Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Which I Wade Into It

Note to non-Objectivist friends and family--if you have questions about this post, ask me about it in person and I'll try to explain. And please feel free to move on by. PLEASE.

Normally, I don't wade into controversies and debates among Objectivists, at least not online. I prefer to discuss such matters in person. It's not that I don't have opinions on recent topics of debate (recent meaning, over the past couple of years). I do. I have lots of opinions about many things, as regular readers of this blog should well be aware. :)

Generally, I choose not to spend my time sharing and/or discussing and/or debating such matters with people on the internets. It is not a good use of my time usually. And I am ever-mindful of the fact that non-Objectivist spectators are watching and forming opinions about Objectivists, and Objectivism, based on what they see on the internet. This stresses me out because many of these disagreements turn ugly and are full of accusations and pointless bickering (on both sides, even among those I end up agreeing with). I know newbies and Objectivist-curious folks are turned off by this. Hell, I'm turned off by this.

It just occured to me that one of the reasons I rarely engage in this online stuff is that my day job is full of ugly accusations and pointless bickering already, so I usually get my fill of it. And I have little enough patience for this stuff with my children--but I especially have no patience for this kind of stuff from grownups.

Okay. Here the wading begins. The first thing I will do is point you to Diana's post on the matter, which contains all of the relevant links. If you are aware of this already, you've no doubt read this excellent post.

About watchmen: Here's a post about the role of watchmen in a movement. I need to think about this more, but I don't have a problem with this idea. In fact, if it weren't for excellent posts by other Objectivists, namely Diana and Paul, it would have taken me much longer to understand many of the problems that hit Objectivism just before I read Ayn Rand and while I was in college (specifically, the Branden/Kelley stuff, and Libertarianism). So I appreciate those who have taken the time to help straighten out areas where a lot of people are or could be confused.

Anyone can choose to have a watchman role, and really I think that's awesome. As Burgess writes in his post above:
The responsibility of being watchmen is heavy. It requires diligence in research, thought, and argumentation. It also requires the strength to withstand scrutiny.

I agree. Also, when there are watchmen around, it means those of us who use those people as resources must decide for ourselves whether they are credible as watchmen. Truth be told, and I'm sorry if this is the first Diana knows about this, but it took me a while to consider her a credible resource. It took me lots of time (more on this point in a bit) because, well, maybe I'm slow. It takes me a while to make up my mind about people in general, especially if I only "know" them online. And I don't just believe everything I read on the internet--so take heed, watchers everywhere! I am watching--and thinking about--you. And you do the same to me. ("Judge, and prepare to be judged!")

I think I'd be able to take this new project more seriously if they had brought out some evidence that Diana disagrees with something fundamental to Objectivism. I see nothing fundamental put forth here, in the Diana column, anyway. (There are plenty of fundamentals pointed to under the other tabs, as anyone familiar with Objectivism for any length of time is no doubt already aware.) I've known Diana for a long time now (though we only met in person last year), so I am not expecting any such evidence to come to light.

Matters of disagreement over philosophical or political application are interesting to me, because I often can learn something about the different points of view based on following the discussion. However, unless someone is behaving in a dishonest (not virtuous) way or rude fashion, I find it difficult to get to the point where I must condemn someone's character over our disagreement.

Which brings me to my main point, which Christian mentioned on Facebook:
[The] method of assessing people primarily according to their professed conclusions about issues and people is profoundly anti-intellectual. . . .

As I told my friend Kelly the other day, I am certain that there are Objectivists out there on the internets who would have de-friended Dagny and Hank about 50 pages into Atlas Shrugged for being too dense to figure out their errors already. Someone like Eddie Willers would never even have stood a chance with such Objectivists.


Yaron Brook repeated this theme at last year's OCON: "Objectivism is HARD." He is correct. I first read this stuff when I was only 18 years old. 23 years later and I'm still working hard to figure things out. In fact, I was WRONG about all kinds of things for a long, long time. Thank the gods that the internets weren't really around back then, lest I be smote for my ignorance or wrongness. In fact, my first forays into internet Objectivism--the old usenet groups--turned me away from even trying to find Objectivists in real life for YEARS because people were so ugly to those who were new and/or confused.

There's a difference between being wrong about something and being immoral. What I mean is, holding a wrong conclusion (or even many) is not necessarily immoral, or even damaging to the movement especially when you are open to discussing (not debating--I refer you here if you'd like to learn the difference between a discussion and a debate) the premises and arguments around the issue.

And because Objectivism is hard, it takes lots of thinking and lots of time to figure things out, even if you are already basically a moral person. And until you figure things out, you might be holding a wrong premise or conclusion or two. (And even then, once you think you've got X figured out, then suddenly you realize that Y needs addressing, and oh no--what about the implications of Z?, etc. It's an ongoing process, the thinking.)

How long did it take Hank and Dagny to figure it out? As I recall, most of that enormous book. Poor Eddie never quite got there. (I like to think he might have, if he'd had a bit more time.)

Note: I'm not referring to any particular area of disagreement I have with Diana--or anyone--here. It's merely a commentary on how many people confuse being wrong with being immoral.

I'm still thinking through what I think about this whole new controversy. Probably there is more I can add, but I think I'll stick to one last thing. This seems a huge waste of time and resources, given the enormity of what we all would like to accomplish.

And now, I'll climb out of the muck, clean up, dry off, and get back to work.


Paul Hsieh said...

Very nice writeup!

One aspect is that there's a big difference between "person X is wrong" and "person X is wrong and should have known better". That's akin to the difference between honest error and evasion.

The "should have known better" is always the more difficult aspect to determine. Of course, there are cases where it's pretty clear cut that someone "should have known better" on some topic or issue (which is why the concept of "negligence" exists in the law).

But what's clearly obvious to one person may take lots of thinking and digesting to others. I'll admit that I haven't always been as mindful of this as I could have, and I think this often drives many of the vehement disagreements between Objectivists as well.

(There are undoubtedly other important factors, such as base personality, communication skill, and willingness or lack thereof to "assume positive intent" that play a role as well.)

RandTrading said...

Where do I begin? It's fine for you to be wrong about Objectivism. You can do it all the time. You can say the silliest things and hold the worst premises and tell them to the world whenever you like. You aren't presenting yourself as an Objectivist philosopher. It's even ok for Objectivist philosophers to be wrong, just not as consistently and willfully as DH. She has had two decades to figure this stuff out. She hasn't. She isn't going to.

Unknown said...

Great post! Most of what I have had to say on the topic has been during heated, irate moments. You have said what I have wanted to say in words that sound reasoned and rational. Thank you!

Elandwyn said...

Thank you for the writeup, Jenn. This controversy strikes me as utterly absurd in several ways, all beautifully spelled out in Diana's recent post. There is *such* a big difference between Objectivism and Objectivist discussion, and I am becoming increasingly irritated with every exposure I have to opinions which refuse to draw that distinction.
Paul, the parenthetical addition to your comment rang very true to me. I find the unwillingness of some folks to assume positive intent to be extremely frustrating and downright disheartening.
RandTrading - what? It's okay to be wrong, but not consistently and willfully? I have yet to see Diana comment formally on any idea where she didn't systematically consider all the evidence and alternative viewpoints. Until you can present a case where she "willfully" ignored facts, there is absolutely no basis for your argument. And see Diana's opinion regarding her status as an "Objectivist philosopher", while you're searching for evidence. Argh.

Michael Randall said...

Nice post, Jenn. I'm still in shock by what so many friends are choosing as important for their time and energy. Thankfully my 4 month old is not yet this childish, so I can spend my down time on things that are much more important and fun...more important than what is broken on the interwebs. I wish our friends would go back to sharing the good and railing against actual evils in the world.

Atul Kapur said...

This is the only post on the issue, among the many I've read, with which I can fully agree. (Hence, my first public comment.) Thanks for writing this, Jenn!

This does not imply that I agree with Dr. Diana Hsieh on any of those controversial issues (including, on her choice of words while expressing disagreement with Dr. Peikoff.) However, just as Jenn, I too have not yet seen any evidence supporting the claim that Dr. Hsieh has "revealed herself to not understand and/or to not agree with certain aspects of Objectivism".

BetsySpeicher said...

Thanks so much, Jenn, for a thoughtful, well-reasoned post.

Moral judgment needs to be done PROPERLY. As Ayn Rand wrote:

"The opposite of moral neutrality is not a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action or person that does not fit one's mood, one's memorized slogans or one's snap judgment of the moment. Indiscriminate tolerance and indiscriminate condemnation are not two opposites: they are two variants of the same evasion."


"A judge puts himself on trial every time he pronounces a verdict. It is only in today's reign of amoral cynicism, subjectivism and hooliganism that men may imagine themselves free to utter any sort of irrational judgment and to suffer no consequences. But, in fact, a man is to be judged by the judgments he pronounces."

Based on the care you have taken in your assessment of the situation, I judge you very positively and hope everyone learns from your good example.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I believe that it is Yaron Brook who says: Sanctimony is easy, morality is hard.

Sigh. As a teen growing up with an Objectivist parent, I saw enough sanctimony among some Objectivists to seriously wonder what the hell my dad had got himself into. And unfortunately it has not ended, but instead gone viral.

Thank you, Jenn, for a post that reminds me that while sanctimony may always be with us, there are more Objectivists who are truly moral and discuss rather than debate.