Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ayn Rand's Advocacy in Objectively Speaking

In the Fall 2009 issue of The Objective Standard, Dina Schein Federman, Ph.D. (Philosophy), reviews Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz. Dr. Federman's review covers the essential features of this new book. For students of the main event of our time, the conflict between reason and mysticism, I would like to supplement Dr. Federman's review with a few suggestions about issues in advocacy.

The subject matter of Objectively Speaking is easy to follow. In interviews across 50 years, Ayn Rand, the world's most radical advocate of reason, presented elements of her philosophy in a clear, seemingly simple and straightforward style. However, for careful readers who want to study not only the content but also the manner in which she so successfully conveyed her philosophy of reason to her world, reading this collection is more demanding. Such a reader--e.g., a pro-reason philosophical activist who wants to acquire skills for presenting principles on radio, TV, or other media--needs to be aware of both content and manner at the same time. They are connected.

1. Discussion, not debate. Editor Marlene Podritske's "Preface" deserves special attention. In an admirably quiet and direct style, Podritske begins by identifying Rand's "reluctance to grant interviews" because Rand was "concerned that complex ideas could be easily misunderstood and serious discussion limited due to the 'in-a-nutshell' constraints of live programming." (p. vii) Rand rejected interview formats that were quarrelsome rather than informative.

Podritske also identifies Ayn Rand's role as a teacher, which means conveying ideas clearly and encouraging listeners to think for themselves. "I'm always glad to discuss ideas, but not to debate them," said Rand. (pp. vii and 200) The lesson here is that an activist should select venues that best meet his long-term purposes in conveying ideas to rational audiences. No activist has an obligation to automatically respond to every question, challenge, or demand on his time.

2. Objective understatement, not emotionalist hyperbole. Activists interested in learning how best to answer an interviewer's questions can contrast Rand's approach to the approach so common today, both in video and in print. Rand, in most of the interviews in Objectively Speaking, was engaged in in-line activism. In her case, that means she was disseminating ideas that were in line with one of her highest personal values, her central purpose in life, which was to portray the ideal man--including the philosophical ideas that motivate him (pp. 179-180). Of course, as a philosopher, she had a very broad range of interests to discuss in interviews.

Both in writing and in speaking, Rand addressed an audience she assumed to be rational. Her style was passionate in its firmness, but generally understated in its delivery. Why understated? A rational mind needs the "quiet space" that understatement creates. Rand briefly discusses this point in The Art of Nonfiction:

"Unsupported expressions of emotion (e.g., insulting or pejorative adjectives) are arbitrary stylistically, and, philosophically, constitute emotionalism. . . . Even if you give reasons for your strong language, understatement is usually more desirable. When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want. But when you overstate something, you deafen the reader. You do not give him time to come to his own conclusion. . . . When you overstate something, you disarm yourself. A man does not shout when he is sure of his case. When a writer understates what he is saying, what comes across is an overwhelming assurance on his part." (p. 124, pb)

I have observed in personal conversations and in print that some speakers and writers are emotionalists. They want to rouse their supporters (who already agree with the message) or antagonize their opponents (who will never agree, because they hold different premises). When speaking to a sympathetic audience, emotionalists rely on their audience's reactions to terms that are conventional (such as "Big Business" or "Big Government") but vague in meaning--rather than on teaching important new concepts, e.g., precisely definable ideas such as statism, philosophy, egoism, and capitalism. As a corollary, when speaking to or about enemies, emotionalists rely on insults (e.g., "stupid" and "lunatic") not objective communication (identification of facts, integration with fundamental principles, and so forth).

Bypassing the conscious mind, emotionalists speak from the subconscious (their own) to the subconscious (their audience's). In contrast, objective teachers, knowing that emotions are automatic responses to values, address the conscious mind. An audience's emotions don't need to be manipulated. Emotions happen automatically when the rational audience member sees that his values are involved. The next item illustrates this point.

3. Dissection and rejection of conservatism. Ayn Rand had good reason for despising conservatism, an ideology which she philosophically characterizes as being supernaturalist (belief in God), mystical (having faith), altruist (focused on God and God's children), and statist (of the mixed-economy sort).[1] Even here, Ayn Rand's responses in interviews were generally understated. (pp. 15-21) She performed philosophical detection on the broad conservative movement to identify its essential characteristics, while recognizing that the term "conservative" has been used loosely, so individuals using the same label may differ widely. She presented her own position clearly and concisely. This approach is not the approach of an emotionalist but of an advocate of reason.

In summary, Objectively Speaking shows philosopher Ayn Rand, the foremost advocate of reason in our time, speaking as a teacher. She discusses ideas. Her delivery is understated as well as firm, integrated, and clear. As in so many areas, here too she is an inspiration for those who have chosen to struggle for a more rational society in which to live a better life

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

[1] For Ayn Rand's views on conservatism, see also: "Conservatism" and "'Conservatives' vs. 'Liberals'" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. For a discussion of conservative attacks on Rand's Atlas Shrugged, see: Michael S. Berliner, "The Atlas Shrugged Reviews," Ch. 7, Essays on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, ed. Robert Mayhew, NY, Lexington Books, 2009, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciated reading your thoughts on Rand's interviewing manner. Your article has very nicely distilled advice, which I hope to use in my efforts in intellectual activism.


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