Aug 8, 2008

In-line vs. off-line activism

[For this post, I assume my readers have studied Ayn Rand's most important philosophical work, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, especially Chs. 1-5.]

As a preliminary step toward clarifying the differences between in-line and off-line activism, consider five imaginary examples of intellectual activists--individuals taking action in society to disseminate philosophical principles as they apply to current social or political issues.

(1) A physicist, Dr. A, works for a nuclear power-plant management company. He works 8 am to 5 pm, five days per week. In his spare time, in the evenings and on weekends, he writes a long article for a popular magazine. In the article, Dr. A argues for liberation of the nuclear-power industry. In support of his theme, he offers ethical principles (e.g., the moral right to property), political principles (the only function of a proper government is protecting rights from aggression and fraud), and technical knowledge (nuclear power does not cause neighbors to glow in the dark). Dr. A also occasionally meets informally with investors, power-plant managers, and others to convey to them his philosophical and technical views. He hopes to give them the information they need to clamor for liberating the nuclear-power industry. Dr. A is a scientist, not a professional intellectual, that is, his central purpose in life is not in the area of the humanities.[1] Besides being a scientist, he is also an in-line intellectual activist.

He is an activist because he is taking action in society to improve his world. He is an intellectual activist because he is applying philosophical principles to the culture in which he lives. (He is, in some measure perhaps, also a political activist if he takes steps to change his government in particular ways.) He is acting in-line because he is disseminating information that he has gained, directly or indirectly, through his efforts to achieve his central purpose in life, which is, in his particular case, "to facilitate the production of energy through nuclear power," or some similar statement of purpose.

(2) A second physicist, Dr. B, has essentially the same central purpose in life but is now retired from working for an income. She writes a series of articles, pamphlets, weblog posts, and books--some written to the general public and some to her scientific peers--calling for the deregulation of the nuclear-power industry. Capitalizing on the many contacts she made while working, she also occasionally meets with investors, power plant managers, and others to convey her philosophical and technical views, in hopes of giving these powerful individuals the ethical, political, and technical "ammunition" they need to fight for liberating the nuclear-power industry. She too is an in-line intellectual activist. Dr. B differs from Dr. A in that she can work full-time at her activism.

(3) A third physicist, Dr. C, has essentially the same central purpose in life as Drs. A and B, and he works for a nuclear power-plant management company 8 to 5, five days per week. In his spare time on one weekend, Dr. C writes a letter to the editor of the local, small-town newspaper. The subject of the letter is a protest against the local police department wasting time arresting prostitutes and heroin addicts in the town. Dr. C writes the letter in favor or abolishing victimeless-crime laws. He uses moral arguments (e.g., the right to liberty), political arguments (e.g., the proper function of government), and financial arguments (half the police budget goes for victimless crimes, while rapists and robbers run free). In this project, Dr. C is an off-line intellectual/political activist.

(4) Dr. D is a professional historian. Her particular central purpose in life is to "promote understanding of our past." She is a professional intellectual.[2] So far, her career has consisted mostly of publishing her own historical research and teaching in academia. She chooses to spend some of her weekends and evenings preparing philosophical arguments (e.g., about the nature of objectivity) and other arguments to persuade local public school board members to adopt more objective history texts for middle-school students. Dr. D is, in this respect, an in-line intellectual and political activist. If, instead, she chooses to devote some of her evenings and weekends to working with a local, ad hoc group trying to stop a proposed sales tax, then she is, in that respect, an off-line intellectual activist.

(5) Mr. E is a carpenter. His central purpose in life is to use wood--which he loves in all its many forms--for making things that improve life, such as houses, boats, conference tables, and model planes for the children of his friends. He is not a member of a carpenter's union, so he works only on nonunion jobs. On the side, he likes reading about and discussing basic philosophy. He has also invested some time into reading the laws of his city and state as they apply to unions. When he works as a carpenter, he works long hours. Between jobs he writes letters to the editors of newspapers and of magazines for carpenters. In these letters, Mr. E cites fundamental principles, stated in his own words, as support for a free market in labor. In particular, he opposes restrictions on immigration and laws that regulate relations between corporate management and laborers, particularly in the construction business. Mr. E is an in-line intellectual activist.

The preceding five examples illustrate this point: The defining characteristic of an in-line activist is the special relationship between his work (physics, history, or carpentry) and his intellectual activism: The two areas have the same general subject matter, at least in part. An in-line activist is an intellectual/political activist in his field, which is the field of his beloved central purpose in life.

An off-line activist, by contrast, is active in a field outside the field of his central purpose in life. Whether the off-line activist spends only a few minutes or 60 hours per week at his activism is not an issue here. What makes him off-line is the fact that the subject matter of his activism is outside ("off") the field of his beloved central purpose in life.

NONDEFINING CHARACTERISTICS. In defining ideas, the thinker should set aside nonessential characteristics. Examples of nonessential characteristics for in-line activism are: the amount of time the activist invests in his activism; whether the activist is a professional intellectual; whether or to what degree the activist needs to increase his communication skills; and how much (if any) research the activist needs to do for particular activist projects.

(1) In-line activism can be a full-time activity, as in the case of a retired person who maintains the same central purpose in life but perhaps in a different form, one not requiring that he work a regular job. Or in-line activism can be part-time. Likewise, off-line activism can be either full-time or part-time. How much time an activist spends on his activist projects is not an essential (causal, explanatory) characteristic. As in the formation of concepts generally, measurements are omitted in the formation of the idea of in-line activism.

(2) One need not be a professional intellectual in order to engage in intellectual activism, either in-line or off-line, just as one need not be a professional politician in order to engage in political activism, and one need not be a professional scientist in order to advocate that schools teach the scientific method. In the Objectivist movement, as Ayn Rand explains, the "New Intellectuals" are "those who will take the initiative and the responsibility [for applying Objectivism to life]: they will check their own philosophical premises, identify their convictions, integrate their ideas into coherence and consistency, then offer to the country a view of existence to which the wise and honest can repair."[3] The New Intellectuals of the Objectivist movement need not be professional intellectuals.[4]

(3) A need to improve one's skills in objective communication is common to both in-line activists and off-line activists--and even individuals who are not activists at all but who want to succeed in the advanced levels of their careers.[5] So the need to improve one's communication skills is not a characteristic that distinguishes in-line from off-line activists.

(4) Both types of activist may need to do additional research for some of their activist projects, but not for other projects (e.g., those projects that involve only a quick statement of position, backed up by a very simple argument). A need for research and a potential need to substantiate all assertions with citations are not distinguishing characteristics of either in-line or off-line activism.

SUMMARY. In understanding the idea of in-line (versus off-line) activism, it is very important not to define the idea by any characteristic other than the relationship between the activist's field of beloved work and the subject matter of his intellectual/political activism. The amount of time invested in an activity, one's professional status, one's skill in communication, and the amount of research required are all inessential and therefore nondefining characteristics of either form of activism.

The essential defining characteristic of in-line activism is the positive relationship of the activist's area of activism to the field of his central purpose in life. In-line activism means intellectual (or political) activism that is "in-line" with--drawn from, congruent with--the work he has done to fulfill his central purpose in life.

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

[1] For central purpose in life: posts for May 20 and June 5, 2008. [2] For "professional intellectual," see: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 25 (hardback) or 27 (paperback); or see "Intellectuals," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, first excerpt. [3] For a description of the New Intellectuals of the Objectivist movement: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 59 (hardback). [4] For the nature of a movement, see the July 5, 2008 post. [5] For a series of lectures and practical exercises (performed by audience members) on objective communication, suitable for anyone who communicates as the core of his work, but especially for the New Intellectuals: Leonard Peikoff, "Objective Communication," an audio recording of a long series of lectures, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.


Shea said...

As usual, excellent post. A sixth possible example occured to me, and I think I'd put it in the category of in-line activist but I'm not sure. What if a person's CPL is intellectual activism? A possible example of this would be Dr. Brook, or an even better example would be whomever is going to head up the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I agree that a person whose CPL is to engage in intellectual activism in some favorite and specified form (to make it personal) would be an in-line activist. He would be drawing on his own professional experience in every job he held or project he undertook. He certainly could not be an off-line activist because he has no other line to go off from, so to speak.

As for the question about the in-line or off-line status of the manager of an institution such as ARCIR, my internal "computer" is sending me an error message: "Insufficient data to execute command."

Two individuals might hold the same job, at different times, but have a different central purpose in life. E.g., one might have a CPL involving intellectual activism.

Another person might have a CPL involving management of institutions. He might manage ARCIR for four years and then move on to managing a steel-making company. His focus would be on management as an art (technique) rather than on any particular kind of product produced by each institution.

As always, thank you for the comments.

Burgess Laughlin said...

For an example of an off-line intellectual activist, see the Sept. 6, 2008 article, "Welcome a new contributor to the Rule of Reason!" at the weblog Rule of Reason:

The address of the article is:

Excerpts include: "Doug . . . is . . . an assistant professor of mathematics . . . and . . . greatly enjoys working as an amateur intellectual activist during his free time. He says that his intellectual interests include economics, history and policy analysis, especially those concerning winning the war on Islamic totalitarianism. Doug is also a voracious reader. As of late, he has been writing a flurry of book reviews on . . . ."