Misplaced Vitriol

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

An article about breast feeding, interesting in its own right, brings up an issue that has puzzled me several times in the past, but which I think I am beginning to understand. I'll state at the outset that breast-feeding is a topic I have not thought about a great deal, although I will volunteer that think that breast feeding is better for babies than formula. How long? I really don't know, and I probably won't get to that question for a while.

That said, my focus here isn't on the merits of breast feeding or on how long it ought to last. Rather, I am looking at how emotionally charged a debate can become, even among people presumably making an honest effort to do what is best for themselves and their children.

No topic is liable to prompt a fist fight among mothers so rapidly as breast-feeding. Foot soldiers for the breast versus bottle debate line up like Roundheads against Cavaliers. Women who bottle-feed are often accused of lacking maternal instinct, while those who dare lactate beyond the three-year mark are viewed as hessian-clad feminists, only one short step away from running a lesbian commune in a yurt.

The last time I wrote on the topic, saying in the mildest terms that while I subscribed to the view that breast was best it was counter-productive to bully women on the topic, I received a torrent of abusive mail...

But this is nothing to the vitriolic missives received by friends who have written thoughtful articles on why they decided to breast-feed their offspring beyond three years of age. From the tone and volume of the correspondence, you might have believed they were slipping their children heroin. One was told she was a work-shy man-hater who had clearly driven away her husband -- which all came as something of a surprise to that happily married, hard-working mum.
I have seen (and have occasionally experienced, first-hand) similarly heated debates among Objectivists. (And no, to be completely clear, I am not talking here about the ongoing on-line debate about Episode 118 of the Leonard Peikoff Show, of which I just became aware yesterday, although it is possible that what I have to say on this issue might conceivably pertain to it.)

Specifically, I am speaking not of fundamental disagreements about philosophical premises, but about issues pertaining to the application of proper philosophical principles to one area or another of one's life, and which may require specialized knowledge. Whether and how long to breast feed a baby is an excellent example of just such an issue for any potential parent or specialist in infant care.

Note two things from the passage quoted above. First, there is a tendency by some in each of the opposed camps to view the opposite camp in caricature. Second, there is a haste by some of these to condemn those in the other camp in line with such a caricature, be it in terms of implying stupidity, immorality, or both.

How can this happen between two sides sincerely interested in unearthing the truth, living by it, and getting the word out about it? Remember, we are assuming for the sake of argument that both sides are acting on proper premises and are being honest, if passionate. (And let's set aside the issue of the moral import of failing to control oneself while in the midst of strong emotions.) Can such anger exist between two people who disagree on a non-philosophical matter, and, if so, why?

I would say that it can, and that the reason for this is related to the fact that when one considers a complex issue in depth, it can be very easy to forget any number of related issues: (1) Not everyone else has done the same amount of work or has reached the point that they even see the need to consider the issue in question, or at least to think about it as deeply. (I've been accused of being "willfully ignorant" about such an issue, only to later learn more about it, and conclude that there had, in fact, been no need for me to pursue it, given my circumstances and intellectual context at the earlier time.) (2) Some people have done a similar amount of work and see the issue as important, but have not reached the same conclusion. (This happens all the time in new areas of science.) (3) Other people have done more work on the issue, and disagree. (This can hold whether one or both people are wrong.) (4) Other people have different value hierarchies. (A cut-and dried example is needed here: Some people derive enough pleasure from smoking, that they decide to do so, and accept the health risks. If you know that someone smokes, but not that he has thought about this, you could reasonably wonder whether he is immoral or ignorant.) (5) The state of knowledge in the non-philosophical subject may be such that both "extreme" views in the debate of the day are wholly or partially wrong.

As I see it, problems like the above stem from the following facts pertaining to human cognition: (1) Induction is a knowledge- and value-driven process. One must reach a critical mass of believable data and find an issue personally relevant enough to spend a great deal of time on a complex induction, particularly one requiring lots of specialized knowledge. Or, as I believe I have heard it put before as advice on figuring out where to start inducing a philosophical principle: "What would I have to know for this principle to even be an issue?" (2) We can't read other people's minds. Given that, it can be hard sometimes to imagine why someone else might not study a topic one is passionate about. Ignorance and immorality on the part of the other party can be easy conclusions to jump to. (3) We aren't infallible. (4) Proper application of philosophical principles has to be done by each individual, taking into account any special circumstances he faces as an individual, including any optional values.

Aside from possibly avoiding unnecessary fights with friends, of what further use is the above knowledge? Right off the bat, I can think of a couple. First, it can help one to get past one's own anger at being "bullied" about deciding whether to entertain poorly-presented arguments that happen to have some merit. Second, it can help one present one's own ideas more effectively, so as not to alienate people by coming across as a bully. In short, people are more receptive to arguments that are made when they respect their cognitive requirements, which means: when an argument connects with preexisting knowledge and provides objective motivation for further study.

This is a very interesting topic to me, and I think it is very important. I am eager to hear what you think.

-- CAV


Jenn Casey said...

The "Mommy Wars" as such have fascinated me, and having been on the receiving end of such vitriolic accusations, this is something I have faced. I suspect many parents have faced it as well.

I think your points are excellent. Another factor I believe plays into the heightened emotions and eagerness to mischaracterize the opponents as immoral, irrational, etc. is unearned guilt. I wrote about it here:


And another:


I have seen this in friends and acquaintances--making a major parenting decision such as whether or not to breastfeed for altruistic or not-well-thought-out reasons, and then being overwhelmed with guilt and frustration about it. Often they take anyone else's different decision about the matter as a personal attack.

My decision to have c-sections or breastfeed my children has nothing to do with anyone else's decision to make the opposite choices. I feel free to judge them, and they are free to judge me, but their judgments don't bother me because I have made good sound rational judgments to the best of my ability. So I am able to argue my cases without getting emotional or defensive.

I'll stop for now, but this is a BIG topic, and it's rampant in our culture these days. Okay, one more thing before I stop--I wonder if some of this is an unintended consequence of feminism, because this issue crops up with non-parents too, especially the Career Woman (non-mommy type) vs the Career Mommy vs the Stay-at-Home Mommy. Discussions gets really ugly, really fast.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think the ugliness is definitely caused by feminism, and on multiple levels at that. Just to take two: (1) To the extent that whatever variant of feminism someone accepts deviates from actual individualism (and she acts on it), it will goof up her decision process. (2) Many people will pigeonhole an argument based in part on feminism with its more collectivist manifestations, often to the point of ignoring the whole thing.

That's not all, of course...

Bill said...

"to view in caricature." What a wonderful concept! Congratulations! Worthy of Rand herself. I shall henceforth claim it as my own.

In simple situations, like breast feeding, circumcision, and various diets, for someone to become angry at another for failing to agree with their own conclusions, has to mean that they think the identifications and values they've applied in coming to their conclusions are unassailable and unique. This is hardly ever true. We reason, as individuals, for our own benefit. We apply our values, not universal values. We can be wrong, for example, whenever I think a stock will increase in value, I am wrong.

For example, with regard to breast feeding, I've had two women tell me that the idea of them breast feeding creeps them out, seems 'animalistic'. Thus, they will probably not breast feed. Will it 'harm' the baby? Maybe slightly, but they don't think there is any serious risk of major damage. So they're willing to take that chance. That is the essence of reasoning. Identify, value, decide.

Gus Van Horn said...

"'to view in caricature.' What a wonderful concept! Congratulations! Worthy of Rand herself. I shall henceforth claim it as my own."


"Will it 'harm' the baby? Maybe slightly, but they don't think there is any serious risk of major damage."

Now, again, I haven't thought much about breast feeding, but suppose there were rock solid evidence that NOT doing so caused some kind of major harm. If the argument isn't out there, or isn't straightforward, their decision can be perfectly rational -- but wrong, due to an error of knowledge. If someone beat them over the head with "Breastfeed your babies, idiots!" without making said rationale clear, why WOULD they consider the issue further?

Jim May said...

How can this happen between two sides sincerely interested in unearthing the truth, living by it, and getting the word out about it?

And that, Gus, is the nub of it right there. It's the question I asked when I first learned in the mid '90's about the David Kelley flap.

A few weeks ago, a libertarian colleague asked me about the "open system" debate, and he eventually boiled his question down to this: how do Objectivists handle an unresolved debate over fundamentals, in particular when one side of that debate does not agree that the difference is fundamental?

His question got me to remembering a phenomenon that has pissed me off for years: what I have termed an argument of the form "blah blah blah mind-body dichotomy".

By this, I mean a discussion between two Objectivists where one side starts from the disagreement over some particular application, moves through a block of rather opaque argument ending with "....and so therefore you are guilty of a mind-body dichotomy" (or some other very fundamental error). The other person is left wondering "WTF just happened?"

That sort of thing was going on a lot in the mid-90's when I first encountered the David Kelley flap, and biased me considerably in favor of the Kelley side before I eventually resolved the issue for myself in favor of Dr. Peikoff.

I have yet to listen to Dr. Peikoff's podcast, and so I have not concluded that this is another case of "blah blah blah mind-body dichotomy". The echoes coming from comments by those who have listened to the podcast and disagree with it, sure are hinting at it.

Today I answered my colleague's question. I said that disagreements will happen, and that is a function of all philosophies and belief systems, not of Objectivism in particular, and that if a disagreement is unresolvable, there can indeed be a split.

I also told him that it looks like we're about to go through another such test.

As to how we're going to handle it this time, I draw reassurance from Paul Hsieh's position here; I hope that Paul's is the approach and attitude that prevails this time around.

Gus Van Horn said...


It is interesting that you mention the Kelley split, which IS about fundamentals. I have thought for some time -- and think it could still shake out this way -- that "the next split" (if there is to be one) could result from a vehement disagreement over the proper way to apply the philosophy.

One thing that would help greatly to prevent this from happening would be to always be clear about what actually IS Objectivism and what ISN'T, such as specific conclusions in the special sciences. In one sense, this was ultimately the root of the Kelley split.

(Regarding things that are NOT parts of Objectivism, and to take yet another cut-and-dried example: I would say that someone who (1) claimed that the Law of Gravity was invalid and (2) he was an Objectivist probably didn't know what he was talking about on either count. Neverthless, it remains true that the Law of Gravity, as a fact identified by a special science, is not A PART of Objectivism. (Nor, obviously, are any of the myriad more spectulative theories of the various special sciences.) This is for the same reason that Ayn Rand said in her West Point speech that, "Philosophy would not tell you, for instance, whether you are in New York City or in Zanzibar (though it would give you the means to find out)."

Having said all that, perhaps the fact that the reason for the split remained murky for so long was because it was such a difficult identification to make in the first place. The conclusion I reached here, although it seems obvious to me (and maybe, to anyone reading this post) now, eluded me for quite some time.


Andrew Dalton said...

"One thing that would help greatly to prevent this from happening would be to always be clear about what actually IS Objectivism and what ISN'T, such as specific conclusions in the special sciences."

This is also my approach to the mosque controversy.

Both sides do agree that an all-out war with Islamist terrorist-sponsoring governments is necessary, and also that our government isn't even coming close to fulfilling that end. This conclusion follows from the Objectivist principles of egoism and the purpose of government.

But with the correct normative principle being flouted by our government at every turn, we are left, as Paul Hsieh noted, with a tactical debate over least-bad options. This brings in people's specific understandings of history or law as tipping the balance one way or another.

For me, I was so disgusted with the Bush Administration's war effort (and disabused of my own wishfully positive interpretations of the government's goals and competence back then) that I simply cannot trust that giving the government more power -- absent a rational, principled, and non-muddled purpose articulated by our leaders.

Gus Van Horn said...

Excellent point, and one I hadn't thought of considering that I have not yet spent much time looking at the different positions in this controversy myself. (As far as that goes, I have listened once to the podcast, skimmed a post by Amit Ghate, seen a post by Trey Givens, and read Paul Hsieh's post, which I found excellent. I'm not on Facebook, and so will be unable to access everything.)

Anonymous said...

I liked that you brought in your previous question about optional values into the question of misplaced vitriol.

I have a theory regarding optional values and the chronic mutual disrespecting that goes on there.

Most people fall into their optional values through chance; that is, they see something, think it is interesting and pursue it. It becomes part of their sense of life and they never sit down and analyze why they like it. (I'm not suggesting that one MUST do that regarding optional values.) So, when someone comes along and doesn't fall in with them in agreeing that "X" is the most interesting way to spend your free time, it FEELS like they are attacking you personally instead of recognizing that they are just making an optional value judgement of their own. And you reciprocate by "dissing" something they like.

Since I grew up without a TV in the house until the last semester of my senior year in high school, my entertainment choices were well out of step with my peers. So expressed comments "dissing" my choices never resonated with me. My usual reaction was, "Well, since you aren't me, I should listen to your opinion of what I should do because???"

I am less likely than I used to be to declare someone irremediably stupid, obtuse, etc., because I came to realize that it was often a question of time, knowledge and motivation. Your 4 points about cognition (and their derivative problems) are a nice concretization of my heretofore rather inchoate conclusion. Thanks!

C. Andrew

An afternote just occurred to me. How likely is it that this conflict stems from an unchallenged mode of thought that assumes instrinsic knowledge. In the form of, "Well, I'm no genius and if I know this, then how can this idiot opposing me not know this?"

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for making the connection between the main point of my post and the earlier one regarding optional values explicit for me. I suspected that the two were more related than simply one's optional values being part of one's individual circumstances, but did not see this aspect of the problem.

Your PS is also good, although the problem need not even be intrinsicism. The same thing can occur when someone mistakenly believes actual knowledge supports his optional choice "over" another or has mis-integrated error into similar such "support".

That said, intrisicism (or its psycho-epistemological remnants) can certainly fuel this kind of attitude, by "flattening" all values, optional and non-optional alike, into intrinsic/arbitrary ones.


HaynesBE said...

Don't have anything to add at this point. Just want to sign up to receive notification of future comments.
Thanks for starting this topic.

Gus Van Horn said...


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