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To Post or Not To Post

In a discussion that began here and that continued in my entry, "To Publish or Not To Publish," I have addressed the issues of "tolerance" and "sanction" in the context of various Internet forums.

In the comments section to that most recent entry, Jim Valliant raises the issue of "boycotts" and a reader named "Cato" addresses the subject of SOLO HQ. Valliant suggests that even the most tolerant among us might become "intolerant" at some point, and that exercising our right to boycott is simply an extension of the necessity of drawing lines and boundaries.

In truth, of course, as every economist reminds us, there is not a single person on earth who does not discriminate. Lindsay Perigo, founder of SOLO, has often taken to calling me "Her Royal Whoreness," because he found my capacity to "mix it up" on so many diverse forums to be quite promiscuous. But even this ol' whore has learned over time that there is a virtue in not participating in forums where my practice of civility and tolerance are used against me. As I suggested in my previous post, I still try to take the high road even among those who insist on the sewer, but I withdraw from discussion much more swiftly nowadays; I am willing to thrash out ideas and to debate issues vigorously. I am not willing to be anybody's punching bag. And I will not sanction discussions that revolve around personal attacks.

Clearly, this leaves a lot of room for debate. And I'm willing to engage a very wide diversity of opinion. As a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, I encourage vigorous discussion among contributors who come from many different schools of thought. Heck, my aesthetic tastes alone should suggest the breadth of my eclecticism and of my willingness to put personal and ideological differences aside for the sake of the artistically sublime ... or even for the sake of some darn good entertainment!

But as I indicated in that aesthetics post, "Taking the Ad Hominem Out of Art Appreciation," I won't censor my own artistic responses according to whether or not the artist in question has the "right" intellectual premises or is a member of the "right" political or ideological groups. I'd say the same thing about intellectuals and nonfiction writers. In fact, my appreciation of, and engagement with, people whose views I adamantly reject is partially responsible for the strengthening of my own convictions. Where would I be without the challenges posed by my mentor, the Marxist theoretician Bertell Ollman? Ollman himself was a Volker fellow under Friedrich Hayek! And Hayek was taught by Friedrich von Wieser, who was a Fabian socialist. Even within the broad Randian universe, stranger bedfellows could not be found: Leonard Peikoff, whose doctoral thesis advisor was the pragmatist-cum-social democrat, Sidney Hook; David Kelley, who studied with the postmodernist Richard Rorty; and so forth.

So, I have been, and I am, a proud "whore" in terms of my willingness to read those whose views I reject.

As I have suggested, however, reading is not the same as posting. I suspect that Commentator Cato might be working with the same distinction. Cato writes here:

The reasons given by fan are exactly the reasons I do not post at the SOLO forum. Some time ago I read some messages in a tread about [hard] rock music and the people that dared to admit they liked bands like Rush were treated with the utmost disgust and revulsion. I don't care how much their ideas are in line with mine when objectivist[s] are being called Nazi's because they like a certain kind of [rock] music. Something is very, very wrong here.

Well, I genuinely understand the need to abstain from posting on sites or on particular threads within sites, when these forums are not the most inviting of dissent. I don't participate in several forums for precisely that reason: they are overwhelmed by unappealing posters and messages. But, I confess, this doesn't stop me from occasionally reading an article or a thread on a particular forum that I won't post to. If I cut off my reading activities (in contrast to my posting activities) every time I found myself hating an Internet forum, I'd quickly find myself navigating nowhere ... except my own solipsistic cyber-universe. I just can't imagine putting myself in that kind of intellectual ghetto. (Granted, sometimes when I read certain threads on certain forums, it packs the kind of fascination that bystanders feel when viewing a car wreck... but that's another subject entirely...)

So, Cato, here is a key difference that you might have with fan: You suggest that you won't post to SOLO because of the treatment that some hard-rock music fans have received in some of the discussion threads at that site. Well, I grew tired of posting on SOLO on two issues primarily: art appreciation and foreign policy. (And you'll note, at Notablog, I won't even open up my "Song of the Day" entries to discussion; they are not open to debate!) There are only so many times I can say the same thing over and over and over again, only to be met with the same objections over and over and over again ... only to see the whole thing degenerate, eventually, into a flaming, verbal slugfest.

But I don't think this problem is endemic to SOLO. In the Randian cyber-universe, the problem proliferates: These subjects seem to bring out the best, and the worst, in some people. Because they inspire a certain degree of high passion, such discussions can end up shedding much more heat than light. And after a while, the reactions are so predictable that the threads start to resemble a "repetition drill" like that which I remember from my days of studying French in junior high school: People just repeat the same phrases as if they are listening to an "ecotez et repetez" audio drill in a language lab.

The key difference here, however, is on the issue of posting versus reading. Cato, you suggest that you won't post to a forum that allows some of its participants to be "treated with the utmost disgust and revulsion." Well, okay, and something may indeed be "very, very wrong" with the tone of such a discussion.

But that still doesn't prevent you from navigating to a free site and reading a specific thread or a specific article (like my own) that has nothing to do with the kinds of threads that bring you grief.

Perhaps "flaming" is simply the nature of the beast we call the Internet. Plenty of people who would be pussycats in person become roaring lions when hiding behind a computer screen. And you will see the same dynamic played out in "ideological" forums especially, across the political spectrum, on blogs, in usenet groups, in the groups at Yahoo and MSN, and in the comments section of many online periodicals. It's because of these tendencies that each of us must discriminate in terms of our posting proclivities in the cyber-marketplace of ideas. But these tendencies don't prevent any of us from occasionally navigating to sites we don't like in order to read the one or two posts we might find enjoyable.

A very dear friend of mine who has known me for nearly twenty-five years once said to me that I'm the kind of guy who would find that one rose petal in a pile of manure. Sometimes, when the whole world smells like fertilizer, you do need to search out the flowers that spring forth, nourished.

Comments welcome.

Comments

Again with utmost respect I must humbly disagree with Chris who I do not think is a whore --- sorry to disappoint you. But Chris raises several points most of which I think are side points.

Certainly unpleasant and uncivil forums like SOLO one may wish to avoid for obvious reasons. The tendency to call names, pass insults off as arguments, to abandon reason in favor of rudeness, etc. are all good reasons to avoid posting there. But what about reading? As Chris says one can sometimes find rose petals in piles of manure.

A cute analogy but what if instead of rose petals we said strawberries. Yes, you might find a strawberry in a pile of manure but is it worth the effort and would you eat it? Those are two other questions.

We all have limited time available and Im not sure sifting through mountains of manure for a rose petal or strawberry is the best way to spend that limited time. Id rather go to the many, many useful sites on the web and ignore those which reek of Objectivist fundamentalism. And if I do want a rose petal Ill go where I can find the whole rose and not just one petal covered with..... well we all know what that image conjures up.

In addition frequenting such sites gives the bullies who run them encouragement. Honestly Chris do you consider you not a blog blog a success or not on the basis of comments people most or readers you have? Most of such sites look at the number of readers as a sign they are doing something right. So sticking my hands in the pile in the hopes of finding a rose petal not only makes me feel dirty but encourages the farm hand to pile on more manure.

In my previously misguided attempts to use SOLO seeking rose petals I quickly figured out the farmhand that runs it is encouraged by people's presence. If the thinks he has an audience he increases his rudeness, his meanness and viciousness. The bigger the audience the more vile the comments. Simply visiting the site was encouragement enough apparently. So Id rather not visit it and offer no encouragement.

So Chris there are numerous issues involved. I wont read SOLO because rose petals can be found much easier without digging through manure piles. And I have no desire to encourage unpleasant people in continuing to be unpleasant. Id rather come here and encourage a pleasant person who strews many rose petals with giving me any shit along the way.

Insanity galloping with the analogy: You're welcome to come to my rose garden anytime.

Thanks,
Chris

Well-taken point, Fan. Indeed, the resource of time is so limited, and literature so vast, that the context demands hard choices even about what we read. By posting, we do also give an indirect "sanction" to the website in question; no, we are not necessarily conceding that the forum is "fair," but we are giving the forum what it wants and needs most--traffic. This cannot be ignored.

Jesus Christ--not someone I normally cite as authority--reportedly said that He came to heal the sick, not the healthy, and so He hung-out with prostitutes and tax-collectors. Jesus himself may have learned a thing or two from those "sinners," too. Challenging engagement is a great resource--and essential to developing a critical mind.

And, there is a big difference between being wrong and being dishonest or abusive. It is at the latter two that I draw the line myself.

Returning to the Bible, when God told Abraham that He intended to smite the wicked residents of Sodom, the Patriarch, who had relations in that area, began to negotiate with the Almighty: "What if only 50 virtuous men lived in the city?" Would God spare the city for their sakes? God said that He would. Abraham continued to haggle, "What about 20?," etc.

My inner-Dagny is too often too tempted to engage at such places for the sake of the 2 virtuous men who might have remained in the wicked city.

But Fan's right: sometimes it simply should go up in blaze of fire and brimestone.

While we're being Biblical, if I may, I, myself, learned a lesson about turning the other cheek through all my years of near-total toleration for personal abuse on various sites.

Turning the other cheek was okay---when you've got four cheeks. But after getting slapped in the face on both sides, and kicked on each of the half-moons of my butt... well... I ran out of cheeks. :) And my cup runneth over too.

Go in peace.

Thanks for the comments Chris. You hit the nail on the head. Yes I do sometimes browse the SOLO forums. There are quite a few people posting there who's contributions I value.

The first that comes to mind is a Grand Ol' Dame of objectivism Barbara Branden. He memories on the early day's of "the movement" are priceless. Not just because she has lived it but also because in time she succeeded in distancing herself from the more negative aspects of it.

I found her book "The passion of Ayn Rand" very instructive to the very subject we are discussing here. I think that your approach to the question of sanction is much better than the ironclad dogmatic approach of some of the objectivists I have met.

What bothers me about the way that the "Sanction principle" is being used in objectivist circles is that it is being handled as a means to very dangerous rationalization.

When people admit to be an admirer of the "wrong" writers, painters or music they are not being addressed as fully human anymore but as an abstraction. Despite their explanations they are being told that they are Kantian, Nietzian or even worse, a Nazi.

Whatever they say, no matter how logical or rational they try to be, they are not being heard. Within the context of their objectivist critics universe they are not fully human anymore. And they can be insulted and dismissed out of hand without being payed to much attention to.

I consider this to be a very dark element in the way objectivism is explained and sometimes used by some people.