Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ayn Rand Refuses a Sanction: Truth, Tolerance and the Level of Discourse

The manner in which discourse is conducted in the media and in public speeches and statements made by politicians today is beyond apalling. The insinuations, excuses, lack of respect for the listeners--or in the case of interviews--the person being interviewed, has become the norm rather than the exception, and is expected and even approved of by members of the media, the intellectuals, political hacks, politicians and even some members of the general public. I have discussed this before, even back to the beginning of this blog, and I have wondered about how we had come to this pass, and what values we have learned and taught that would have allowed such a deterioration of discourse, turning it into a kind of anti-discourse in which ideas are never exchanged.

Today, I as I was catching up on my blogging reading list, I came upon a post that featured a segment of Milton Friedman on Phil Donahue in 1979. I had forgotten what a sharp man he was, and how he used humor to his advantage. So I watched the whole show--which can be found in 5 segments starting here. From there I found the whole of a Phil Donahue show that featured Ayn Rand in the same year. Oddly, though I had seen the Milton Friedman episode when it was broadcast, I had missed the Ayn Rand episode of Donahue. My boyfriend at the time told me about it, knowing how much I admired her. I remembered what he said, and it pertains to my topic as well shall see.

Miss Rand had much to say in this interview, and as I watched, I was struck by two things. The first was how much time Phil Donahue spent actually listening to the answers to questions he posed, and how, in his discussion, he endeavored to be fair to the guest, even when it was clear that he disagreed with the ideas presented. This used to be the norm, and now I never experience it--not even with respect to some talk radio hosts that I believe have a point. The other was the very serious way Miss Rand listened to Donahue, often hearing and repeating verbatum his words in order to illustrate her own ideas as well as his. This was a hallmark of Miss Rand's interactions. She was serious about ideas, and would underscore a questioner's words in such a way that he--and everyone else listening--had to realize what he had actually said and what it meant. Often, she would look at the speaker with a shrug, a smile and an intense look that said that she had heard what the speaker was actually saying, but did the speaker hear it?

On this level alone, the episode was refreshing--a blast from a kinder, more focused past, but at the end of the third segment something occurred that got me thinking once again about the nature of discourse, and I got it, finally; the "it" being the value that has been lost in order to allow the ugly sniping that has replaced discourse in the present.

What happened is that a young woman got up to ask a question. But rather than simply ask a question, she added a preamble in which she said:

Questioner: Fifteen years ago I was impressed with your books and I sort of felt that your philosophy was proper. Today, however, I am more educated and I find that if a company . . ."
Rand: This is what I don't answer--
Donahue: Well, wait a minute, you haven't heard the question yet.
(Audience chatter, laughter)
Rand: She's already estimated her position, in my work, incidently displaying the quality of her brain. If today she says she is more educated--
Questioner (interrupting): No, no, no! I am more educated now than I was 15 years ago when I was in high school, before I went to college--
Rand (talking over Questioner): --then, uh, I'm not interested in your biography (unintelligible) wrong context.
Questioner (over Rand):--and read the newspapers.
Donahue: Let her make her point! Let her make her point!
(Audience murmers, talking).
Rand: (gestures and bows, gives floor to Questioner)
Questioner: It's very basic. When a company is allowed to do what it wants to do like ITT, you wind up with Nazi Germany and ITT doing whatever it well please, and any other company in the United States doing the same damn thing! Conglomerates are not monopolies--they can do whatever they want. ITT owns everything from baking companies to telephone companies to munition plants. I mean, I really think that's wrong! And I really think--
Donahue (getting between Rand and Questioner): Miss Rand thinks it's wrong, too. But she thinks it's not a government force that's going to correct the problem.
Questioner: I don't think government force is going to correct the problem either, but she's not--
Donahue: But she says that if we just back away and let the invisible hand to work, and let competition and free enterprise happen according to it's own inclinations--
Questioner: I understand that--
Donahue: We're not going to have abuse--and abuse and evil will fall of its own weight.
Questioner: I don't believe that.

The above can be seen here, starting at 9:53. Watch Rand's expressions and body language closely.

The encounter continues at the beginning of segment 4:

Questioner: I can't believe that because money is power--
(Audience applause, whistles, clapping)
Questioner: --the more power you have.
Donahue: Can we encourage you to make a contribution to this expression.
Rand: I will not answer anyone who is impolite. But, to show you --
(Audience expresses disapproval)
Donahue: She wasn't impolite--
Rand: I do not sanction impoliteness and I am not the victim of hippies. But--
Donahue: Hippies?
(Audience laughing, talking).
Rand:--that's where it started. That the--in the dropping of politeness and the manners.
Donahue: You're equating someone who disagrees with you with impoliteness. That's not fair.
Rand: No, no. If you didn't--
(Audience laughter, calls and applause)
Rand: If you didn't interrupt me, I would have demonstrated what I mean. I will assure you that I am not evading the question. If anyone else wants to ask the same question politely, I'll be delighted to answer.
Donahue: There was nothing impolite! . . . This is the kind of woman we are trying to attract to our television audience.
Rand: Fine. Teach her some manners--I--
Donahue: But Miss Rand--
Rand: I will now repeat what she said: "I used to agree with you, but now that I'm more educated. . ." What does that mean.
Donahue: Well that means that she now has a different view. There's nothing personal about that observation. Don't be so sensitive!"
Rand: I am going to be. I intend to be!
Rand (after answering another question): --But I want to answer the preceding question. Doesn't anybody want to ask it politely?
Donahue: Uh, well yes.. Ah, sure... ah--your question. . . your question wants this audience to agree with your assessment of the questioner, and I don't think they will. That's the problem.
(Audience applause)
Rand: All of them? Uh--then why do they want to listen to me at all?
Donahue: Alright, does anybody want to. . .? Alright . . . over here. Could you please stand?
Commentor: I' suprised that somebody with the intelligence of Miss Rand could so emotional in her approach.
(Audience applause).
Rand (pointing): I can answer you. I didn't come here to be judged. I came here to answer questions. A question asked in the following form: "I used to agree with you but now that I'm more educated, I don't." It is an insult--
Donahue: All right--
Rand:--which I cannot sanction.
Donahue: All right.
Rand: I am not interested in the woman's history. She didn't have to begin it that way--
Donahue: All right.
Rand:--and that's what I want to register my protest--
Donahue: How do we keep ITT from developing too much . . .
(Here Donahue goes on to ask, and Rand answers the question)

Here is the next half, on segment four--from the beginning to about 4:05.

Here is Ayn Rand's point: that the woman was impolite and that she (Rand) would not therefore sanction the question. That is, Rand refused to ignore the context in which the question was asked, and the assumption that the woman was making, in order to ask the question.

Donahue here misunderstands Rand's intent, and interprets it to mean that Rand will not answer because she disagrees with the Questioner.

What I noticed is that, despite what has been said about Rand by those who hate her, she is completely genuine in her verbal and facial expressions. She lets anyone watching know that she is being direct, but that she is not angry. She is refusing to answer this woman on principle. Twice, this woman begins her statements by talking down to Rand, a context that Rand then refuses to ignore. The first time the woman speaks, she implies that uneducated, naive people are the only ones who would consider Rand's ideas proper. The second time, she says: "It's very basic . . ." Both of these statements essentially talk down to Rand and her ideas. Despite what Donahue says, they are personal, and change the tone of the conversation. If Rand had ignored the insult and answered the question, she would have given her sanction to the lack of good manners--and good rhetorical skills--of her questioner. Rand would not do that. Had she had the desire, Rand would have made an excellent teacher for young people. She would not have let them get away with such attempts at one-upmanship, however unconscious or subtle, and the kids would have respected her for it.

To understand what Rand was doing in the above interview, I believe that one must understand that Ayn Rand was far more concerned with truth than she was with tolerance. That she was not prepared to allow a lie or an evasion (and this was more likely the latter on the part of the Questioner) for the sake of being nice, or appearing to turn the other cheek. Ayn Rand believed that sacrifice--the act of ignoring or destroying something or someone of greater value to oneself for the sake of a lesser value--is evil. She was a very consistent practitioner of justice, which is the opposite of such sacrifice. Ayn Rand was also consistent in that she would not suffer fools gladly. She understood that tolerance of the bad is destruction of the good; that tolerance of foolishness means ignorance of wisdom; that tolerance of evasion is the destruction of truth. It was her contention that sanctioning a non-value drives out value, and that this is what is evil about such tolerance. Ayn Rand was definitely not PC.

And this brings me to the issue of how reasonable discourse has been driven out in favor of empty rhetoric, lies and insults. As I watched these YouTube segments, I saw that the value that underlies political correctness is unlimited tolerance. People have many rationales for tolerating being lied to and being continuously insulted by those who wish to replace argument with empty words. One that the collectivists have much exploited, is the desire people have to appear to be tolerant. The leftists use this through continual accusations of racism and other calumny applied to anyone who is not tolerant of the course state of discourse today. And the reluctance people have to being labeled as intolerant--whether it is true or not--makes such labeling an easy way to control people who desire the good opinion of others, no matter who they are and what they believe. You may have noticed that Rand does not care about the good opinion of others unless she respects them.

Tolerance has been treated as a primary virtue: that is a virtue that must be practiced without limits. And among people of good will, a certain amount of tolerance for differences in beliefs and practices is necessary, as well as is tolerance for differences in taste and preferences. It is also important to have some tolerance for the errors of knowlege that people of good will can make, so that we can get along with one another. But tolerance cannot be a primary virtue.

In engineering, tolerance is defined as: "the leeway for deviation from a standard"; and more precisely as "the permissible deviation from a specified value of a structural dimension." These definitions imply that there are limits to tolerance, and indeed an engineer is very careful to calculate the limits to a deviation, because beyond those limits a structure could not stand.

And so it is within the values that we place on behavior and interactions among human beings. To tolerate benign errors of knowlege, differences in beliefs and practices that do not affect the rights of another is within the limits. But should we tolerate destruction of property? The enslavement of women? Murder? Genocide? Is it virtuous to tolerate the culture and beliefs of those who wish to destroy our life, liberty and property? Many of us would respond viscerally with a resounding "NO!"

And yet, what is it we do when we believe that it is proper to treat with murderers and psychopathic and genocidal leaders such as the president of Iran? When we allow such a man to speak to our Congress and to students in our unversities? When we applaud him because it is "nice" to do so? It is wrong to do so because tolerance of evil does mean the destruction of the good. We cannot have it both ways. By tolerating evil, we destroy the good. This is the opposite of justice, no matter how often the leftists speak of justice in social terms.

So it is with the issue of discourse. By giving our sanction to liars, tyrants and murderers, we participate in the decline of polite and reasoned discourse and the discussion of ideas over personalities. This may not seem like a huge concession when compared to murder and genocide. But discourse strikes at the heart of all political interactions, and by driving out truth and justice tbrough tolerance of lies and deceit, we are helping to build the on-ramp to the destruction of our Constitution and our liberty.

Many of us, present company included, have often given our sanction to to the undeserving because we wanted to appear to be tolerant, to be considered "nice". And we have to stop it right now. Being nice is not the equivalent of being good. Tolerance is not a primary virtue, and it is meaningless without limits. What should our children say to us if we allow their freedom and liberty to be destroyed because we wished to appear to be tolerant and nice?

G-d forbid that I should ever need to have that conversation with my kids.

Ayn Rand understood this, and that is why she refused to sanction the woman's question. For the late '60's and '70's saw the resurgence of the loss of justice, the loss of truth in argument, and the beginning of unlimited tolerance practiced out of fear of the bad opinions of others and a desire to appear "nice."

Ayn Rand understood what was happening--did you catch her comment about hippies?--and that is why she stood her ground, firmly. By refusing to tolerate the young woman's question, and persistently pursuing the issue, she taught that audience--and all of us--that tolerance is no substitute for truth and justice.

Justice cannot survive when we bow down to unlimited tolerance.

Watching this episode has brought me an understanding of how we have come to a place where we are afraid to assert the goodness of our values, and why we tolerate behavior that seeks to destroy them. It has made me reflect on my premises and reject those that have brought me to self-censorship for the sake of not offending the indefensible. I have learned something about what to listen for, and how to respond. Certainly, I am not Ayn Rand. My expression of the same ideas will be different, but the goal will be the same: To practice the refusal to sanction an unreasonable assertion by providing a reasonable response and to call attention to the context of such a substitute for discourse, and to the purpose behind the speaker's strategy, which is usually to shift the ground of the conversation away from reason. (In the case of the Questioner above, I believe it was unconscious. Rand reminds me of some of the older European Jewish women I know, who practice both the straighforwardness and manners of a different time). This will require a more conscious attention to not only what is being said, but to the context in which it is presented.

Thank you, Ayn Rand.


Anonymous said...

Q: "Fifteen years ago I was impressed with your books and I sort of felt that your philosophy was proper. Today, however, I am more educated and I find that if a company . . ."

R: "She's already estimated her position, in my work, incidently displaying the quality of her brain."

R's immediate response is both patronizing and insulting. She can't take it but she can dish it out, eh?


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


"She can't take it, but she can dish it out, eh?"

First response: So what?

But in looking at the exchange, it seems to me the Questioner was the one who first dished it out. Rand responded by refusing to focus on the question because of the context, but then did throw in an insult for free. Tit for tat?

When I was in grad school doing ecology and evolution, we did a lot of modeling with game theory. Using game theory is a good way to model species interactions. The best way to a win-win is to engage in tit-for-tat. If the other individual responds with I win-You win, it becomes a win-win cooperation. If she does not, you still come out ahead. When the interaction is started by the other individual, you do what they did. They will then win or lose depending of their own next response. You will almost always win either way. Over a lifetime of tit-for-tat, most players end up in win-win. Those that do not are those who do not learn after a reasonable number of exchanges that you cannot help the person who insists I win-you lose when initiating, and/or who does not learn to use tit-for-tat when responding.

Interesting. In this case, the Questioner was the initiator, and began with the I win-you lose pattern. Rand simply responded in kind. She probably never studied game theory, but she gets the principle.

And she's not an altruist, so I'd be surprised if she would have responded with I lose-you win. She could have responded I win-you win, but that puts her one down in game theory.

Brianna said...

I watched this interview last summer, when I started to seriously dig into ideology in general and Objectivism in particular. I think you give Rand too much credit in this particular exchange, as I would say it was unlikely that the questioner fully realized the context she was framing the question in, and that Rand probably would have been better off forgiving this particular error than making a point out of it. However, I do view the more general point you are trying to make as valid.

I was especially struck by your comparison of tolerance in society to tolerance in engineering, as it was an analogy which really drove home to me the point you were trying to make, and which greatly clarifies the difference between tolerance between people of good will, for the sake of getting along together in society, as opposed to tolerance of evasion or error. I agree that reasonable people can differ on where that line should be drawn and how strict those tolerance levels would be, just as different technologies require different degrees of strictness. I also agree that we have been setting these levels far too low, for far too long.

And now work is demanding that I pay attention to it immediately, so I have to wrap up. TTYL.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I think there was a way for Rand to stick to her ground--which she always did--without the free insult thrown in. As I said to Deborah, Rand may have intuitively understood the dynamics of Prisoner's Dilemma, but I think she had gotten pretty irascible by that point in her life. In fact, watching her, I think she was already ill with lung cancer by that point. Her respiration was high, and she really had to focus to speak, and she was breathing hard between phrases. And in watching her, I also saw that she is--like many of the intellectually gifted children and young adults I taught, a tad short on the social skills. I'm not defending her, but geniuses are quirky and live through their minds.

If I were in the same situation, I think I would have handled it differently. Still, you have to admire the old girl. She remained focused and made everyone who spoke to her focus right to the end.

I'm glad you got my point. Of the several comments here and at FB, it seems most people focus on Rand's response to her Questioner, but do not comment on the point. That is where I'd love to see some discussion!

Hope to hear from you soon!

Anonymous said...

So what? I lost interest in the conversation. It was clear, from R's first impatient dismissal of a not-very-articulate guest, and the subsequent put down, that the conversation was not going to be about ideas, but about brinksmanship. R presented herself as a person who makes snap judgements without sufficient proof and indulges in name calling...not what I expected. Even if R "won" the exchange in terms of game theory, she "lost" by alienating the audience.


HaynesBE said...

Great post!I too really appreciated your use of the engineering definition of tolerance. I think it is a perfect fit and helps clarify the very important point you are making.

I have seen these clips several times in the past and had come away thinking that Miss Rand was unnecessarily testy--but you have provided a great explanation, very consistent with her philosophy, that me me understand why she responded as she did. The phrasing of the Questioner WAS insulting--and even I don't think she realized it, she clearly meant it and Miss Rand refused to sit by politely and let the insult pass.

A few of your formulations I particularly like
She understood that tolerance of the bad is destruction of the good; that tolerance of foolishness means ignorance of wisdom; that tolerance of evasion is the destruction of truth.


And among people of good will, a certain amount of tolerance for differences in beliefs and practices is necessary, as well as is tolerance for differences in taste and preferences. It is also important to have some tolerance for the errors of knowlege that people of good will can make, so that we can get along with one another. But tolerance cannot be a primary virtue.

Thank you for these insights. It helps me in thinking about how much it is proper to put up with--and a better way to think about how to draw the line.

Brianna said...

Yes, Rand was getting pretty difficult to work with by that point in her career, and not without cause. Aside from your own observations, which I agree are valid, if you read Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism, he theorizes that one of the worst things about Rand's life was that she never understood just how deeply Atlas had affected society. She was expecting trumpets blowing, and what she received was a fizzle and that notable review by Chambers. Imagine spending fifteen years on your work, only to have the world receive it with a shrug (no pun intended, I swear). It would be pretty depressing, and I don't think she ever got over it.

I've read pretty much all the Objectivist literature I know of except Introduction to Objectivist Epistomology, and I've read Burns's biography as well as what Doherty wrote about her in his history of libertarianism. Rand was a complex and fascinating character, and she was a unique enough individual that she made it impossible to fit her into any category other than her own. She certainly had her share of flaws, and made mistakes and bad decisions like the rest of us. But no matter what you think of her ideas, it is impossible to deny that she was also a genius and a great woman.

In the Fountainhead, Mallory said of Roark that he was the only one of the group who would achieve immortality, because he was so fully and completely himself (not exact, but close). What Roark did in her books, I believe Rand did in real life. Love her or hate her, her moral and intellectual certitude, as well as her achievements, made her immortal. You have to respect anyone with the ability to do that.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Deborah: Actually, that was not Rand's first exchange of the day, nor did she lose the audience permanently. At the same time, Rand was, well, Rand. I happen to like people like her--but I know that they are not the most, ummm, tolerant or socially astute, they are very interesting to be around.
Rand was consistent to her principles to the last, even though by this point she was old and ill--if you look carefully you will see from facial expressions and the labored quality of her focus, that she was working very hard against what was probably lung cancer. She died of it in 1982. And yet she did remain focused for the whole program, and explained her philosophy very well given the limits of the program and the people she was addressing.

But--and I have said this twice now--it was unneccessary to add the gratuitous insult, though in my mind it was quite forgivable.
Putting myself into Rand's shoes, I can imagine her frustration.
I would not have handled it the way she did, but I am a different person than she was.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Stephanie--thanks. I was so excited about what I saw and how I understood it that I skipped dinner and stayed up way too late writing that post. I was not sure I had conveyed it well. I did some editing this morning to emphasize better the importance of limits to tolerance.

Although you and I may have well handled the situation differently--less testily, perhaps--the way that Rand handled it was entirely consistent with her philosophy, and with her background. The Eastern European Jewish grandmothers I have known would have been no less direct about the rudeness of that woman, although they would have used a different context for their remarks.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Briana, I have read Doherty (which I liked), and one of the recent Rand biographies (which I understood but didn't like so much). I think Rand was bitter because of the response of the intellectual elite, and she did not realize that her novel had and has enormous appeal among geeks and libertarians (even though she grew to dislike libertarianism). Her influence has spread quietly over three generations now, like the underground springs she talked about in the novel. I don't know if she would have been delighted with us--probably not--but so many people are coming to understand the source of her intransigence.
She did not suffer fools gladly by any means, but she did appreciate the suffering caused by the utopian leftist agenda. And she had great compassion for those who suffered unjustly. But her compassion comes from her innate sense of justice, and that is unforgivable to the left.

Brianna said...

"I have read Doherty (which I liked), and one of the recent Rand biographies (which I understood but didn't like so much). "

Doherty fully understood her philosophy and was in sympathy with much of it, even if he didn't agree with all of it. As a libertarian insider, he was able to get more insight on both the Libertarian and Objectivist community. Burns (don't know whether you read Burns or Heller, but I read Burns) was very fair to Rand's life IMHO, but reading her work I got the impression that she never fully understood Rand's philosophy. Rand was a person of the mind, her field was ideas and she took it very seriously; perhaps the reason I derived less satisfaction from Burns' work than Doherty's was because she was less able to take this into account in her work, due to either her inability or her unwillingness to fully comprehend Rand's philosophy.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Briana, what I loved about Doherty is that he described well and from an adult standpoint what I lived as a child brought up by parents who helped found the LP in Illinois. So much of my memory of those times made sense when compared against Doherty's factual account.

And you are exactly right, Doherty understood Rand's philosophy and understood how Rand's ideas were infused into the libertarian movement--even though Rand herself hated it in the end.

Last night it was getting late, and I did not want to go into my office to check which Rand biography author I had read. It was Heller, and although she understood Rand's achievement--that Ayn did indeed create a world--she did not really get the enormity of that achievement--that Rand created a consist system of philosophy in which metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics were all based on the same premises, and these were explicity stated.

There were other problems with the book as well, but I do believe Heller was also sympathetic to Rand on a certain level, and especially seemed to understand how Rand was disappointed by the critical rejection of Atlas.

Too bad the old girl is not alive today to see how her novels have consistently sold, and that Atlas is now considered the second most influential book in English, surpassed only by the Bible. (And let's face it, Rand reads ever so much better than the Holy Scriptures). I'm sure she'd find plenty to be irascible about--but I think she'd be pleased in her heart of hearts.

Brianna said...

"let's face it, Rand reads ever so much better than the Holy Scriptures"

Hah. Agreed :-)

Cammie Novara said...

"The insinuations, excuses, lack of respect for the listeners--or in the case of interviews--the person being interviewed, has become the norm rather than the exception." I can totally relate to that in every imaginable way.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Cammie, it sounds like you have personal experience. I have had a little of that, but fortunately only at the local, personal level, where it is much easier to admonish the speaker and reach out to him at the same time.