Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

04 June 2006

Civility and Tolerance Among Objectivists

Throughout the history of the Objectivist movement, there have been disturbing excommunications or denunciations of people who have identified themselves as Objectivists or at least neo-Objectivists. There have been many cases in which the civility of a discussion has broken down as the passions of one or more parties to the discussion have transformed to anger. Despite the philosophy's commitment to reason, one not infrequently sees arguments degenerate into blatant strawman killings, dropping of context, creative transformations of the other party's words into new meanings, and even extensive name-calling. Literally childish behavior is not uncommon.

I would like to enlarge the context in which the discussion of this phenomenon usually occurs. I would like us to give some thought to parallels with the development of other philosophies and with religions. I would like to consider the nature of the various kinds of people who tend to be attracted to radical new philosophies and to the consequences on their lives due to their participating as early members of a radically new philosophy. Of course, Objectivism is a particular philosophy with some unusual tenets that also have important consequences with respect to the civility of discussions and relationships. There were also aspects of Ayn Rand's personality and beliefs that have had important effects upon Objectivist discourse.

First, we should establish an historical context. While there are bound to be examples before Christianity, it serves as an interesting case in which a fairly significant change occurred in religion as Judaism was transformed to Christianity and Christianity was further created by adding in elements of Greek mythology, Egyptian mythology, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and later various barbarian European beliefs. The Christian followers, despite growing out of Judaism and borrowing from other religions as their belief sought to expand beyond appealing simply to the Jews, came to hold a belief system readily distinguishable from that of the more primitive religions of the Mediterranean basin. At first, they blended in with the Jews, but as they expanded their range geographically and as the time of their separation from Judaism increased, they became more distinguishable and were more likely to be outcasts from the societies in which they lived. Often, the Christians were secretive to avoid recriminations for these differences. They also developed into many varieties of Christianity, often being influenced by which part of the Mediterranean world they lived in. Finally, they came to at share in the power of the Roman Empire. As the ability to direct power came into play, we know that the battle over differing interpretations of Christianity came to be highly influenced by the desire of Church leaders to exercise power. While Jesus may have been willing to yield unto Caesar the material world, the church fathers were not. Ecumenical councils were called to settle many of the very hot disputes that developed. The Church broke into an Eastern and a Western part. In the West, the Pope became increasingly powerful and some gained personality cult status. Wars were launched against those who disagreed with the Pope, whether they were Muslims or they were Christian heretics. About a million people were killed after 1209 when Pope Innocent called for a crusade against the many heretics of the Albigenses in southern France. Later, after the Reformation, general warfare broke out in Europe for several hundred years fueled by religious differences.

Christianity, the self-proclaimed religion of God's love, with its commandment to turn the other cheek after being slapped once already, proved immensely uncivil in its disagreements. This was so even though their highest value, presumably God, was hardly made less by the disagreements of mere human beings! Similarly, the Muslims had long periods of history, one of which they are presently in, in which they were divided into sects who fought bitterly with one another.

How about the case of a philosophy of secular ideas, such as socialism? In the 1800s there were a number of utopian socialist communities set up in America, such as New Harmony, Indiana and the Shakers in Ohio. All of these communities failed with considerable acrimony. When Russia was taken over by the Bolsheviks, many, many leaders were purged and killed under Lenin and then even more under Stalin, each of whom dominated the Communist Party and Russia. The fascist variety of socialism took hold in Italy under Mussolini, who tightly controlled Italy. Hitler rose to power in Germany and ruthlessly killed any leader who appeared to challenge him for the leadership of the Nazi Party. When Mao led the Communists in China, he killed about 60 million Chinese to consolidate his power. These socialist endeavors marked a sharp departure, in some ways, in the cultures in which they came to hold sway. They were all ruthless, but supposedly in the name of rather radical ideas.

Viewed in the context of the history of these other radical movements, Objectivism has been very tame, despite its radicalism! Like these other movements, Objectivism does attract a number of followers who are unhappy and unable to adjust to the society in which they live. At some level, this may be true of all of us, though the ways and the extent of the unhappiness and inability to adjust vary greatly. This is not to imply that it is desirable for us to adjust completely, but there is much that is good about present-day American society. A partial alienation is good, but a complete alienation is bad. Objectivism has attracted some people who are highly alienated from America. There are always some people in a society who are contrarian by nature and will adopt a philosophy that is at odds with that of most people in the society in good part simply because it is different. One example of this would be the Wiccans and many more exist. Some of the people attracted to a radical philosophy become more alienated and more contrarian as they feel more rejection of their ideas from their neighbors and their society. They react with stronger condemnations of their society and its leadership. This accustoms them to a greater degree of stridency in their dealings with others and soon they are inclined to apply this same stridency with those of the Objectivist movement who may disagree with them on a minor point in the context of all the things they may agree on.

Because of the egoist premise that one is one's own highest value and the need for independent thought in Objectivism, the philosophy attracts a large fraction of individualists and some people who simply want a rationale for a childish kind of self-centeredness. Being independent thinkers and individualists, any collection of such people will embody a huge number of ideas, with many differing nuances and sometimes even strong fundamental differences. Because the philosophy emphasizes the importance of ideas, these differences are taken to be important. This is fine, when the larger context of areas of agreement is remembered, but it is a real problem when it is not. As we all know, many people will focus so intently on the single tree in the forest that they forget that the forest has many, many individual trees in it and each is also important in the context of the total forest.

Even though the Objectivist movement attracts individualists, some contrarians, and some childishly self-centered people, most wish to find others in the movement with whom they can feel comfortable, welcome, and who will like them. Humans are generally social animals. So, there are some who will be all too willing to submerge their independent thought to belong to one clique or another. Just as it is human nature to seek a clique in high school, or in a political party, or in a religious sect, so too do we find this effect in Objectivism, despite its incompatibility with the philosophy itself!

But, this incompatibility does have its consequences. The primary one is that to mask it, most clique comformists do so by claiming to hold the precise and exact same views on every subject that Ayn Rand held herself. They compete with one another to prove that this is so and they try desperately to find meaning in quotes of her work applied initially to a different context in every issue they face decades later by wiping out all thought of any differences in the context between then and now and dependent upon different factors being in play. They must trade in their independent minds, simply to belong to a group and be accepted. Having done this, they then raise Rand to the level of deity. After all, she must provide the answer to their every question, despite the fact she is no longer alive. Only a goddess can do that.

To maintain the clique, disputes must be kept to a minimum. So effectively, this clique claims the goddess Ayn Rand makes this possible by virtue of having developed essentially a complete philosophy, which was closed for further development with her death. The members of this clique cannot then be forced to venture onto new ground, where they might disagree with one another. They also cannot be criticized by others for not being creative and original thinkers. This would be very awkward given that the philosophy was so much created for the purpose of enabling men to be creative and original thinkers. They are simply being pure and true followers of Rand and anyone who disagrees is tainted by being in disagreement with Ayn Rand. Furthermore, one really must have a very substantial self-esteem to venture where Rand did not go. As an Objectivist cult adherent, one acquires a claim to a pseudo-self-esteem to augment any deficiencies of real self-esteem one may have.

Students of history know that very often the most bitterly fought wars are civil wars. Many of the same factors were at work when Christians branded others as heretics, when socialists fought among themselves, and when Objectivists fight among themselves. At least, Objectivists do not kill one another over their disagreements!

When a truly independent-minded and self-confident Objectivist enters into a discussion with a clique and deity-worshipping Objectivist, the clique person cannot help but feel very uneasy. He is constrained from venturing onto new ground. If he even tries, he must do so by the torturous process of finding a quote by Rand that seems generally to apply to the new situation and either sell the idea that the present context is very similar or he has to obscure the fact that it is not. This would be a difficult exercise for someone who is in the habit of thinking for himself! He is also in the awkward condition of having to maintain at all times that Rand was perfect in every way. The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics shows us how torturous that is.

To this point, I have made no claim that either the philosophy or Ayn Rand herself are responsible for the infighting. The problems I have described are the result of common problems we have always seen in human nature. For the record, I do not believe that the philosophy is at fault for these problems by virtue of its essential and correct principles. There are some minor points that Rand made that may be minor contributors, but that is because she was either wrong or simply did not get the complete context of the ideas herself. Fundamentally, the philosophy is one for living life well and doing so harmoniously with other thinking and achieving people. Yes, it is radical, so it attracts some alienated people and some who are simply contrarian by nature, but that cannot be changed and is not a fault of the philosophy. The philosophy makes ideas very important and that makes the outcome of disagreements important. How you promote knowledge-seeking and practical discussions and collaborations among people has been the subject of many of my earlier essays and is also the primary subject of David Kelley's Truth and Toleration. Ayn Rand did not sufficiently address these issues, but they can and have been addressed properly in the context of the principles of Objectivism. Unfortunately, those who believe that Objectivism is a closed system do not enjoy a decently expanded concept of the roles that benevolence and toleration play as enablers of the transmission of ideas between people, to develop new creative ideas, and to test ideas.

Was Ayn Rand responsible in some ways for the legacy of infighting in Objectivism? Yes, I would say that she did contribute to this in ways that will slow the spread of the philosophy. Since I always thought that Objectivism would take at least 100 years to become America's dominant philosophy, I am not as disappointed as those who thought this was going to happen in their lifetime. But, I would like to have seen it get wider acceptance than it has.

Ayn Rand's own failure to think and write more about benevolence and toleration is a factor in Objectivist culture having problems engaging others and one another in effective discussions and collaborations. There is some reason to suspect that she did not properly understand these issues, based upon her personal behavior with her colleagues.

Rand came from a very fragile society that fell to Communism and her view of human nature seems to have been affected by that experience. When discussing politics, she often exaggerated the effect that a bad government policy was going to have on the nation. She underestimated the strength of the American economy and the ingenuity of its people in getting around the problems created by government on a number of issues. She even advocated a reduction of freedom of speech in the interest of making the broadcasting media deliver opposing viewpoints because she was so afraid of socialism taking over America. Consequently, she had an exaggerated fear of error in general.

She was an idealist and she was sure that any compromise between the ideal and the achievable was usually bad. She had a tendency to make the ideal the enemy of the good. This has infected many Objectivists. They are unwilling to make compromises for fear that this means that they have forsaken the ideal. Frankly, they overdo this, as she did. Because many do this, they cannot even converse with Libertarians, Conservatives, and Socialists. How do you change people's minds if you will not talk to them? This desire for purity carries over into discussions with other Objectivists with somewhat different viewpoints. In general, it is stultifying.

Ayn Rand was also too ready to assume that when someone held a mistaken viewpoint, it was due to a moral shortcoming. Many of her worshipping followers are even more inclined to make such unbenevolent and intolerant assumptions. Ayn Rand underestimated the intelligence that was necessary for others to understand complex issues. She thought that if someone had an inadequate IQ, enough effort would increase their IQ by enough. I agree that many people probably can increase their IQs, but probably not by nearly as much as she thought they could.

Ayn Rand's tendency to denounce people who disagreed with her on significant, but not necessarily central principles was a problem. Her failure to share responsibility for the break-up of her romantic relationship with Nathaniel Branden certainly created a problem. The way she dismissed him in To Whom It May Concern was highly irrational and set a bad example. Her denunciation of Barbara Branden was absolutely senseless. Some of these problems came about because she was certain she was a great hero in all respects and should be treated as such. She clearly had difficulty in properly valuing the ideas of others. She was a natural loner in many ways and did not always do justice to the contributions that earlier thinkers had made to her development of Objectivism. Of course, their work often had serious errors in it, but work with serious errors can still be very valuable in suggesting how to avoid those errors and to stimulate new approaches.

But, in summary, I think that the shortcomings of Ayn Rand's personality in her personal relations with people and as a thinker about society and human interactions are secondary issues. She presented us with a wonderfully sound and substantially developed philosophy with many innovative features. There is still much to be developed, but it is fantastic that a novelist accomplished so much as a philosopher. The core of the philosophy is not at fault in causing the in-fighting among Objectivists either. Where it has shortcomings, they can be fixed and the philosophy can be filled out in a manner consistent with Ayn Rand's own work in its essential aspects. Most of the problems in the Objectivist movement are the result of human nature and have been experienced to an even greater degree perhaps by other historically radical movements. With dedicated work, we can learn to work better as a team, but individualists will find things to disagree about. Some people will always latch onto a movement with a religious mindset. Some people will always form cliques. Objectivism has to find ways to live with this.

Those Objectivists who are truly independent thinkers and who are creative must simply continue their work. They must teach benevolence and tolerance. They must hold in their minds that a society as productive and free as the American society is has many good people in it. They must remind the more alienated Objectivists of this context. Still more important, they must reach out to Americans in general and engage them in discussions in a constructive manner. They must be explanatory, rather than accusatory. Most important, they must lead by example. If they live productive, thinking lives, exercise self-responsibility, treat others with justice, and engage others in reasoned, respectful discussions, then the Objectivist movement should flourish over the long haul.