Intellectual Activism

By Diana Mertz Brickell

Date: Thu, 21 Apr 1994 21:50:07 -0500 (CDT)

From: Diana Mertz Brickell

To: Vixie-objectivism

Subject: Intellectual Activism (long)

This is a very long follow-up to my earlier questions about activism in college. A thanks goes to Eric Barnhill for straightening out lots of convoluted sentences! Comments are more than welcome.
In order to 'survive' in the realm of ideas, every philosophy needs proponents, individuals actively advocating its principles and persuading others of its validity. Without any advocates, a school of thought will have no effect whatsoever. Without converts, the philosophy will shortly disappear, probably never to be recovered.

In this regard, Objectivism is no different from any other philosophy, but Objectivists have two distinct advantages over the proponents of all other philosophies. First and foremost, Objectivism is true. This advantage is unprecedented; no other philosophy can compete with Objectivism on this level. Second, Objectivism precludes any sacrifice by its supporters for 'the cause'; rather individual self-interest determines the level of intellectual activism. An Objectivist will be philosophically active to the extent of his understanding of the import of philosophy to his life and of his available mental and physical resources. The excitement and passion that inevitably flows from this awareness cannot be matched by anyone who dully advocates an idea out of duty. But advocating unpopular ideas in a hostile culture is hardly easy; the resulting psychological drain stemming can be overwhelming to bear alone. This is one reason why it is crucial that Objectivists have the emotional support of friends, for friendship can easily counteract the oft-encountered rancor.
Yet the recognition of the value of actively advocating Objectivism does not tell us how to best pursue this value.

We must be reasonably sure that our actions will be efficacious before we debate. We can neither lose sight of the fact that most people have given up on our intellectual leaders and even on ideas themselves, nor can we ignore the widespread misconceptions about Ayn Rand's philosophy. In short, we must be sure that our methods are sound and also appropriate to our audience's context of knowledge.

First, Objectivists must stress the crucial role that philosophy plays in the life of every individual. The fact that there are answers to be found, answers of life and death importance, must be (at least) implicit in every philosophical discussion. Understanding the power of philosophy in the lives of individuals is necessary *before* an individual can understand the relevance of Objectivism to his life. The question that Eric Barnhill raised about how to convince other admirers of Rand to get "firmly grounded in philosophy" is troublesome, and only means to this end seems to be offering lots of inductive evidence. Much of this issue is covered in Rand's essay "Philosophy: Who Needs It," so I do not think it is necessary to speak of it further.

Considering the advocation Objectivism proper, there are two issues to be stressed: understanding and integrating the principles of Objectivism and arguing effectively. Without having a good grasp of both Objectivism and convincing methods of argumentation, it would be nearly impossible to convince anyone of Objectivism's veracity.

Rand's writings are the primary source of information about Objectivism, but secondary sources (like Objectivity) also provide enormous benefit, as does interaction with other Objectivists. Discussion between those who fundamentally agree provides a non-threatening atmosphere and a common context. When arguing with an adversary, an error or lack of evidence is a loss; with allies it is an opportunity for growth. Those who have communicated with other Objectivists can speak to its aid in understanding Objectivism and its personal benefits as well.

The gentle art of persuasion is a skill that many Objectivists desperately need to learn. All too often Objectivists quickly morally condemn those who disagree with them or even substitute moral condemnation for rational argument. David Kelley, Nathaniel Branden, and many others have gone great lengths to reverse this disturbing trend by advocating a more benevolent attitude towards those with whom we disagree. Care must always be taken to remain clearly focussed on the issues being discussed rather than the personalities involved and to express one's passionate certainty benevolently. One must also be prepared to concede error or ignorance in debate. Clinging onto disproven ideas out of false pride immediately destroys the audience's trust in one's rationality and often in one's ideas as well.

Identifying the context of the debate, particularly the environment, is also crucial. Different methods are required for different settings, but the cardinal rule is to avoid provoking hostility or defensiveness. Tim Starr wrote recently: "Another question to consider is what one's goal is with dissenters: to refute them, or to persuade them. In my experience, refutation of those who disagree with me has never done me much immediate good... Refutation comes more easily to me, but whenever I can stick to persuasion it pays off in spades."

I heartily agree. But because no one can live in a ideological vacuum, simply revealing someone's errors is not enough; they must be presented with a viable alternative. People also need time to not only re-evaluate their old beliefs but also evaluate new ideas. To demand that anyone instantly accept a new set of idea as true is not taking into account the nature of human consciousness.

So how can Objectivists learn how to consistently apply good debating techniques? Debating with other Objectivists (perhaps having one play the devil's advocate), jumping headfirst into a UseNet group and learning by trial and error, utilizing the emailing lists, or even just watching what techniques are effective in convincing others. People like Jimbo Wales, John Enright, and Will Wilkinson (to name a few) have had a profound effect on alt.philosophy.objectivism, the result of which has been a huge increase in the membership of MDOP.
One of the primary goals of Objectivism as a loose intellectual movement has always been promoting the study of Objectivism in colleges and universities. The reasons are quite simple. Universities are environments where ideas are deemed important and intellectual investigation is encouraged, at least superficially. Students are at the age when the make decisive choices about the role that ideas will play in their life, and about the specific ideas that will guide their actions. Moreover, most people read and are inspired by The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in high school or college, before having lost the "idealism of youth."

In promoting an intellectual movement on college campuses, two of the most apparent means of fostering the growth of Objectivism are through campus clubs and the internet. (I think that there are more ideas to be had here, so I welcome alternate suggestions).

Campus clubs can be great resources for college students. A good club would be loosely organized, promote conceptual understanding of Objectivism, encourage friendly debate, and help form friendships. But the fact that campus clubs have not been very successful, even declining in membership in recent years, is a signal that these important elements are either non-existent or underemphasized. Especially in college, where the pressure to conform is great and the desire for like-minded friends is extremely important, a loose, friendly gathering of Objectivists and admirers of Rand (even if they disagree on some issues) seems to be the best way to conduct an Objectivist group. With such mutual benevolence established, dealing with others on campus hostile to Rand's ideas would not be so difficult.

But there is another resource available to college students: the internet. It is available to virtually every college student and provides great opportunities for Objectivists to communicate regardless of location (which can be crucial for people who do not have other Objectivists in their vicinity). But because finding other Objectivists on the net who share one's intellectual and personal interests can be difficult, Will Wilkinson, Eric Barnhill, Jimbo Wales, and I have been working on a project to facilitate the establishment of more personal ties between Objectivists, particularly those in college. We are establishing a means by which Objectivists with shared intellectual or personal interests can find each other easily, thus encouraging the three keys to making Objectivism a real intellectual movement again: integration, debate, and friendship. This project has the capacity to grow in accordance with the demand, but for the moment, it will start as an index of Objectivists in school (high school, undergraduate, graduate). You will be hearing more about this project from Will soon.
Finally I want to convey a few of my personal sentiments about the meaning of making Objectivism a true intellectual movement again. I was in the library Saturday, looking through all the old issues of The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter. In the early issues a sense of excitement and efficacy pervaded the writings; implicit in every article was the idea that the philosophy would conquer the world. But, when the conflict exploded with the Brandens, the whole tone changed. Articles were often reactive instead of pro-active; the sense of efficacy disappeared. For example, the "intellectual ammunition" department, a section dedicated to giving people the means to fight for the philosophy, was replaced around this time by the "horror file" department, a pathetic tribute to the fact that the culture was *not* changing. Rand's articles concerning the closing of the Ayn Rand Letter were the most disheartening of all. It was, in essence, a proclamation of her ineffectiveness, of her inability to change the culture that was destroying all that she valued.

I want to see the type of optimism and efficacy that I saw in the pages of TON again. For above all else, it is a belief in the potency of ideas and the capability of Objectivists to change the world that needs to be recaptured.

We cannot lose ourselves to condemnations of the "swamp of irrationalism" into which our culture is sinking (according to ARI). We have to remain firm in the belief that ideas matter, that Objectivism matters, and that Objectivists, properly armed with knowledge, debating skills, and the emotional support of friends, *will* change the world.

diana mertz brickell.



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