Monday, November 15, 2010

Don’t Let the Bad Overshadow the Good

As “a person of color”, I’ve often been subject to, or witnessed, racial slurs and taunting, particularly in my younger days. When I was in junior high and high school, these experiences had a real impact on me, making me feel powerless and alone. But by the time I got to college, though I still didn’t like them, I had the attitude: “I’m glad I found this out about the character of the people making these slurs, even if they’re not directed against me”. By that time I realized that no matter what other shared interests I might have with such people (science, sports, humor, etc.); and whatever other intellectual skill or talent they might have, they were deeply flawed and thus of no possible value to me.

Given that it takes years to really get to know someone, I came to consider a person revealing his racism early on as a good thing, for in so doing they saved me enormous time and energy. Indeed I came to the point where I wished that any racist were openly so, because those who hid their true views, not only ended up ultimately having the same noxious effect on me, they doubled it by wasting my time in the interim (and the hurt was worse).

I have the same attitude towards recent events* in the Objectivist community. I’m exceedingly glad that — no matter how “intelligent” they might otherwise be — scum like Rory Hodgson, Dan Edge, Shea Levy, etc. have “outed” themselves with their public spewings, making all too clear their essential characters. I benefit by now being able to shun them; no longer sanctioning their contemptible behavior, nor wasting any further time, energy or other resources on them. And if my reaction is typical, then it’s a good thing that they delivered their vilifications and calumnies early in their involvement in the Objectivist community. Getting rid of them now is analogous to performing a clean, but painful cauterization of a wound, rather than harboring a festering infection which could cause real damage. (Of course, given the particular level of venom displayed by those listed, it was probably inevitable that they’d reveal their true selves sooner rather than later.)

Unfortunately however — because they’re such loud and obnoxious bullies — these few disgusting individuals can give the unfair impression of representing their entire peer group. That’s simply not the case. For example, I’ve been privileged to see the workings of the Undercurrent’s editorial list, whose staff is also comprised of young Objectivists. Everyday I’m struck by how judiciously and rigorously they strive to operate. Ideas and arguments are subject to extremely careful deliberation, scrutiny and multiple editing sessions before they’re made public. Indeed, many posts and articles — despite having significant effort already put into them — are squashed because they’re deemed inadequate for whatever reason (not graspable by an average audience, attacking a strawman, etc.). This of course isn’t to say that the Undercurrent’s product is perfect, but to me it’s extremely inspiring to see the staff consciously engage in the very exacting process necessary to achieve objectivity. And I’m sure there are many other young people out there quietly doing the same — it’s just that I happen to see the Undercurrent’s process daily. (To avoid any confusion, all opinions in this post are mine alone; my using the Undercurrent as an example should not be construed as their endorsement or even knowledge of my personal position on this matter.)

It’s a fact of life that building a reputation takes a long time, but ruining one takes only an instant (just as being honest is a life-long task, while being a liar means only telling one or two lies). The vociferous scumbags are the minority, but because of their pathological need for attention and their bullying tactics, they often get the spotlight. Don’t let them eclipse the many better people in the Objectivist movement who are taking all the slow but necessary steps towards honor and integrity. In the end it is they, not the dregs, who will determine the course of our culture.

* If you’re a normal person (i.e. a person with a life), lucky enough to be unaware of what I’m referring to here, I emphatically urge you NOT to spend a second of your precious time to investigate or research it. There’s absolutely no value to be gained. Unfortunately, I’ve spent a few weekends wading through the muck just to get a sense of what’s been going on. The latter fact explains this post, the former why I won’t be commenting further.


Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for all of the main points you have made.

I have found that one of the advantages of studying history -- especially the history of positive movements (abolishing slavery; industrialization; scientific exploration; and so forth) -- is seeing again and again that conflicts themselves need not stop progress. Indeed, the conflicts, if handled well by the best people, can actually be helpful. Outing bad individuals (as you said) and clarifying latent issues are examples.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Thanks Burgess. And totally off topic, I'm really looking forward to reading your book when I get the time. Its subject and theme are of great interest to me.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

Amit, thank you for your interest in the book.

I think you will find that some chapters (especially the one on Aquinas) are relevant here, at least in a small way. The epistemological conflict over reason and faith was embedded in a tapestry of other conflicts: metaphysical, ethical, social, and economic.

Take care.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Fred Weiss said...

Thank you from me as well.

As you know, I've been admirer of your work for a long time. This just adds to it.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous George Saad said...

Richard Rorty: Objectivist?

1:34 PM  
Blogger Bruno said...

Thank you, Amit.

As a former OAC student (planning on returning soon to conclude the undergraduate program), I was appalled at the tone of the attacks on the people I had the pleasure of interacting first hand with.

It's good to read sane words for a change.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Thanks Fred and Bruno. And while I obviously disagree with the implication of George's comment, at least it has the merits of being funny, clever and mercifully brief.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Fred Weiss said...

George just being his usual snarky self.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Walter said...

If the "essential character" revealed by the racists of your youth was tribal bigotry, what do you see as the essence revealed by those you named?

9:25 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

It's an interesting question Walter, but since I'm not a psychologist, I won't even hazard a guess. The bottom line for me is that anyone who allows themselves to act in any of these ways is utterly contemptible -- and should be treated accordingly.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Snow said...

Wouldn't the American Civil War count as one of the conflicts of the type mentioned by Burgess?

Mr. Ghate, I know you don't want to comment further on the situation, but could you tell me if it does relate to the McCaskey issue in any way? I've been having some severe psychological issues over the past year or two and I've gotten to this stage where I'm completely uninformed about anything going on in the Objectivist community. I've been working to avoid forming any silly and premature conclusions as a result, so I suppose I'd just like to know which mental file drawer of "things I don't know about" I should put your expression of disgust in. It would be a relief to me to at least know that much.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Walter said...

Amit, Leaving aside their essential characteristic, what was their essential action (their essential wrong-doing)?

You did not name it in your post, probably because you assume your readers mostly know the facts. No matter, the furor has gone quiet.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Kendall J said...

Hat tip, Amit. Thanks.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I'm not surprised by a couple other people cheerleading Amit's post, but I am very surprised by you. You certainly disagree with Shea, Rory, myself and others on various specifics of the McCaskey situation and its aftermath. However, I have previously seen you to be thoughtful and respectful about discussing it in good faith, such as discussions with Trey or Shea, and have respected you for that.

Has your views or assessment of and relation to individuals seriously changed? Do you really mean to sanction calling Shea, Rory and Dan "dregs", "disgusting", "obnoxious", "scumbags", "bullies", and an attempt to lump them with racists?

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Aratus said...

Surprised, Aaron? Since when are objectivists any better than other people at criticizing someone on their own "side"?

While it's true that one's reputation can be soiled with one social infraction, reputation and character and quality are not the same things. Even if some people have behaved badly recently, they still have free will; they might still produce something worthwhile, after all. At least one of the people you mention seems to be trying to defend his values, however much you think him mistaken in apprehending those values.

Let's not turn our integrated view of character and action, virtue and values into an objectivist variant on calvinism, where one public misdeed is proof that a person is destined for damnation.

12:19 PM  
Blogger The Pretentious Ignoramus said...

Please provide the factual basis for your slander of these three individuals.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Walter said...

I've read what Shea and Rory wrote. I agree with Amit, but have one objection. On a deeper rung of hell are the posts from Diana and from Biddle.

Obviously, Noodlefood and ToS are more polished. That makes them worse. Shea and Rory are using a cave-man's club. One of them even apologizes, "I didn't mean to lash out". Diana and Biddle use polished obfuscation and context-dropping to pull the unsuspecting to the same end-result. Where the kiddies will be laughed at, the adults did the real damage.

Amit said "et cetera" (Rory, Shea, Dan, etc.). I hope the "etc." meant Diana and Biddle.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To compare the comments by Rory and Shea to racism is absurd.

Even if someone used pejorative language to express his views, these were still conclusions based on facts.

Even if you disagree with those conclusions -- or the manner in which they were said -- these are not the equivalent of the rantings of racists.

Their method is still a rational method, even if the conclusions may be in error and even if they were stated disrespectfully.

This comparison to racist rants does not hold water!

6:23 AM  
Blogger The Pretentious Ignoramus said...

Does anybody plan to offer specific facts, or is merely beating one's foes over the head with a thesaurus sufficient in these quarters?

7:21 AM  
Blogger James said...

Reputation building and destroying works the same: over time, with many separate experiences.

Similarly, a person can be of value in one way, as in a shared interest in sports, but not all ways, as with a disagreement in politics (although that could also be a value).

Of course, the "net value" is determined by the separate values, and the values are weighted. Personally, a disagreement over a confusing situation in the Objectivist community would have to be over some fundamental aspect of Objectivism in order to cancel out the "big value" of the sharing and promotion of Objectivist values between supporters.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Tenure said...

Thank you, Amit. You have made clear your character, and I am glad to know that I can simply avoid your company in future!

10:29 AM  
Blogger Alyssa Mae said...

This post left me speechless. I am a relative newcomer to Objectivism. I used to think that Objectivists were thoughtful and respectful of each other, and disagreements could be handled without attacking people.
What I have seen over the last few weeks has shocked and disgusted me.

There was a lot of confusion surrounding McCaskey's resignation, and many individuals sought to understand the events involved, to know whether or not the ARI was an organization worth supporting based on their personal values. The people you blatantly attack in your post did diligent research and carefully considered all the facts before reaching a conclusion, a courtesy you apparently do not extend to them. They chose to speak out publicly about what they had decided, and they were met with extremely vicious personal attacks that had nothing to do with the content of their arguments. For some of these condemned individuals I have yet to see an actual argument that states why the actions they took were wrong, let alone a description of what exactly those actions were in the first place. If you can’t back up conclusions with evidence, you very clearly show exactly what type of person you are.

These individuals, and many of the individuals I’m guessing are implied in the “etc” have shown me that they are the ones to support. From what I see, they are not cowards. They are bold enough to state their opinions. They consider facts. They support claims with solid reasoning. They are open to correction and new information. Their first action is to attempt private communication with an individual before judging them. But most of all, despite the backlash they have received, they are not afraid to do what is right, and stand by their conclusions with integrity.

10:55 AM  
Blogger The Pretentious Ignoramus said...

What our man Thrutch doesn't seem to appreciate is that the issue his knickers are in a twist over does not even involve Objectivism, but about a theory of induction hatched by Objectivist scholars. Ms. Rand never came up with a theory of induction. Her philosophy is a closed system. Ergo, any book on induction--and most emphatically, not even one written by Peikoff--is not part of Objectism.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

@Anon – Maybe this will help.

Imagine (hypothetically) that you’re an electric utility stock analyst. Say that you choose to do your job by looking up the price of electricity and last year’s annual demand. Then you email some questions to company CEOs but they don’t reply. At which point you begin writing your reports. You know nothing about electricity generation or transmission in general, nor anything about the particular utilities, their competitive landscape, regulatory environment, debt covenants, financial statements, corporate strategy etc. etc. But you still go on to write 100 page “analyses” of the different companies, issuing sweeping (and often profanity-laced) denunciations of some while giving others flattering “Buy” recommendations. If anyone asks you about any of your conclusions, you say they’re based on facts and show them a record of yesterday’s price per MWh, last year’s demand numbers and your unanswered emails.

You’re free to do this, but you can’t claim that it’s a rational process based on facts — it’s not. It’s a factoid-driven process which in this case would constitute professional gross negligence. Any analyst who would choose to operate in such a manner (including actually issuing his “work” product) should be judged accordingly. (Whether or not others engage in the same type of activity, perhaps issuing even glossier reports minus the profanity, is irrelevant. They each must be evaluated on their choices and actions. )

Put another way, I think your comment glosses over the essential difference between error and negligence, a difference which the law rightly recognizes.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Here's a more apt analogy:

An investor in a company is considering whether to continue his investment. Some disturbing news arrives concerning the company, making him question its long term stability. Before selling, he contacts the company and attempts to get more information, but none is forthcoming. Like any outside investor, he must operate based on the information available to him. He decides to sell his stock in the company, and shares the reasons for his decision.

In a quarterly conference call, the CEO and CFO of the company single out this former investor by name. They quote him without permission, call his decision to sell a 'rant', and make false statements about whether he communicated with the company.

The former investor defends himself against misleading and false charges. This results in getting threatened with legal action, as well as having other current investors call him a flurry of slurs such as disgusting, obnoxious scumbag.

Did I miss anything?

1:21 PM  
Blogger The Pretentious Ignoramus said...


Yes, you did miss something: you forgot that the primary purpose of the company is to espouse reason and that the benevolent universe premise is in the company's by-laws. Finally, you seem to have also forgotten who is "in charge".

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Aaron, you missed quite a bit. And Amit's analogy was too lenient.

Let's modify Amit's analogy to make it more true to life: Let's say the analyst, based on the flimsy and negligent analysis Amit suggests, doesn't put a 'buy' recommendation on the company, but instead a 'sell' recommendation. And then proclaims that, based on his analysis, he will now loudly and publicly bash the company from this time forward, at every opportunity, to anyone and everyone he can (employees, other investors, etc), in no uncertain terms, until the company accedes to his demands to change their policies.

But, he protests, he's still like totally 'honest' because if any new information comes to light (beyond the flimsy evidence he's based his negligent and incompetent analysis on), he'll totally change his mind! And then he'll even stop bashing the company! (Well, except for all that bashing before, that will now be preserved forever as a matter of public record.) No harm, no foul, right! How could we think ill of such an honest, fair-minded, objective person? Poor guy....

2:27 PM  
Blogger Tenure said...

Nor such a courageous individual such as your self, standing out here with your name on the line, standing so bravely behind your statements.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

All of this nonsense proves to me one thing that I have had a sneaking suspicion of ever since I started looking into objectivism, that, no matter how hard the objectivist may try, human emotion cannot be completely removed from the situation. Here you have someone who is supposed to be an expert objectivist showing just as much emotion about the subject as a student in objectivism.

On another note, some racists in history have contributed greatly to our society.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, Seth, perhaps we have an expert Objectivist whose emotions are in perfect harmony with his rational identifications of the true essence of the matter in this case? In other words, maybe his greater depth of understanding is allowing him to see something that *you* are completely missing?

4:40 AM  
Blogger James said...

Anonymous, that is just an argument from authority.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James - it's not an argument from authority because it's not an argument. It was a response to Seth - who also didn't make an argument - but assumed there was only one possible way to interpret things. I suggested he check his premises.

2:43 PM  

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