd.

Persuasive, logical arguments that overcome the psychological hurdles of an opponent's entire lifetime of thinking are extremely difficult to construct. Rarely -- and I do mean rarely -- can one ever persuade another of the rightness of one's point of view in a brief conversation (or email exchange). The most you can normally hope to do is plant the seeds for an eventual enlightenment. That's certainly how I approach it. First I try to establish whether my audience is basically honest and whether they have some committment to reality, and then I try to approach them as equals in a way that can be summarized as "have you ever considered this fact, this logic, this point of view?"  
I don't demand agreement, I don't try to construct the comprehensive bullet-proof argument, I only ask that they consider thinking about some point or two. I try to show respect for their intelligence and their ability to think independently, and for their life-experience -- because it can really be hard for people to overcome mental baggage. (I include myself here.) 
I find this a far more successful means of persuasion than condemning everyone who won't agree with me after 5 minutes of discussion. 
And it's only by working at this for years and years do you get better at it. Reasoned, persuasive argument is hard. It takes a lot of thought on how to do it, and a lot of practice doing it.

But you do have to engage with others who disagree with you to get better at it. No one gets that practice by getting mad and giving up, which is what most of the de-friending is all about. That is, giving-up because verbal apoplexy or aphasia forces them to confront an undeveloped cognitive faculty that makes them feel embarassed, inadequate and inferior -- to be an advocate of reason who can't reason. This makes much of the condemnation and ostracism nothing more than an evasion to avoid confronting the loss of self-esteem in their own eyes or their peers' eyes.

I could slice and dice this ad infinitum, but my original comment, like this one, was an off-the-cuff remark that wasn't intended to be a comprehensive discussion, just something to make people think about what they are doing.

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