Saturday, February 17, 2007

How to Argue Objectively

Nicholas Provenzo of The Rule of Reason blog was kind enough to stop by and leave a comment about my Objectivist Rumble post. Thank you!
I do wonder if some of these online debates suffer from the fact that the participants can’t look each other in the eye so-to-speak as they make their various arguments. But at root, I think the debate is most impacted by the skill of the debaters; a good debater sticks to the essentials, doesn’t nitpick, and doesn’t create side issues that are not germane to the fundamental issue at bar. In my view, it’s only when people consistently act badly that these things become an issue.
I would like to believe that this type of behavior would vanish if it was a face-to-face encounter. I will relate my personal experience with a particular Objectivist. Now, as I stated in this post, I do consider myself an Objectivist. I always preface that statement with 'amateur' when I'm speaking to other Objectivists so that they know I arrived at my opinions by only Ayn Rand's books, casual discussion, and no Objectivist Academic Center work--and I know I may be wrong.

I became interested in Objectivism through my husband, Aaron. Once I read Virtue of Selfishness and Philosophy: Who Needs It?, I was hooked. I read as much Ayn Rand as I could get my hands on. We sought out other Objectivists in the area and discovered the Yale Objectivist Club. From that club we started a weekly Objectivist discussion group in our own home.

We still constantly sought out other Objectivists with whome we hoped to socialize and exchange thoughtful comments. We actually used to hold monthly meetings with an extended group of lovely people. This was about the same time as the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

Dr. Peikoff had appeared on the O'Reilly show advocating (correctly) that we should use whatever weapons are at our disposal to efficiently end the conflict decisively. While we agreed with Dr. Peikoff's point, we felt that he was at a severe disadvantage in the 'he said, she said,' ten-minutes-to-get-to-your-talking-points format. I believe we ultimately decided that he didn't look calm while advocating these (to the audience) extraordinary points.

When we announced that we wanted to talk about Dr. Peikoff's unsatisfactory appearance in our next monthly group meeting, we got a first-hand taste of Objectivist condemnation. One of the people who used to come said he (I'm afraid that it has been about four or five years now--I know that a lot of people like to get up in arms when an actual name is not used, like you're afraid to actually accuse them by name, but I have just forgotten it) refused to sanction us by coming to our house until he understood more about why we thought Dr. Peikoff's appearance was unsatisfactory.

He asked for an explanation of what we meant. Aaron, specifically asked to meet in person. Aaron understood that a text-only discussion is easy to misinterpret. This man refused to meet in person--not at our house, not with us at all--because he felt this would still be sanctioning us. When we actually did e-mail, Aaron made it clear that we agreed whole-heartedly with Dr. Peikoff's message but felt that in such a format Dr. Peikoff came off poorly--he looked too emotional and sounded screechy to us. We were trying to imagine what someone who was not familiar with Objectivism might get out of the exchange. Calling Dr. Peikoff's appearance too emotional was the last straw for this individual. He felt that we were maligning Dr. Peikoff and refused to engage us in any way.

Was I betraying the principles of Objectivism by criticizing Dr. Peikoff's appearance? Someone thought so. Someone thought that to critique Dr. Peikoff at all (and not even just about the view he was advocating--but his manner of conveying it) was so disrespectful that it could not be endured. Given that Yaron Brook and a few other Objectivist speakers specifically had media training about two years ago, I think that I am not the only one who believes that talk shows require a certain knowledge about the format.

While I agree that in-person dialogues are best, once an Objectivist decides they are or Objectivism is being disapproved of or Objectivism is being twisted in some way, that's it. There's no way to have a conversation because any facilitation of the discussion is impossible--they will state that any participation on their part is sanction. That is effectively what Dr. Robert Mayhew said on Harry Binswanger's e-mail list (he did not actually use the word sanction, but that appears to be what he meant).

This just opens up a whole debate in my mind about what is sanction, when should it be used, and how can anyone actually have discussions when sanction is called at the first remark that might show substantial disagreement or possible offense?

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