Of Debates and Folded Paper

Monday, May 02, 2011

Dear Uncle Gus,

Given that you're already well learned in Objectivism, do you find value in debates between Objectivists and leftists such as the recent one from the WNYC First Principles series involving Harry Binswanger?



Dear Kelleyn,

Most definitely. Coming as your question does on the heels of a short post in which I noted the eagerness of many leftists to mis-characterize capitalism and smear its advocates, I cannot help but wonder whether my focus in that post led to this question. With that in mind, let me start out by saying that, while there are people I think I will never get through to, I think it can be worthwhile engaging even many of them, under certain circumstances.

The value of such engagements, in terms of cultural activism, however, is entirely in terms of (1) what one can learn for oneself about one's own position as a result of having to argue for it; (2) what one can learn about one's opponent's position, method of thinking, and rhetorical approach; (3) what one can, in the process, teach the rational members of any audience about either of (1) or (2), or about how to engage in such debates themselves; and (4) the value in letting those on one's opponents' side know that their foolishness isn't going unanswered.

Although I have not yet watched the debate you ask about, I have watched others like it (I wrote about one here.), and I have argued with intellectual opponents myself despite my low estimate of my ability to change their minds. (And I would include such activities as writing op-eds and letters-to-the-editor as essentially similar activities.) From my own experience, I can say that doing this is almost always profitable, sometimes in unexpected ways. Nothing teaches you quite like teaching others: The preparation and execution each make you think about what you are trying to say. The one, for example, might cause you to learn new facts to bolster a point you may not have thought through enough. The other can cause you to discover an objection you hadn't thought about or considered, and how to address it.

Although such debates can represent great opportunities for cultural activism, they come with pitfalls. First, if you're not well-prepared, you can make your position look bad, potentially failing to gain support for it (or, worse, alienating potential supporters). For example, how effective would it be to sneeringly deliver your point, implying that anyone who simply disagreed with you is stupid or evil -- and present your argument badly, to top it off? Second, the rules under which, say, a debate is held might make it basically impossible for you to establish or defend your position. If you're only going to have five minutes to make a point you know will take ten, you might reconsider participating at all. Third, the venue itself could conceivably undermine your whole position. Let's say, for example, that you make the best case on earth for laissez-faire, and decimate your debating opponent -- but the debate was held at a convention whose purpose is to promote anarchy as a viable social arrangement. Many members in your audience may end up under the false impression that you don't think government is very important, when it is, in fact, essential to having a capitalist society. Congratulations, you have just made a bunch of intellectual opponents look much better than they deserve. Such no-win situations should always be avoided.

In sum, such debates (and their one-on-one and written counterparts) offer great opportunities to deepen your own understanding of Objectivism, as well as at least let others know about it. That you are reading this now is, in fact, due to someone writing a movie review from an Objectivist perspective in a student newspaper in a small, sectarian, liberal arts college in Texas over twenty years ago!


Dear Uncle Gus,

Assume Simon Schubert ascends to the pinnacle of celebrated modern art. Later, suppose his heirs find a large box of wrinkled papers in his loft that are either early, unsigned drafts, or clutter. What would be their wisest step?


Accordion Guy

Dear Accordion Guy,

Offer them up for auction, of course! Just be honest about what you are selling. There's a saying that comes to mind, and it isn't, "A fool and his folded paper are soon parted."

-- CAV

If you'd like to ask a question, type it into the box labeled, "Ask Uncle Gus," at the upper right of this blog's main page, or at the top of the question-and-answer list hosted by FormSpring.


kelleyn said...

Thanks, Gus, for helping me get clear on what I need to do. I wasn't consciously thinking of your post when I asked the question, but you definitely helped plant the seed. I've been coming to grips with the fact that I won't be able to avoid leftists forever, and will be called upon to defend my convictions against them sooner or later.

I felt threatened by Dr. Binswanger's opponent, and I wondered if I was just letting him sap my energy and get me shaken up for nothing. I ended up turning off the video about three quarters of the way through. Then later in the day, as I did some chores, I pictured myself taking part in the debate and formulated some responses I would like to have given. That left me better prepared to counter his arguments, which I have heard before, when I inevitably hear them again.

Gus Van Horn said...

Very interesting that you had that reaction. I'll go out on a limb and guess that it might have been cognitive dissonance. If so, that can be a symptom of not having thoroughly understood one issue or another. It's unpleasant, but it's nothing to fear. You have to carefully identify what is making you uncomfortable, and then work to understand the issue better.

This can sometimes be tricky. I've had experiences in which the cognitive dissonance arose for more than one reason, and in which I misidentified what was bothering me at first, for example. It's unpleasant, but it's a valuable sign that something is wrong about some aspect of how you're approaching an issue.

In any event, preying on uncertainty is the stock-in-trade of many dishonest opponents. Your best defense is to notice it when they do it, and introspect -- later on, if necessary -- when you can think carefully.