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Jerry Biggers

Peripheral Issues and Dogmatism in Objectivism

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Barbara's lecture delivered in 2006 at The Atlas Society summer conference (the link, posted elsewhere on OL by Ed Hudgins, to this article on The Atlas Society's own website has been broken).

Objectivism and Rage

by Barbara Branden

A lecture presented at the TAS 2006 Summer Seminar, July 4, 2006, Chapman University, Orange, CA

One cannot avoid recognizing that we live in a very angry age. At one time, people spoke to “My worthy opponent” when addressing someone who disagreed with their views. That attitude of respecting differences has long disappeared. Today, in discussions of politics, of religion, of environmentalism, of war and peace, of abortion—of all the issues that concern and often divide us—we hear little but raised voices and enraged insults coming from all sides of every issue. Speak to an opponent of the Iraq war and suggest that it might have been a good idea—and a torrent of abuse washes over you. Say that Israel is morally superior to the Palestinians—and statistics about Israel’s supposed “atrocities” of the last 2,000 years fly furiously at your head. Say a kind word about George W. Bush—and you had better take to the hills at once.

Objectivists are by no means immune to this rage. On the contrary, I find it to be increasingly prevalent among Objectivists. We see everywhere—particularly on the Internet—the spectacle of supposed supporters of reason and free inquiry erupting in fury at the least provocation and hurling abuse at anyone who opposes—even questions—their convictions.

But what I call “Objectivist Rage” has a peculiar twist to it, unlikely to be found anywhere else except, paradoxically, in religion. It is almost always morally tinged. Those who question our ideas and those who oppose them, we are told, are not merely unintelligent, ignorant, uninformed; they are evil, they are moral monsters to be cast out and forever damned.

And that is what I want to discuss today: the immensely presumptuous moralizing, the wildly unjust condemnations, and the towering anger and outrage exhibited by so many Objectivists. I want to explain, as best I can identify it, why this happens—that is, what are the mistaken philosophical ideas that lead to it, and what appears to be the psychology of many of its practitioners. If we are to defend ourselves against it and prevent it from contaminating our own dealings with others, our first requirement is to understand it.

Let me say that I have found The Objectivist Center [now The Atlas Society] to be a significant exception to Objectivist rage, certainly an exception as regards its official policy. Although I have also found that by no means are all TOC members immune to it. And I am certain that many, perhaps most of you, have at one time or another had this sort of injustice very painfully directed against you. I am especially concerned with young people, new to Objectivism, who find themselves angrily accused of heresy, of evasion, of being “enemies of Objectivism” and therefore “evil” because they do not understand certain Objectivist ideas and/or because they disagree with them. Terrible damage is done to young people by this means. I have seen so many instances in which newcomers to Objectivism become rigid, fearful true believers in order to escape censure—or else they are driven away to lick their wounds in hurt and bewilderment. And sadly, often the victims in their turn become victimizers—spewing the poison that sickened them onto the next young Objectivist they encounter, having learned to treat even the most polite and reasoned disagreements with contempt and insult and morally-outraged fury.

Let me give you an example, from a letter I recently received, of the damage this venom does; it's one of many such letters written to me over the years.

"I was interested in the books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, but my few brushes with organized Objectivism have left not only a bitter aftertaste but also some emotional and social damage in my life.

"I guess I should introduce myself a little more. I am university student, in my final year studying biomedical sciences. . . I turned 21 last October. I started reading Ayn Rand's works when I was 20. I have read Anthem, Atlas Shrugged and watched The Fountainhead movie. I attended one meeting of my school's Objectivist club (and decided not to go back after that) . . . I also corresponded with the owner of an Objectivist web site. . . .

"Although my involvement with objectivism is relatively mild compared with some of the other horror stories I hear about, I still do believe it had a significant negative impact on me. It had a bad effect on my emotional and social life, made me rigid, humorless and judgmental, slowly lose friends and nearly precipitated a bitter split from my boyfriend of 3 years, whom I loved dearly . . ."

This young woman now refers to herself as "a recovering Objectivist."

This is a problem that has caused many well-meaning people to turn away from Objectivism after painful and humiliating encounters with moralizing Objectivists; it thereby endangers the future acceptance of the ideas that are important to all of us. I wonder if the Savonarolas of Objectivism have any idea how many men and women who were drawn to Objectivism, eager to understand it and to learn its application to their lives, are now saying: “If this obsession with finding and rooting out ‘enemies,’ this fanatical unearthing of villains—if this is Objectivism, I want no part of it.”

I truly believe that Objectivism may stand or fall, as far as public acceptance is concerned, by whether or not this problem can be eliminated. Orthodox Objectivists may be willing to put up with being called "dishonest" and "evil" at the least imagined provocation; I don't think the public at large will stand for it or respect a philosophical system that they are told demands it.

So we must consider very carefully the sources of this dangerous error.

1. Evil Ideas

A major source of unjust moralizing and condemnations is the belief that ideas can be either good or evil—that it is not merely people, their motivations, the degree of their rationality, their characters, and their actions that are open to moral evaluation, but also and primarily their ideas and convictions. We can—and must, this view holds—judge people, judge the very nature of their souls, according to that which they hold to be true. It is what one thinks that determines one’s virtue or vice.

Objectivists are not alone in holding such a view, although it is relatively rare among people who are not Objectivists. Several years ago, I had dinner with some liberal acquaintances when a discussion of the present Administration began. I mentioned that I liked George Bush and approved of many of his policies. No one asked me why. No one said a word. A dead silence fell over the table. Everyone stared at me, aghast, as if Satan, complete with horns, hooves, and a tail, had seated himself among them. They wanted nothing to do with me, they did not want to know me; I had established myself as irredeemably evil. Approve-of-Bush is an evil idea, is it not?

Let me hasten to say that this attitude is not limited to liberals. Had I been at dinner with conservative or libertarian acquaintances and said I approved of many of the policies of Bill Clinton, I have little doubt that I would have met with the same appalled rejection and similarly been viewed as an advocate of the gentle art of well-poisoning.

The view that ideas can be evil is held implicitly or explicitly by a great many Objectivists. If someone tells us, for instance, that he is religious, presumably we know—without knowing his context, the extent of his understanding, or the depth of his commitment—that this is an evil idea that cannot be accepted by a mind devoted to reason. Therefore, at least to the extent of his religiosity, we know that the person is evil. Or again, if a man tells us he is a political liberal, presumably we know—again without knowing his context, the extent of his understanding, or the depth of his commitment—that this, too, is an evil idea that cannot be maintained by a mind devoted to reason. Therefore, at least to the extent of his liberalism, we know that the man is evil.

How do we know it? How do we decide which ideas are proof of evil? What the argument ultimately amounts to is that mistaken ideas of a fundamental sort—fundamental to whichever branch of knowledge is being considered—are evil. The concept of error, of innocence, vanishes, and error is transmuted into evil.

And worse. What do we hold to be the mistaken ideas that constitute proof of evil? Why, those ideas that contradict our own, of course. We are not religious mystics, we do not believe that the use of force is permissible in human society, we despise non-objective art, we know that certainty is possible, we know that emotions are not tools of cognition—and those who do not recognize these truths are our mortal enemies, Satanic beings to be shunned, denigrated, denounced.

It makes moral judgment so very easy, does it not? All we require in order to know that someone is worthless is to know that he holds convictions contrary to our own.

And if we hold such a view, we necessarily will morally denigrate and verbally abuse those who do not agree with us. We will be indignant at our opponents’ presumption in asking that we even consider or attempt to disprove their evil ideas. Instead, to the cheers of those who agree with us, we will ringingly denounce their dishonesty, their irrationality, their evasion, so that the world will recognize them for what they are.

And what superior and virtuous beings we are! And how incredibly smug and self-congratulatory! We cavalierly dispense with most of the human race for not agreeing with our philosophy. Socialists are evil, theists are evil, determinists are evil, so are Democrats and so are Conservatives and so are Libertarians, so is anyone who has read Rand and is not an Objectivist, and so are many who call themselves Objectivists but who don’t think ideas can be evil. As someone once said, “That leaves you and me, my friend . . . and I’m not so sure about you!”

I have seen lifelong friendships end, families bitterly divided, savagely cruel things being said that cannot be forgotten or remedied because of such an easy ascribing of evil. Yes, momentous issues sometimes are at stake, but that does not automatically turn one’s intellectual opponents into moral monsters.

So let’s examine a bit further the belief that ideas can be evil and a proof of evil.

I think we all will agree that Muslim fundamentalism is a dangerous and deadly threat to our values and to our very survival, that it is the most pernicious force facing our world today. Surely we must damn as evil anyone who accepts its doctrines. Must we not?

Imagine an Arab boy of twelve, born in a remote village in Saudi Arabia. He cannot read or write and he has no knowledge of the outside world. From the time he is five years old, he and the other boys are read to from the Koran by the village elders, the only role models he has. He is told that the Koran is the word of Allah. He is told that Allah demands that his servants kill all unbelievers, because their purpose in life is to destroy the Muslim world, to slaughter his parents, his sisters, his friends. The boy sees the men of his village go off to immolate themselves, cheered by the villagers, their victories and their deaths celebrated as heroic, as a valiant martyrdom to be rewarded by their acceptance in heaven. And he longs for the day when he can join these heroes.

If this young boy considers himself a fundamentalist and upholds its doctrines, is he evil?

If the boy were an adult who had seen something of the world, who had had an education, who had heard intelligent opinions in conflict with those he’d been taught, then yes, we could consider him evil—evil because he has so corrupted his thinking that he is willing to ignore the evidence he has heard and seen. But in so concluding, we would be taking his context into consideration, the fact that he is educated, that he has traveled, that he has learned of other ways of living and of thinking.

Or consider Andrei Taganov, the Communist protagonist in We The Living. He is a man of great integrity, dedicated to the communist principles he believes are right; but when he finally understands that communism inevitably leads to inhuman conditions, he abandons his allegiance. But communism is an evil idea, is it not?—an evil idea which proves the evil character of the man who endorses it. Was Andrei evil while he endorsed communism? I suggest that in today’s world, most people who embrace communism are, indeed, intellectually corrupt, not because the idea per se is evil, but because the anti-life consequences of creating a communist state have so clearly and universally been demonstrated. Unless one lives under a rock, I see no way in which one can be unaware of this. Today, Andrei would not have been a Communist.

And just as mistaken ideas are not proof of evil, so correct ideas are not proof of moral virtue. There can be many reasons why one adopts valid ideas—it might be because of peer pressure, because one believes that embracing a certain set of beliefs will raise one’s status in society, because one feels that they are true, because one believes they are the word of God, because endorsing them will lead to the advancement of one’s career, because one has been brainwashed—or because one has conscientiously examined the evidence and understood the rationale of the ideas.

An idea, like an emotional reaction, is not a moral agent. Only men and woman are moral agents; only they can be good or evil. And the overwhelming majority of them are not wholly one or the other. Stalin was evil; your next-door-neighbor, who may believe he ought to be his brother’s keeper, is not. Thomas Jefferson, despite owning slaves, was basically a good and honorable man; the historical revisionists who focus malignantly only on his errors in order to “cut him down to size,” probably are not. Actions can be good or evil. Ideas cannot. To think something cannot make a person evil, just as it cannot make a person virtuous.

Before we presume to pass moral judgment on a person, we need to remember that we, too, are fallible. We need to remember that knowledge often is hard-won, and that if we were immeasurably assisted in our pursuit of knowledge by the work of Ayn Rand and by many others, we ought to be grateful to them, not pompous about what we have come to understand. Nor should we denounce someone who does not understand what we learned only yesterday. Were we evil the day before yesterday? We need to grant to others, and to ourselves, the right to make mistakes, even serious mistakes, without being flayed alive for them.

I do not wish to deprive you, and certainly not myself, of your inalienable right to anger—even to enraged, tempestuous, foaming-at-the-mouth anger. I am not suggesting endless civility, politeness, and the King’s English when one is driven up the wall in a discussion. You have a perfect right not to like some people and not to deal with them. I wish only to deprive you of specifically moral outrage when it is unjustly directed at your opponents. Be fiercely angry because you know the deadly consequences when certain ideas are translated into action. But recognize, recognize clearly, that it is likely that many of your opponents do not grasp those consequences—and that, if they did, they would change their convictions. In a very real way, it may be said that a great many people who hold ideas that many Objectivists judge as evil, do not really hold those ideas; that is, they do not understand the source, the full meaning, or the consequences of those ideas. Perhaps they need educating. They do not need moral damnation. As Nathaniel Branden has pointed out, we do not bring a person to virtue by informing him that he is evil.

As people who hold unconventional ideas, we all know the experience of stating what we think—say, about ethics—and suddenly being treated as if we were plotting the immediate destruction of civilization. “What! You think people should pursue their own self-interest? How can you be so cruel? Why do you want the weak to starve?” We don’t like it when we are treated this way. Let’s not do it to others.

I feel sometimes that I want to say to Objectivists: “Isn’t there enough pain in the world, my friends? Must we really create more? Must we leave so many bruises and scars in our wake as we move through our lives and our human relationships?”

2. Consequences as self-evident

Now I want to consider a source of irrational anger and moralizing that results from quite a different sort of error. It consists of a failure to recognize the long chain of observations and reasoning required by philosophical or moral conclusions. I’ll give an illustration from my own experience.

In my university days, when I first met Ayn Rand and was introduced by her to Objectivist ideas, I was quick to anger in intellectual discussions with my classmates and professors—probably in part because I was not yet totally sure of my ground. I don’t doubt that I quite often shed more heat than light. However, as time went by I learned to be calmer . . . most of the time. With one blatant exception. If the subject was the military draft, I immediately lost my composure in the face of disagreement, and anyone advocating the draft faced a torrent of outraged denunciation. I was emotionally convinced that such a person was a moral monster. Why?

It seemed to me that I could see, as if it were a visual perception, the meaning of “military draft”—and what I saw was a field strewn with the butchered bodies of dead and dying young soldiers, soldiers who were scarcely more than boys, who had been sent to bleed and die for purposes that were not their own. I was certain that my opponent saw precisely what I saw, the same field, the same young bodies—and so it must be the case that either he wanted those consequences or he simply did not care. In either event, he was profoundly immoral, in the exact sense of that term: he was anti-life. But when, at last, I came to understand that not everyone “saw” what I “saw,” that my opposition to the draft was not a simple acknowledgement of a fact of reality easily available to everyone, then I was able to be relatively sane in such discussions.

To understand the logical consequences in action of our ideas is not done by an act of perception. It results from a complex chain of reasoning. We don’t “see” those consequences; we understand them, and only if we have undertaken that chain of reasoning. With regard to the draft, that chain requires the understanding and acceptance of a moral code that rejects altruism and the sacrifice of some individuals to others. It requires the recognition of each human being’s right to arrive at and act on his own convictions. It requires the knowledge that we do not have the right to sacrifice others to our purposes and that we are not the owners of any lives but our own. By holding that to understand the immorality of the draft was a childishly simple matter of observing reality, I wasn’t seeing the meaning of the draft; instead, I was blurring my own understanding of why it was wrong. By vastly oversimplifying the errors involved, I was failing to understand and deal with the opposition of those who supported the draft

As an aside, it was recognizing this mistake that helped me to understand, at least in one respect, Ayn Rand’s quickness to pass negative moral judgments. I believe that because of her remarkable intelligence, she often grasped the consequences of ideas, for good or for bad, with the clarity that was typical of her—as if those consequences were visual perceptions. And so she failed to recognize that the consequences so blazingly evident to her were by no means evident or understood by others. Instead, she decided they were evading what was so clear to be “seen.”

Many years ago, when Nathaniel Branden was becoming acquainted with Rand and the sweep of her ideas, and was reading Atlas Shrugged in manuscript as it was being written, he wrote her a letter in which he said that although he was trying not to get angry in philosophical discussions, he had exploded at a man who was denouncing big business. In her reply to him, reproduced in The Letters of Ayn Rand, she wrote: “I was amused to hear that it is the words ‘selfish exploitation’ that blew you up. Can you tell me why? I suspect that this is the influence of my new novel. Is it because you see Hank Rearden when you hear those words? (italics mine) I know that’s the reason for my own anger at this sort of attitude.”

Leonard Peikoff makes the identical error, and has attempted to justify it philosophically. He wrote: “A valuer is a man who evaluates extensively and intensively; his value-judgments are integrated into a consistent whole, which to him have the feel, the power, and the absolutism of a direct perception of reality.”(italics mine)

In this connection, I cannot recommend too highly David Kelley’s The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, in which he points out the many errors in this statement.

It is true that many of our convictions may begin to seem almost self-evident to us. But we must recognize that this is not so, that we have learned the truth of them as a result of many complex and extended processes of observation and thought—which means that they are not self-evident to our opponents. Our opponents rarely disagree with us out of sheer perversity, willfully denying the evidence of their senses. We ought to treat them accordingly, to remember that we did not always know what is so clear to us today, and, very importantly, to remember the steps by which we came to know it.

3. Evasion

Another major source of irrational moralizing is a belief that also vastly oversimplifies a complex issue. And that is the view that evasion—which Rand defined as “the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know”—can easily be recognized and identified.

The science of psychology, despite its impressive progress in recent decades, is still a youthful one. It has existed for only a short period of time compared to the physical sciences, and is hampered because it often is impossible to apply the methodology of the physical sciences to the human mind: we cannot conduct potentially dangerous experiments on human beings. Further, there is no agreed-upon philosophical base to the science of psychology, no accepted starting point from which psychologists and psychiatrists conduct their investigations and do their theorizing.

And we are immensely complex creatures psychologically, who often fail even in our best efforts to understand ourselves and our own motivation, much less to understand other people. Do we fully know, for instance, why we fall in love with a particular person? Oh, we probably can specify some reasons—perhaps we say that our lover is an honorable person, kind and strong and wise; but we forget that we have known others who were honorable, kind, strong, and wise with whom we did not fall in love. We forget that we may also have known others who, if judged solely in relation to our philosophical values, would rank higher on the ladder of values, yet we did not fall in love with them. We are less than satisfied if the psychiatrists we turn to for explanations tell is that we chose our lover because of an unresolved Oedipus complex, or because of our irrational value system—or even our rational value system—or because we were bottle-fed as babies.

I believe the idea that self-esteem or its lack crucially affects our approach to life and its challenges, including the challenge of love and sex, points toward the day when we will not only better understand ourselves and others, but will be able scientifically to validate our understanding. But that day is still in the future.

Thus, we must recognize that we cannot look into another human mind. We can know what we ourselves understand; we cannot know what others understand. And we certainly don’t have the right to accuse others of evasion, of the deliberate refusal to understand, until and unless we have incontrovertible evidence. We may feel bewilderment that a particular person fails to see the logic of an idea when we have explained it so clearly and carefully, and when the evidence appears to us everywhere to be seen—but our failure to understand this does not constitute knowledge that the person is evading.

Often, it is difficult even for us, who have unique entry into the workings of our own minds, to say with certainty if we have or have not evaded in considering a particular issue. We might ask ourselves, about a decision we made which we later came to realize was a serious mistake: Did I think about it as carefully as I should have done? Or: If I did not, did I know that I ought to have examined it more closely? Did I allow any out-of-focus moments to blur my understanding of the alternatives? Did I have any small glimmer of awareness that there were more issues to be considered than I was thinking about and that my decision was questionable? Was there at times a fuzzy quality to my thinking that might have alerted me? Did I select only those facts to think about that supported what I wanted to do? Did I really do my best to understand?

I submit that these are often difficult and sometimes impossible questions fully to answer. No one says to himself, as seems implicit in Rand’s description of evasion: “I’m not going to think about X because if I did so I would have to recognize truths that I am unwilling to recognize.” We do not knowingly evade. When evasion occurs—and of course it does occur—it is on a level that involves only minimal conscious awareness, perhaps only the discomfort of a nagging uneasiness.

How much more difficult it is to see into other people’s minds. We cannot know precisely what information they possess or how their minds dealt with that information. We cannot know the degree of their intelligence or their context or their life experiences. We cannot know how or why they have arrived at ideas that we may find abhorrent and irrational. Yes, we may feel, when an opponent seems invincibly ignorant: “The world is racing toward disaster and we all face extinction because you refuse to think!”—but our emotions are not tools of cognition. Justice demands that we withhold moral censure where we do not have certainty. Life would be much simpler if the line between honesty and dishonesty, between intellectual integrity and evasion, were self-evident. But that line is not self-evident.

Of course there are thoroughly dishonest people in this world. Of course there are people who deserve the strongest possible moral condemnation. Of course there are people who push away guilt feelings and continue to act destructively and irrationally. Of course there are people who act without thinking, who mouth ideas they do not take the trouble to understand, who refuse to examine their own motives and purposes. Of course there are people who would rather die than think—and often do. But the fact that someone holds ideas contrary to your own is not a reason to rush to judgment, to hurl accusations of evasion as if it were a scarlet letter rather than an ad hominem attack. Accusing someone of evasion should never be done casually, or on the assumption that disagreement is a sign of intellectual dishonesty. To do so is both unjust and presumptuous. We must recognize that most of the time, disagreement means . . . disagreement.

4. Some psychological causes of Objectivist rage

Now, let’s consider some of the psychological reasons why so many Objectivists are quick to morally condemn and denounce. There is no single psychological syndrome that explains every judgmental person’s attitude or why such a person might be drawn to Objectivism, but there are some sources of moralizing that I’d like to point out, with others left for another day.

It is generally recognized by psychologists that human beings often repress pain and fear and guilt and profound self-doubt, not wanting to recognize them as real, and instead of acknowledging and dealing with them, they turn them outward onto others, transmuting them into anger and condemnation. They blame everyone but themselves for their suffering, for their failures in life, for their damaged self-esteem.

Most of us, if we have emotional problems, are our own worst enemies. That is, we, not others, are our primary victims, in the form of unfulfilling lives, and we are aware that it is not other people who have caused our suffering. But the sort of person I have described, who damns others for his own sense of inadequacy, leaves victims strewn in his path. He is incapable of experiencing empathy, like a psychopath for whom other people are unreal and for whom any context but his own is non-existent; he has no capacity and no desire to put himself in someone else’s place and attempt to understand the reasons for views other than his own, and he lashes out blindly with no concern for the damage he creates.

Philosophy is not psychotherapy, and not even the most powerful philosophy is a cure for severe emotional problems. Objectivism doesn‘t magically elevate one to sainthood. Dependent people, cruel people, dishonest people, need more than philosophy to change them; in most cases, they need psychological treatment. And until and unless they get it, or have life experiences that awaken them to their mistakes, they will be dependent, cruel, dishonest adherents of Objectivism. If you were a nasty bully when you discovered Objectivism, the odds are that you still are a nasty bully. And you will have discovered an entire vocabulary that gives you an arsenal of weapons to use in your bullying that you did not have before—such as the concept that ideas can be evil and that the consequences of certain ideas are self-evident.

Let me give you an example of what might happen if such a person considers himself an Objectivist—and even supposing that he has authentically embraced many of its principles but has not incorporated them into his psychology. A friend says something to him that he fears means that the friend secretly despises him. He does not want to acknowledge his guilty sense that he may have given his friend cause for such a reaction, and so instead he works himself into a rage and tell himself and others that it is he who rejects and despises his friend. The false friend has shown himself to be irrational, evasive, an immoral subjectivist or an equally immoral intrinsicist, intellectually bankrupt, a rationalist, a social-metaphysician, an enemy of the good for being the good, a whim-worshipper, a deliberate distorter of Objectivist principles, anti-conceptual . . . well, you all know the drill. “You don’t like me!”—becomes “You fail to meet the minimum standards of objectivity!” He insists—using concepts he has plucked from Objectivism as a set of buzzwords to feed his malice and to be brandished as a club—that he is the true defender of Objectivism and reason, and it is his friend who is the destructive and evil heretic.

But how is it that such people—who, after all, are of little or no importance in themselves—acquire the power to create victims? Why are they not simply ignored—just as, once we are no longer children, we ignore the street-corner bully who once had the power to make us uneasy, because we have learned that all bullies are cowards?

This leads us to another psychological phenomenon.

We human beings find great value in the company of others who see the world as we see it, who share our sense of life and our intellectual commitments, and with whom we can experience the joys of comradeship and mutual affection. This is why young—and not so young—Objectivists seek out Objectivist groups, hoping not only to learn from them but also to be accepted by them, to be treasured as fellow-fighters in the same noble cause.

But there are potential dangers involved in group membership, any group membership, dangers immensely magnified if one is not aware of them.

I want to tell you about a fascinating—and blood-chilling—documentary I saw on television about the psychology of suicide bombers. But before I do, I hasten to assure you that it is not with the intent to compare Objectivists—even of the most misguided sort—to suicide bombers. Except in one significant respect. (I can see the headlines now: Barbara Branden likens Objectivists to suicide bombers!)

In the documentary, psychologists and psychiatrists--who had interviewed unsuccessful suicide bombers in many different countries and over a period of years, and had also interviewed friends and families of those who had succeeded, in order to learn if such people had characteristics in common--presented their findings. What they found, despite what one might expect to the contrary, is that suicide bombers are not united by race, religion, class, intelligence, economics, or education. Nor do they tend to be wild-eyed, screaming fanatics; they are not psychotic, they are not paranoid; for the most part they tend to be average, commonplace, normal.

However, there is one important characteristic that they share: membership in a group. They are not created in isolation and they do not function alone. They become part of a group—and then they become like that group, they take on its characteristics. It is group dynamics, the researchers contend, that creates suicide bombers.

What is it that occurs within groups that can make this happen? Often its members find in the group a new family, superseding their real families in importance, and with whom they develop a powerful bond. They spend most of their time together; they become progressively cut off from the larger society, progressively more alienated from it. As a result of this deep alienation from a world they believe does not understand them, they cease to regard the rest of society as being fully human; people outside the group become things, they are de-humanized, they are evil, and thus it is not possible to feel empathy or compassion for them.

It was clear to me, from what these researchers learned, that the group was now ready for the bully—the man who did not have to learn from others the art of de-humanizing one’s opponents, the man seething with hatred and resentment and the need to reduce the self-esteem of others to the level of his own. Such a man may, nevertheless, be highly intelligent, charming, able to dominate and intimidate. If the group he joins, or perhaps forms, consists of people who have embraced Objectivism, he will show himself to be well-versed in its principles, and especially well-versed in using those principles as his means of intimidation and control. The members of the group, eager, even desperate to maintain their membership in their new family, never to be thrown out into what has become an alien and threatening world, will follow his lead. They might have learned to be tolerant and kind if they were led in that direction; but they have submerged their identity into the larger social or ideological system, and will exhibit a degree of cruelty and hostility they would not be capable of if they were acting on their own. They glory in the self-importance of being a member of their group, and whatever its direction, that is what they will follow. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Most men are other people. Their thoughts are someone’s else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Whether or not this is true of most men, it certainly is true of a great many—and particularly of those most tightly bonded to a group.

Someone recently said, “I see the acts of suicide bombers at the far end of a continuum that starts with the deceptively simple ‘suicide’ of one’s individuality in the face of group identity.” And, I would add, in the face of group pressure.

Let’s return for a moment to the television program. One of the researchers demonstrated a fascinating and relevant experiment. Six or seven people were asked to participate in a simple test: to look at several straight lines drawn on paper, and to say which one of them most closely matched a particular line in length. In fact, only one young male participant was, in effect, the guinea pig; unknown to him, the others had been told that each of them was to choose a specific wrong line—that is, a line that did not match the given line in length. The guinea pig at first looked startled at the selection of the others, and, shaking his head in bewilderment and uncertainty, he nevertheless gave the correct answer. But by the time he reached the second set of lines, he still gave puzzled looks at the others—but he gave the same wrong answer they had given. It was chilling to watch; the young man clearly knew that his answer was highly dubious, but he was intimidated and overwhelmed by what he experienced as the power of the group.

Knowledge is power. If we do not know the potential dangers of group membership, despite its advantages, if we do not keep sacrosanct our own independent view of reality, we may not become suicide bombers, but we surely will become the Peter Keatings or worse of Objectivism.

Of course, there are Objectivists who come to this philosophy in search of a new religion, a dogma they can blindly follow, a set of rules that will bring them the certainty they require, eager to lose their blemished selves, their sense of personal failure, in something larger than themselves. These are the true believers of Objectivism and they are epidemic in every intellectual movement, whether the movement be philosophical or religious, social or political—whether it upholds reason or mysticism, freedom or force, the individual or the collective. Any vital new philosophical system will attract true believers. The psychological needs that normally draw a man to faith and force may instead lead him to stumble into a philosophy of reason and seek his fulfillment there. But what he is seeking is not reason, it is not knowledge; he seeks a holy cause to which he can submit himself, he renounces intellectual independence and its attendant doubts, uncertainties, and errors—he renounces spiritual struggle and the sense of wonder—for the certitude of dogma and faith.

My own understanding of maturity is that it requires the ability to live with uncertainty. Because no matter how much we know, how much we learn, we always are faced with many uncertainties—uncertainties about ourselves, about other people, about the world. No one can once and for all tie reality into one pretty parcel for us and tell us we need never doubt or wonder again. If we cannot accept this fact, and live comfortably with it, we are in very deep trouble indeed. How wonderful it is to find answers in an area where before we had only doubts and questions and uncertainties. And it can be equally wonderful to find new questions where before we thought we had certainty—and then to leap into the unknown in the search for knowledge. Surely this is a substantial part of what the richly lived life is all about.

It is the people who cannot bear to live with uncertainty who are the greatest threat to Objectivism. They are the ones we must beware of. We must never let them tell us that we are culpable for what we do not know, for our doubts, for our questions, for our disagreements with aspects of Objectivism. We must wear our uncertainties as a badge of honor, for it is only through uncertainty that we will find the path to knowledge.

And we must never give them the sanction of the victim by allowing their ugliness and hatreds to cause us to doubt ourselves.

None of us is likely ever to forget the excitement of our first discovery of the works of Ayn Rand and of the exalted vision of the human potential that she offered us. Let us never allow anyone to turn that discovery into dogma, heresy trials, and excommunications. The real meaning of Objectivism in our lives is surely contained in The Fountainhead, in the scene with the boy on the bicycle, who found in Howard Roark “the courage to face of lifetime.”

Barbara Branden is a writer, lecturer, and author of the best-selling biography The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday, 1986). An M.A. in philosophy (New York University), she was for eighteen years a close associate of Ayn Rand, the managing editor of The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist, and executive vice-president of the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York, where she wrote and lectured on the philosophy of Objectivism.


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Edited by Jerry Biggers

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