Jul 28, 2008

Fiction Writing: The most difficult career?

PROBLEM. In the forty-five years that I've known students of Objectivism, I have met about fifty individuals who said their central purpose in life is to write fiction--either historical, philosophical, or other genre. Most of them soon switched to another central purpose in life. (For my views of CPL, see my posts of May 20 and June 5, 2008.) Some of those who switched are still in art, but in a different medium, such as painting, and are doing well. Why do so few individuals stay with fiction writing?

PARTICULAR REASONS. One reason, which I know from personal experience, is that the novice fiction writer may discover a more suitable central purpose while in the process of learning fiction writing. For example, for twenty years, my central purpose in life has been to tell success stories. In the beginning, I assumed that meant fiction. After studying the basics of fiction writing for two years, and then planning and writing two short practice novels (adventure genre) over a four year period, I realized that the success stories I most wanted to tell are real-life stories, specifically drawn from the history of philosophy. (My second, and last, practice novel was historical, which became a natural segue into history as a field.) So, after switching to historical writing from fiction writing, my basic purpose remained the same, but no longer in the form of fine art.

I know of two young men who started as fiction writers and have switched to visual arts because the visual arts objectively fit their needs and wants better. A few others have equally objective reasons for switching to another career. Beyond these individual explanations, is there something in the nature of fiction writing, itself, that makes it initially more attractive and simultaneously more difficult than other careers?

GENERAL REASONS. First, fiction writing, more than other arts, is a process of creating another world, an imaginary one. A sculptor creates a single object, but a novelist creates a whole world, implicitly and explicitly. Combine that with the fact that the medium is wholly abstract -- relying on visual symbols, that is, words -- and you have a recipe for an art that takes a long time to learn and great labor to enact.

Now add a second ingredient: there is no "career" in fiction writing except what the fiction writer builds for himself. The career of medicine, for example, is intellectually difficult, but the general academic and professional steps in the ladder are clear. There is no comparable ladder in fiction writing.

A third ingredient adds another burden: there are no jobs for fiction writers that allow them to earn an income while learning the art. A would-be attorney can work as a file clerk in a law office, then as a paralegal, while going to law school at night. After officially becoming an attorney he can work for an established law firm before setting up his own practice. Nothing comparable exists for fiction writers.

A fourth ingredient is that fiction writing involves the whole person more than any other career, even more than other arts (with the possible exception of acting). For example, a writer who has a psychological problem with repression may be more crippled in his work than if he were an electronic engineer.

A fifth ingredient is the great time lag between starting a story and seeing it made real. The process of researching, planning, writing and editing a novel--especially one that is historical or philosophical--is too long for artists who want to see quicker results.

Given these difficulties, the small number of persistent fiction writers, and the even smaller number of artistically successful ones, is not a surprise. But for someone who has selected fiction as his central purpose in life, and is objective about his ability to succeed, the long, slow climb to competence might still be very rewarding personally.

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

Jul 21, 2008

The Cause of History: Ideas or Insults?

In the last few years, I have frequently examined many advocacy websites. One of my purposes was to identify the manner in which the authors made their points; their style in responding to comments, especially critical ones; and their effectiveness as intellectual or political activists.

In some weblogs, one element of style stands out: insults to opponents. These writers call their opponents names such as: nutbars, nutjobs, morons, cowards, idiots, goat herders, ragheads, and scum. They also use adjectives such as: moronic, idiotic, stupid, nuts, crazy, loony, insane, delusional, and childish.

Why do these writers use insults? Judging from their statements of purpose and the contents of their weblogs, these writers want the world around them to adopt certain views. Do these writers think that insulting their opponents will persuade their opponents to revise their values? I am not sure of the answer. I have only a "working hypothesis."

What I see in some weblogs--and also, I am sorry to say, in some of my own writing in various forums several years ago--is the use of language primarily to either express the writers' own emotions (typically anger) or to evoke emotions (typically anger) in their sympathetic readers and perhaps even in their targets. For such writers, emotions, usually expressed indirectly as insults, seem to be both the values to be achieved and the means for achieving them.

Such writers also seem to assume that emotions--especially those expressed by or triggered by insults--somehow cause history, that is, cause people to change their actions. The writers seem to assume the world is filled with human monads, each one radiating emotions, and the monads radiating most vibrantly win whatever struggle they have undertaken.

Most of the weblog writers who use insults also freely use hyperbole, for example: "This is absolutely and totally the world's foremost case of stupidity in all of recorded history." Perhaps such writers think hyperbolic language makes their emotional "vibrations" stronger. I suspect it is the equivalent of shouting in English when trying to communicate with a man who understands only Spanish. This is intrinsicism applied to communication.

My "working hypothesis" is plausible but unproven. Philosophically, I still wonder: What worldview underlies such insults? And, historically, I still wonder: What benefit have such insults secured in achieving any objective movement's goals for improving the lives of rational people here on earth?

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

Feb. 17, 2012, P. S. -- Many of the individuals I have observed using terms such as "idiots" are conservatives and libertarians. However, the technique is not limited to them. There may be an underpinning epistemology shared by all such speakers. Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, pp. 177-178, offers comments about postmodernists' use of language as a weapon to change the world. Since postmodernists reject reason (and reason's premise, the idea that everything in reality has a definite nature), they are free to use language any way they want. To change the world to match their nonobjective values (egalitarianism, polylogism, and so forth), postmodernists use language to attack, not persuade. Hicks notes (p. 178, 2nd edition): "The regular deployment of ad hominem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodernist epistemology of language." (I have reviewed Hicks's book at: reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2012/02/bkrev-explaining-postmodernism.html

Jul 14, 2008

Quality control in movements?

Within a few years I hope to look at one or more movements that have contributed to Western Civilization. (For the nature of a movement, see the July 5, 2008 post.) Examples in the USA are movements to abolish slavery; secure property rights for women; spread the theory of evolution; abolish alcohol Prohibition; and repeal "Jim Crow" laws. Following are preliminary notes for this project; the notes are mostly questions at this beginning stage.

WHAT IS QC? In the electronics industry, from which I retired twenty years ago, quality control is the active, purposeful, and organized effort to make sure that a company's products and services meet the company's standards--and the customer's expectations. The main positive motives for QC are pride in the products and higher profits; negative motives include reducing complaints from customers and the expense of handling returned products.

QC IN A MOVEMENT? What would be QC in a movement, that is, in an effort--especially through advocacy--by various individuals to improve their society in a certain way? Consider the individuals in the movement as individuals acting on their own. (Organizations within a movement can set rules for quality of their own membership and quality of their own product.) QC would consist of individuals examining, not only their own products (lectures, essays, and conversations), but also the products of other individuals in the movement, and then taking action to remove or improve poor quality products. In a free or semi-free society, the control in QC would be peaceful and honest.

MOTIVATIONS? Why examine the products of other individuals in a movement? One example of a member of a movement who might deserve scrutiny is an individual who is influential but is spreading a mixed or erroneous message (an "abolitionist" who wants merely to improve the living conditions of slaves), thereby undercutting the work of other individuals who have perfected their understanding of the issues involved. A second example is an individual who is advocating the correct position of the movement but whose personal behavior is an embarrassment--for instance, destructively poor grammar, foul language, or public displays of mental illness--that might reduce the movement's chances of succeeding.

TECHNIQUES FOR "CONTROLLING" QUALITY? Are such aberrant individuals actually a problem, that is, do they actually threaten the success of an objective movement, one whose goals are drawn logically from facts of reality? If they are, have past movements identified such individuals as a threat? If they have, how have concerned members of those movements handled such problems? Based only on brief personal experience and observation of contemporary movements, I would expect to find, in historical movements, a range of tools being used by some members of a movement to improve the quality of the movement overall. Possible QC tools for individuals who are trying to minimize the effect of counter-productive members of a movement might include the following.

1. Shunning is disassociation. On a personal, face-to-face level, an example of shunning is refusing to speak to a certain person at a party or even refusing to attend the party. Blacklisting, a tool of shunning, is compiling a list, written or not, of individuals to avoid for any kind of formal association such as hiring them or accepting them as members of organizations. Boycotting, a special type of shunning, is specifically economic, neither selling to certain individuals nor buying from them.

2. Criticism is an alternative to shunning. Criticism is pointing out defects either in the person or in his products and then offering a superior alternative. Criticism may be either public or private.

3. Pre-emption is a second major alternative to shunning as a dominant strategy. Pre-emption can take several forms. In one form, a member of a movement may tell his general, non-movement audience that the individuals in the movement agree on the one goal that they all seek, but that otherwise they are as diverse as individuals in the remainder of society, so do not be surprised if you meet a wide variety of individuals bearing the same message. In a second form of pre-empting, a member of a movement might steer listeners who are outside the movement to the best sources of information about the movement's goals. This "positive" approach publicizes superior sources and thus indirectly draws attention from inferior sources of information about the movement's goals. In a third form of pre-empting, a member of a movement might single out particular false representatives of the movement and tell his audience why those individuals are false representatives as a contrast to the true representatives.

In summary, when I research particular movements, I will be looking for evidence, if any, that, outside of organizations, at least some members of each movement considered quality control to be important enough to take action. If they did take action to ensure quality, my next step will be to see what techniques they used. Last, I will try to assess the effectiveness of such efforts.

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

Jul 5, 2008

What is a movement?

In the late 1100s in Paris, various educators were inspired by a new idea, the unity of knowledge: A fully educated man is not only an accomplished specialist in a particular career (the lucrative arts of Law, Medicine, and Theology), but he also has fundamental knowledge applicable to everyone's life (the liberal arts). This idea of the unity of knowledge became an ideal--that is, a goal worthy of action, including advocacy to others.[1]

Individually each Parisian educator, in his own manner, was taking steps toward ensuring that his students benefited from this new approach to education, and he was advocating that others do likewise. Considered together, these educators were a movement, that is, they were individuals taking action (including advocacy) toward a common goal of changing certain conditions in which they lived. By contrast, if one thousand people separately and coincidentally decide to paint their houses white, out of personal preference, they would not be a movement. To create a movement for painting houses white, the individuals would need to be motivated by a desire to change their society or culture, and they would need to advocate that idea to others.

The individuals in a movement need not know each other personally or even be aware of each other as individuals. A "movement" is thus a mental grouping of physically dispersed, socially unconnected individuals. Often, however, in a particular society when individuals realize they can achieve a common goal faster through cooperation, these individuals form actual groups, that is, sets of individuals who interact with each other in one way or another for a common purpose. Groups within a movement can take various forms.

In a network, Mr. Adams knows Ms. Beaumont, who knows Mr. Carter, who knows Mr. Daniels; but Mr. Daniels need not know Mr. Adams or Ms. Beaumont. A modern example is a network of neighbors who want to reduce crime in their neighborhood by watching out for each other. In an ad-hoc organization, individuals structure their relationship to achieve a particular, but short-term goal. An example would be a group of individuals who select a chairman and a treasurer for a political campaign to support a mayoral candidate who will fight to reduce crime. When the election is over, the group disbands. In an institution, which is a second kind of organization, individuals structure their relationships to achieve a goal that might require an effort longer than the lives of the founders. An example would be a group of individuals who want to make their neighborhood safe for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren, so they form The Institute for Safety in the Southside.

In Paris in the late 1100s, the advocates of unity of knowledge in education were a successful movement. They networked in the city that was the hub of the kingdom of France. They formed particular organizations to express their views. They eventually founded an institution: a guild of all members of the faculties of liberal arts, theology, law, and medicine. This guild fought for its members' goals. The Latin word for guild was universitas. The institution they created was the University of Paris, the world's first university, a unique invention of Western Civilization, the civilization whose foundation is a philosophy of reason.

In the United States, in our own time, an example of a movement is the conservative legal movement, a group of conservatives who want to see conservative views of the law presented in the top universities, in competition with leftist views of the law. The conservatives have rapidly achieved partial success.[2]

In conclusion I would say that a movement, as a group of individuals in a certain time and place, has two essential, defining characteristics: (1) a common goal of changing social conditions through (2) advocacy and other individual actions.

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

[1] See Stephen C. Ferruolo, The Origins of the University: The Schools of Paris and Their Critics, 1100-1215, Stanford University Press, 1985, especially the Introduction. [2] See Larry Salzman's book review of Steven M. Teles, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law, in the Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard (http://www.theobjectivestandard.com).