Jan 26, 2012

Should a movement have watchmen?

A movement has no gatekeepers. That means there is no way to stop destructive individuals from entering the movement. Yet, there must be quality control at some level to prevent damage to efforts to reach the goals of the movement. To detect dangers, a movement needs watchmen as lookouts.

JOB REQUIREMENTS. The individuals who choose to be watchmen and exercise quality control, in some manner and at some level, are necessarily "self-appointed." Such a function is open to anyone who sees a danger worthy of action and has the skills to take appropriate steps -- which means mainly the ability to present an objective argument proving his charges against other individuals in the movement.

Objectivity means drawing all ideas logically from facts of reality. To be objective, an indictment of one individual by another must present facts as well as an argument leading from those facts to the indictment. The facts must be presented with specificity; pointing in the general direction ("Look at his writings!") is not specific. The argument must cover the steps required to move from evidence to conclusion. The indictment must be clear.

Debates among various watchmen are inevitable and desirable. The accusers are akin to prosecuting attorneys. There are defendants, rightly or wrongly accused. There are also the ladies and gentlemen of the jury: anyone who studies the issues, makes a judgment, and acts accordingly. However, there is no judge to set rules of procedure. Nor is there a bailiff, a policeman, or a jailer.

EXAMPLE APPROACHES. There are many optional approaches available to watchmen who are ready to make charges. Here are two examples to consider for their particular methods:

(1) http://www.dianahsieh.com/ff

(2) http://www.checkingpremises.org/

They are widely separated in time. In some ways, they are different in their purposes and methods. The first consists mainly of an annotated list of links to the author's own discussions on particular topics of false friends of Objectivism. The second, in most (but not all) of its tabbed pages (as of the day I viewed it), also consists mainly of links to other writings critiquing individuals the accusers think are pseudo-Objectivists. (The second site is new and the content is evolving.)

A third effort to consider is an apologia, a coherent essay which offers a defense against charges:

(3) http://blog.dianahsieh.com/2012/01/on-some-recent-controversies.html

I have identified the particular writings above because of their virtues, whatever faults they might also have (which must be judged within the context of each project's purposes). Generally, in the links cited both sources are serious and dignified. They deal with issues, which here means individuals and their ideas. They eschew foul language, "hot headed" outbursts, hyperbole, street talk, and other symptoms of profane culture.

CONCLUSION. Does a movement need watchmen? Yes, to protect the movement's efforts to reach its goals. The responsibility of being watchmen is heavy. It requires diligence in research, thought, and argumentation. It also requires the strength to withstand scrutiny.

PERSONAL NOTE: A BRIGHT FUTURE. I judge a movement by the actions of its best individuals, which includes, in part, their efforts to (1) set an example for rational behavior and (2) discourage violations of etiquette. (By "etiquette" I mean principles and rules of behavior that facilitate trade among individuals in a society.)

I have been a student of Objectivism for fifty years. In looking at the best behavior of particular individuals in recent controversies, on both sides, I see some signs of increasing personal maturity and interpersonal civility -- both of which are prerequisites for the trade of ideas, a trade that strengthens a movement. I also keep in mind a generalization: In controversies, the best individuals in a movement are often quiet until they are ready to make a thoughtful statement, if one is even worth formulating.

In preparing to write The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, I read about conflicts in several movements (such as the movement to overthrow the Enlightenment). Compared to those movements, the Objectivist movement is healthy and growing stronger. For this and other reasons, I am objectively hopeful for the future of the Objectivist movement.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. -- I "know" some of the individuals involved in the controversy above, but only through the internet. For personal reasons, I dislike a few and I have ceased communicating with them. The issues in the sites above, however, are not personal issues, but issues of individuals accused of misrepresenting or otherwise damaging the Objectivist movement.


RohinRoarkedForGood said...

Thanks Burgess for the post. As always it offers rational optimism and needed caution.

One elaboration that can help the cause mentioned,and the me personally.
Are there any objective principles one can use to distinguish between error in judgment and breach of morality?

Link to good references will be highly acknowledged. I suspect answer lies somewhere in Objectivist Ethics and Epistemology.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I don't have a specific discussion to recommend. I have a vague memory that the subject is covered by Dr. Peikoff, but I can't remember where. In addition to the Ayn Rand Bookstore, I would suggest searching two other places:
- Dr. Michael Hurd's writings.
- Dr. Ellen Kenner's work.

If you ask in a status line on Facebook, you might get a lead to a lecture or article.

Distinguishing between error and immorality can be very difficult sometimes. For a particular person, the first question I would ask myself is this: Is knowing the answer worth the possibly great investment of time required to learn it?

The answer would be "yes" only for someone who is very close to me -- and very great value to me. Not many individuals qualify.

Santiago Valenzuela said...

There seems to be a hidden premise, here. Namely, anyone within "the movement" (who is "in" the movement? Anyone who says they like Ayn Rand? Anyone who says they are an Objectivist? Where is the line drawn and why?) who is wrong on an important issue "damages the movement."

How, exactly? TOC never damaged "Objectivism" that I can see - and their differences were quite a bit bigger than what we're seeing today.

Is a "movement" a homogeneous, organic entity that must be kept "healthy" by internal action? Can a movement be "damaged" by one or more individuals within it being wrong on any issue (even an important one)?

What, exactly, IS a "movement"?

These are question this blog post doesn't address, and that I think are at the heart of the issue, really.


Burgess Laughlin said...

A few quick points:

1. I have offered my definition of "movement" in my July 5, 2008 post. (The first sentence of this post on watchmen contains a link.) Anyone who has a superior definition should offer it, preferably in a post on his own website, with a link to it here in this comments thread. Likewise, if anyone thinks the concept "movement" is invalid, please explain why.

2. Is a movement an entity? I think so, but it is an entity of the secondary kind -- in the same way that a society is an entity, that is, for the purpose of study. See Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 268-274, but particularly p. 271.

3. Can a movement -- more precisely, the movement's efforts to achieve its goals -- be damaged by any individual within it who is wrong about the idea that defines the movement?

I think so. For example, if after Ayn Rand's death, Leonard Peikoff, the foremost spokesman for Objectivism and therefore for the Objectivist movement, had announced that philosophy was important only in academia and that it does not affect life outside academia, then he could have damaged the movement's chances of succeeding. How? By undercutting a crucial point: Ideas matter because they affect actions in reality and actions in reality promote or destroy life.

The potential damage is proportional to the prominence of the individual spokesman and to the fundamentality of the error. Both factors matter. If some otherwise obscure person living in a small town in the mountains without electronic contact with the rest of the world describes Objectivism as God's 20th Century prophecy, that person is not likely to damage the Objectivist movement and would not deserve much attention, if any.

The damage, where there is any, is done by causing confusion (spreading a message that contradicts the message of the movement) in the minds of those rational individuals who are weighing the arguments offered by the movement's spokesmen (at all levels).

Unless there is some important point I have missed, I will bow out of this discussion. My post represents the best I have to offer on this subject. Anyone who has a better, more objective view should offer it on his own website (or book) where it can be evaluated fully.

Santiago Valenzuela said...

It seems to me that the likelihood of actually being believed is inversely proportional to how crazy the claim is. If LP had made some outlandish claim - such as your example - who would believe him, when there are numerous quotes in the work itself contradicting him?

If someone goes "off the reservation" in such a huge manner, it seems far more likely they would simply be disbelieved, ties broken with them and the people promoting Objectivism would simply move on. No movement - least of all Objectivism - is filled with such mindlessness as to be confused by something so blatant (and if there are any, the loss of them would be insignificant.)

I suppose LP could damage the movement with his control of the copyright, making it harder to acquire the base materials with which to learn the philosophy; but it seems to me that any significant deviation results in simply breaking ties, and smaller ones do no perceptible damage (the "movement" is still headed in the same general direction, in those cases.)

I'm not saying that robust debate is unnecessary or that differences are irrelevant, but I am curious at exactly how "watchmen" prevent disaster in any movement - perhaps an example of how they were vital to the success of some other, real life movement would be in order.

This interests me because a movement which I am studying at the moment (modern Christianity in America) does not have watchmen in the sense you describe them, as far as I can tell - no one prominent, or paid attention to, at least. There are denominations, many with significant (to them) theological differences, who are content with the positive - illustrating their own beliefs and why they think that those beliefs are correct and leaving unsaid "those others guys are wrong (and possibly going to eternal damnation.)"

What troubles me about your post, I suppose, is that there is no real-life example. Where is the movement with a robust corps of watchmen that went on to cause significant social change? It always seems, from what little I've been able to see, that little or no such activity took place. Do you have some other source I could look at that backs up your claim of watchmen as significant or important?

Burgess Laughlin said...

1. For the last time, I will remind readers to read the July 5, 2008 post defining "movement" as I use the term.

2. I am basing my views -- as part of my weblog -- on my personal observations through 50 years of contact with movements such as the anti-draft movement, the anti-Jim Crow movement, the broad Socialist movement, and the Objectivist movement -- as well as reading about such movements as the movement to introduce Aristotle's philosophy into Latin Christian culture. As noted in The Power and the Glory, Thomas Aquinas was certainly a watchman. (I did not use the term "watchman" there.)

I saw watchmen, mostly informal, in all of those movements.

My experiences are not others' experiences, so I don't expect others to reach the same conclusions.

If anyone wants an example of an organized, even institutionalized watchman's effort, I would recommend studying the history of the Catholic Church. The Church certainly has gone on to influence the world.

My knowledge of the anti-slavery movement is shallow, but I have vague memories of reading about such watchmen, at least acting ad hoc and informally. C. Bradley Thompson has published a book on the movement. I have not read it, as it is outside my area of interest, but I have heard that it does in some measure cover individuals within the movement denouncing others for not being genuine opponents of slavery. I offer this only as a possible lead.

The quest for an example is appropriate. I don't expect anyone to take my word for it. If anyone's experience doesn't match mine, then his view will differ. If that is the case, then such a person need not be concerned about watchmen, either individuals or organizations.

It is very important, BTW, not to treat "watchman" as a frozen abstraction; it does not refer only to committees or other organized efforts.

3. I have not advocated a "robust corps of watchmen."

I do see a need for watchmen, as Dr. Hsieh has exemplified in her False Friends work. It has value in helping individuals who are not yet part of a movement or just entering it to sort out the genuine from the false. I have benefited greatly from such watchmen, over the years. Dr. Peikoff's work, especially "Fact and Value," offers an example.

Any one who disagrees with Dr. Hsieh's efforts to uncover false friends, should take the issue up with her.

4. I look forward to reading about the Christian movement in NA in our time. That is fascinating and crucially important work. I think that movement is the greatest threat to the Objectivist movement, long-term. (No, I will not debate that here.)

I am however very surprised to hear that there are no watchmen in that very broad movement, that is, no individuals who are spotlighting other individuals they think are falsely representing Christianity. For example, are there no Protestants who have denounced Catholics for falsely representing the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles? My personal experience contradicts the idea that there are no such watchmen, but I cannot readily cite examples without doing further research -- which would be outside my interest at the moment.

5. Reminder: Review the rules of etiquette. I will not publish comments that address other commenters rather than ideas.

Anyone who disagrees with my position should use his own website, recorded lectures, or books to present his views.

Signing off ...

Santiago Valenzuela said...

I'm studying Christianity precisely because its such a terrible threat, so you'll get no argument from me there.

Thank you for the leads. I will pursue them and perhaps even pick up your work and see how that goes.

My experience isn't that watchmen don't exist (protestants and catholics regularly denounce each other, sometimes in harsh terms, as you've pointed out) but that people who focus on that are not doing anything to help promote their respective ideologies and are not prominent within their respective sub-movements. Church "planting" literature is universal (so far, I have only read about a half dozen volumes) in its condemnation of bothering with this as a method of getting people to convert - all it does, they report, is "shuffle the deck" of Christians when the focus should be the "unchurched." I report this not as a Christian (I'm not) but as someone interested in the efficient spread of good ideas. The Church seems to be dedicated to that and reading their literature on the subject has been, I think, productive.

Also, your average convert knows little about the theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, so I don't know that the data is there to support your claim that the watchman's actions primarily help the person outside the movement decide to join.

It is entirely possible that Objectivism is different in this regard; after all, if you believe in one magic man in the sky, you might as well believe in another.

So my question isn't: do watchmen exist? They do in any movement (and many people act as watchmen at different times.) My question is if their actions are actually productive in "moving the ball forward," so to speak.

I understand this is all outside what you care to research or discuss, and will not bother you with it anymore. Thank you again for the leads for my own personal research and good fortune in your endeavors.

Santiago Valenzuela said...

Quick clarification to my last comment: Christianity (particularly the Christian evangelist movement) is dedicated to the spreading of ideas, but not good ideas. Upon reading my comment over again I realized I could be interpreted as saying that Christians are spreading good ideas, something I DO NOT believe!

Burgess Laughlin said...

In response to a question in the first comment, I would suggest that possibly Leonard Peikoff's "Judging, Feeling, and Not Being Moralistic," a recorded lecture I recall, might be an aid. It was mentioned today by Christian Wernstedt in a Facebook note published widely.