An Epiphany

Roger Bissell

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An Epiphany

In the thread on the psychology of suicide bombers, in reference to the cultish behavior and thinking of some Objectivists, Barbara wrote:

to be aware of the danger is the most crucial step in avoiding it.

I completely agree, and I think that this points to one of the most important and fundamental differences between "us" and "them," the latter being the Axis of Judgmentalism.

I just finished reading an article in Time magazine comparing the therapy approaches between the ruling paradigm, cognitive therapy, and the upstart, newcomer model, ACT, or acceptance-commitment therapy.

At the risk of oversimplification, the former seeks to get people to change their thinking, in order to bring about a change in their feelings and to help them deal with their emotional and psychological problems. The latter seeks instead to get people to be aware of their thinking, on the premise that people will tend to make the changes they need to make, once their consciousness has been sufficiently raised -- and to be similarly aware of their values and to monitor their actions in pursuit of those values. (The article is much richer and informative than this brief, thumbnail description could hope to be.)

The former tends to encourage evaluating one's thoughts and feelings as bad and as needing to be changed, while the latter tends to encourage non-judgmental awareness of one's thoughts and feelings. ("To be aware of the danger [or problem] is the most crucial step in avoiding [or curing] it.")

Again, not to oversimplify, it seems to me that there is a clear parallel here between the over-the-top judgmentalism and psychological pressuring of the Randian Loyalist crowd and the non-judgmental awareness and psychological acceptance of Nathaniel's approach to therapy.

An analogy in the field of physical combat would be: wrestling and boxing on the one hand and martial arts on the other. Or, argumentation and intimidation vs. Zen. Or, West vs. East. Not "East" in any mystical or reason-hating sense, but in the sense that there is a very healthy, life-promoting and change-promoting perspective in Eastern philosophy that Westerners often have trouble wrapping their minds around. And that perspective is very congenial to Nathaniel's therapeutic approach -- and very alien to the whole attitude and push emanating from the more rabid members of ARI & Co.

I think that, strange as it may sound at first hearing, the terrorists and some of the Randroids associated with ARI have a lot in common on the psychological level. It does not show up in their epistemology. It shows up in their metaphysics. They view other people who disagree with them as "the enemy," as a hostile element and a threat that must be wiped out, one way or another. Toleration -- in the best Libertarian, humanistic sense -- is alien to both of them. The Howard Roark attitude of "But I don't think of you" is alien to both of them. Simply ignoring those who point to imperfections in their icons (Mohammed and Rand) is impossible for them. They must destroy the infidels!

This sounds like a thesis that should be more fully explored -- or its weaknesses identified. I haven't thoroughly thought it through yet, so any comments and suggestions are welcome. And anyone who wants to take it and run with it is more than welcome.


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When I spent 2 and a half weeks with my wife's family in Taiwan, I had to get used to a decibel level that was painful to me at first being from a family where it was rare that anyone raised their voice. I also noticed that that wasn't unusual over there. I don't buy the West/East distinction. My wife is a practicing Soka Gakkai Buddhist and while I think her practice helps her manage her emotions, I don't think it's the be all, end all to inner serenity that many people portray.

I also think that many people on both/all sides of the Objectivist divide hold grudges longer than is warranted. I will express opinions of people, even strongly negative ones if I don't approve of certain kinds of behavior, but that won't keep me from interacting with those people or revising my opinion as circumstances warrant.

I have a favorite uncle whose personal life included a couple of nasty divorces, children he only saw once until they were 18 and two return trips through relationships with former spouses and now he's happily married to his first wife and I'm happy for him. He was also the inspiration for my career, taking me up in the control tower of the particle accelerator at Fermilab at age six.

Sometimes things don't work out between people and people don't act as they should and sometimes for various reasons, justified and unjustified, people never reconcile. That doesn't mean they stop living, laughing, breathing, making love, writing books and generally being human.


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Actually, for normal people, it all comes down to attitude - and as you claim, the fundamental distinguishing characteristic is metaphysical.

All of the harshest fanatics I have ever interacted with show to be people who are extremely uncomfortable with their insecurities. (The need to deal with insecurities is something wired into all of us as human beings.) Their discomfort (whether through fear or whatever other reason) leads them to DEMAND absolute security from reality in their thinking - the type where you need to think about something only once, then never have to think about it anymore. Just act on it and teach it.

Barbara has a beautiful statement that goes something like "maturity is the ability to live with uncertainty."

The world has parts you can be certain about. And then there are parts where you just don't know. The more I live, the more I understand that reality is neither all certainty nor all uncertain. It is both, but depending on which part you are looking at, it can be one or the other. Also, living entails a hell of a lot of curve balls thrown at you.

Fanatics crave rules, principles and gods that shield them from all the uncertainties they must face over life. Since you can be certain of some things, they take this to mean that you can be certain of all things. Maybe you can eventually, but not in our lifetime. In their impatience (brought on by their discomfort with insecurity), they create short-cuts like faith and all-or-nothing principles or strict rules to use where these mental strictures do not apply. Reality will never be created out of this attitude. It goes on being what it is.

Yet reality is precisely the thing they wish to limit by their beliefs, even when they say that reality is absolute to them. These beliefs are metaphysical postures. I have seen enough people say that reality is absolute and then be blind to something obvious that is right in front of them to claim that they are trying to limit reality instead of perceiving it.

You wrote:

The Howard Roark attitude of "But I don't think of you" is alien to both of them.

That's for sure. I believe that part of this hatred comes from seeing what is lacking in themselves reflected in opposing views. And seeing the same essential blindness, but with different particulars, makes them scream "No!" since they see themselves - the part of themselves they say does not exist - the uncertain part. This is the other side of the coin of psychological visibility.

But there is one Howard Roark attitude that is quite common to both: that of physically blowing up something over a moral premise.

Their two main differences from Roark, however, is that they do not create what they want to blow up - they fear it instead - and what they really want to blow up, anyway, is people.

On the other end, the attitude of learning to accept the uncertain parts of living leads people to be more tolerant. This is not due to moral equivalency or intellectual mush. It is because they recognize that others are also doing their best with what they have.

How many people become fanatics merely because they were born into a culture? Would a Palestenian suicide bomber have become a Zionist fanatic if he had been born in Israel and born a Jew? If this is true, then is this not an example of ideological uncertainty? I believe tolerant people recognize this truth.

I believe it takes a hell of a lot more commitment to awareness of reality to recognize uncertainty where you find it than to adopt strict categories for things you do not know. Uncertainty exists, but that goes for the contrary, too. Certainty definitely exists, but only for certain things.


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  • 2 weeks later...

I had another thought yesterday along the lines of what I began this thread with. A very ironic thought.

In ruminating over all the air-brushing, re-writing of reality, and outright obliteration of the Objectivist historical record by the ARI affiliates who are compiling, editing, and marketing Rand's books and tapes, I was struck by a comparison of that behavior with the recent destruction of the giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan by Islamic fanatics.

ARI -- the American Taliban.

Then I realized that the intellectual history mangling done by ARI et al is also very much like what Cortez and his Catholic priest buddies did to the priceless Central American relics and records when they came over to Mexico in the 1500s.

ARI -- the American Inquisition.

Then I remembered the fiery, fanatical gleam in Peikoff's eyes when he talked about attacking Iran on various cable tv programs like "The O'Reilley Factor."

ARI -- the American Jihadis.

I could go on like this all day. But I think you get the point. Fanaticism and intellectual thuggery and Attila behavior is not the monopoly of theistic religionists.


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I saw Nathaniel lecturing one time, and he said something very simple that stuck with me, in the area of essentials.

All it was basically, was "your thoughts are your thoughts."

He went on to talk about understanding that simple fact. That we all have all different kinds of thoughts, some of which are disturbing or repulsive to the thinker. That a primal thing is to understand that you will have those thoughts. Obviously, the difference is what you do with which ones. Whether you will act on them, or not.

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