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North Texas Objectivist Society (NTOS) Message Board › NTOS: Activism vs. Persuasion?

NTOS: Activism vs. Persuasion?

Old T.
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
What approach should we take to help spread reason and Objectivism? Activism or persuasion?

Regarding activism Leonard Peikoff wrote:
In the Nazis' attack on logic, all the major elements of their epistemology--dogmatism, activism, pragmatism, relativism, subjectivism--blend and unite. Qua dogmatist, the Nazi holds faith to be superior to logic. Qua activist, he dismisses logic in favor of action. Qua pragmatist, he is free to endorse contradictions, provided they "work." Qua relativist, he rejects the absolutism of the Law of Identity. And, qua subjectivist, the Nazi simply wipes out logic by giving its name to his random, irrational feelings. These premises may differ somewhat; the conclusion to which they lead does not.
The voluntarist worship of mindless action is commonly designated in philosophy by the term "activism." Activism is the form of mysticism (and irrationalism) which extols direct physical action, based on faith or instinct or will, while rejecting and repudiating the intellect and its products: abstractions, theory, philosophy. In a very literal sense, activism is mysticism--in action.
-- The Objectivist, February 1971, "Nazism and Subjectivism"

Regarding persuasion, Ayn Rand wrote:
The only means of "changing" men is the same as the means of "changing" nature: knowledge--which, in regard to men, is to be used as a process of persuasion, when and if their minds are active; when they are not, one must leave them to the consequences of their own errors.
--The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, No. 13 March 26, 1973, "The Metaphysical Versus The Man-Made--Part II"

Ayn Rand also wrote:
A professor of philosophy once invited me to address his class on ethics; they were studying the subject of "justice," and he asked me to present the Objectivist view of justice. The format he proposed was a fifteen-minute presentation, followed by a question period. I pointed out to him that it would be very difficult to present, in fifteen minutes, the basis of the Objectivist ethics and thus give the reasons for my definition of justice. "Oh, you don't have to give the reasons," he said, "just present your views." (I did not comply.)
-- The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, No. 16 May 7, 1973, "The Missing Link"

I hope you will visit with us in NTOS from time to time--to persuade or be persuaded by reason.
Chris J.
Dallas, TX
Post #: 90
The lure of activism is strong. Young people often prefer to wave banners in the streets because it gives them a sense of accomplishment-a feeling of having 'done' something as opposed to just saying or thinking something. Perhaps maturity shows us these activities rarely change things, and that is how people get involved in what some call "direct action." The Nazi movement was very dependent on the young: getting students and other discontents together was its roots. Ayn Rand's discussion of the 'Attila' archetype is a good examination of the sort of person to whom this would appeal.

The problem with the majority of people is that they are more easily motivated by fear, hate, faith, or power lust than by reason.

I see this frequently on the college campuses (I work at one and am a student at another). Notices are posted all the time which say things like "Join us to help the children of Uganda" , "Join together to fight injustice" or "Fight breast cancer on October 12th". None of these activities actually end or prevent the causes, but it makes the participants feel better about themselves to 'do something.' The danger is when the things they want to do are violent and forceful. Taking life, liberty, or property from others by yourself is murder, theft, or kidnapping, but banding together with others, marching to the capital and taking the reins of government to do these things under a banner changes the label. People who have done
this are referred to in history books as activists, revolutionaries, reformers, etc. It may even get your likeness printed on some snotty nosed students' t-shirts a few decades later.

Regarding the second half of your post- examining the why is the thing that I have most benefited from while studying Objectivism. I have noticed that many people are not in touch with why they do or believe things.
Plano, TX
Post #: 632
"Fight breast cancer on October 12th".
Actually, the amount of attention that "activists" have given breast cancer over the past 15 to 20 years has made a huge difference - in how those that suffer breast cancer are treated, in encouraging women to do self exams (something not all that common a few decades ago) and has raised a lot of money for research - so I have to take exception with that example.

I guess I have to do more reading on this, because I don't really understand the hullabub about activists vs "persuaders". It seems to me the real question is what they are activist for. And let's face it activist sounds a lot cooler than persuaders.

I found it kind of ironic that the same night Todd posted this I was visiting Diane Hsieh's blog, and noted that she just started a new email list called OActivists. You can read about it at her website. She started it "specifically for Objectivists committed to fostering positive cultural change". http://www.dianahsieh...­

Now I wouldn't compare myself to her or many others at NTOS, since I am still learning a lot about Objectivism. However, I don't think the fact that there are a lot of foolish and useless activists out there should mean it isn't a good idea to be one for a cause that you value and believe in. You have to act to persuade others.
Chris J.
Dallas, TX
Post #: 94
I think what Todd's post is getting at are those people who act just for the sake of action, without thinking through the issue-believing that acting is better than not acting. I expanded by giving some examples of pointless actions which really do not have any effect on the stated subject. I do not see how people wearing a pink ribbon or walking 60 miles will CURE breast cancer. Donating money to a research lab will yield more results than any number of people walking around White Rock lake.
Old T.
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 739
Hi Sherry,

I think there is a difference between activism and advertising. Advertising can be used to refer others to more information.

But consider this quote from Diana Hsieh after she gave her example of the suggested activism for Objectivism (a comment on another blog):

Notice that my comment [on the other blog] isn't a masterpiece of fresh, original, or insightful argumentation. I wrote it quickly, as my purpose was to just express my support for ARI's position. That's all that's required to be an activist for Objectivism.


Think about what this actually means. Notice that she praised her comment even for being much less than she thinks she is capable of in favor of speed and action. Notice this: "all that's required to be an activist for Objectivism" is "just to express [one's] support for ARI's position." Notice the explicit shift in emphasis--from doing one's best to persuade to just action--to just stating unsupported views. Notice that there is not even a suggestion to at least refer to other sources, which would be advertising. Just speak--poorly, quickly, and frequently.

(Actually, Diana Hsieh's specific comment on that other blog was neither thoughtless or unsupported, even if she thinks it could have been better. I am responding to your pointing out her call for such activism, a call with a shift in emphasis toward activism over persuasion.)

Compare this shift with Ayn Rand's advice:
Do not pass up a chance to express your views on important issues. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines, to TV and radio commentators and, above all, to your Congressmen (who depend on their constituents). If your letters are brief and rational (rather than incoherently emotional), they will have more influence than you suspect.

The opportunities to speak are all around you. I suggest that you make the following experiment: take an ideological "inventory" of one week, i.e., note how many times people utter the wrong political, social and moral notions as if these were self-evident truths, with your silent sanction. Then make it a habit to object to such remarks--no, not to make lengthy speeches, which are seldom appropriate, but merely to say: "I don't agree." (And be prepared to explain why, if the speaker wants to know.) This is one of the best ways to stop the spread of vicious bromides.

(If the speaker is innocent, it will help him; if he is not, it will undercut his confidence the next time.) Most particularly, do not keep silent when your own ideas and values are being attacked.

Do not "proselytize" indiscriminately, i.e., do not force discussions or arguments on those who are not interested or not willing to argue. It is not your job to save everyone's soul. If you do the things which are in your power, you will not feel guilty about not doing--"somehow"--the things which are not.

The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 7, January 3, 1972, "What Can One Do?" (Emphasis added.)

The context makes a difference, of course. Responding in to an article in a newspaper or on a blog where one can take the time to write a few well-chosen sentences is different than saying "No, I disagree" to a person who utters some vicious bromide in a chance live encounter at the grocery store.

Compare such a shift toward activism to the suggestions in an article by Robert W. Tracinski on "Writing a Convincing Editorial," especially the following section in the context of being persuasive (making your point) to non-Objectivists:

5. Rely on the reader's implicit knowledge and values.

The flip side of the need for induction and for fact-based moral judgments is that you do not have to validate everything from the ground up. If you did, even the simplest argument would require a lengthy essay. There are certain ideas and values that you can take for granted--if they are widely accepted and if they are not fundamentally at issue in the debate.


Generally, you can rely on basic Aristotelian epistemology (e.g., "facts are facts and cannot be wished away") and basic Western values: individual judgment vs. conformity; individual happiness vs. total self-abnegation; work vs. parasitism; freedom vs. total state control. You can also rely on more concrete conclusions that have been thoroughly demonstrated by historical fact, such as: socialism is an economic failure; Communism was an evil totalitarian ideology; the Dark Ages are an example of an era ruled by religion; the Nazis were bad guys. By reading the newspapers and conversing with the people you meet every day, you can get a good feel for what implicit ideas and values you can rely on.

The importance of this point is that you do not have to validate the whole of the Objectivist philosophy--all the way down to meta-ethics and concept-formation--in order to establish your point. So long as you can appeal to these basic, implicitly accepted facts and values, you have sufficiently demonstrated your point.
(Emphasis added.)

Also compare activism to the lecture given by Ayaan Hirsi Ali that we attended last week (which was the inspiration for my making this discussion thread). Consider some of the essays she has written and posted, ranging from short to long, available at­

I am suggesting that as between the two poles--activism vs. persuasion--we should focus on persuasion to the best of each of our abilities or otherwise at least refer others who may be interested to Ayn Rand.

P.S. I think I should also clarify that statements without reasons are in the realm of actions, not persuasion. Yelling "Fire!" (if untrue) in a crowded theater is not rational persuasion that others should leave the building. Posting on the internet: "I'm for individual rights!" is not rational persuasion, either.
Old T.
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 740
In thinking about this some more, I looked up the the word "activism" -- which is very broad and can have many senses as to admit for confusion in communication. Types of activism include: civil disobedience; community building (e.g., activism industry, cooperative movement, craftivism, voluntary simplicity); economic activism (e.g., boycott, divestment (a.k.a. disinvestment); franchise activism; lobbying; media activism (e.g., culture jamming; hacktivism; internet activism); propaganda (e.g., guerrilla communication); non-violent confrontation; violent confrontation (e.g., rioting, terrorism); protest (e.g., demonstration, direct action, theater for social change, protest songs); strike action; youth activism (e.g., student activism, youth-led media). See, e.g., Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.o...­

In a relatively free country such as the United States, which still has the freedom of speech, only a few of these types of "activism" could be supported by Objectivists, notably community building (such as NTOS), lobbying, boycott, peaceful demonstration, and internet activism.

But most types of "activism" include violations of property rights and some include outright violence or other disturbance of others in their business. With all these activities included under the term "activism", I personally react rather negatively to it. As I think words are important, I think we should distance ourselves from a term that includes so many immoral and illegal activities.

And I still suggest that even with regard to "internet activism" (so long as it is not spam or hacking, etc.), it should be more than poorly articulated and unsupported statements just for the sake of "doing something." I personally consider that a waste of time -- but have no objection to others spending their time that way.
Chris J.
Dallas, TX
Post #: 99
This is a good point you make Todd. When something has so many manifestations it may be difficult to align yourself with one and not others. What NTOS is and does could be considered activism: we are community building and promoting a set of ideas, but if the same term applies to terrorism, a reluctance to use it is completely reasonable!
Old T.
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 741
Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comments.

I still think that the reason so much immorality and violence is under the concept "activism" is because the root of the concept is action for the sake of "doing something"--often regardless of reason, which leads to "act first, think less" and "the end justifies the means."

Even more broadly, I think that any individual Objectivist (or group of Objectivists) has only four basic options regarding the rest of the world:

1. Passivity;
2. Persuasion;
3. Withdrawal; or
4. Physical self-defense.

Of these, in the context that the United States still has basic freedoms--especially the freedom of speech (mostly), I suggest persuasion is still the most productive option for each of us and for NTOS. (Physical self-defense does not apply in regards to changing the society or government in a country having basic freedoms where persuasive and political options are available.)

We have had some occasional discussion of withdrawal, like forming a "Galt's Gulch" somewhere. But we can barely agree with each other on the "who, what, when, where, and how" for a social gathering in NTOS, let alone trying to inspire any of our 200 members to actually move to:

(a) The "Liberty District" starting up in a small town just SE of Dallas (Gned's suggestion);
(b) New Hampshire (a former member's suggestion that we all move to support the "Free State Project"--he actually did move there);
(c) Colorado ("Galt's Gulch"--maybe some have already started to move there, does anyone know?);
(d) an island in the South Pacific (my personal pipe dream); or
(e) somewhere else.

Regarding the first three, I'm not persuaded of the benefits of trying to form a separate society within the continental United States. Most of the major limitations and controls on our freedoms are federal and inescapable here, it seems to me. I'm also not persuaded that a secret society is a good idea. But I have not given these much serious thought.

There's the lesson of Krystallnacht. But then, there's also the fable of Chicken Little.
A former member
Post #: 55
Good points about the term "activism", and most of those were not what I had in mind, I meant "constructive/remedial/helpful action of some kind" or something like that. You also made good points about alternatives available.

As far as a Galt's Gulch approach being of limited usefulness because the federal gov't commits the most severe violations of our rights, that's true, but the theory behind the Liberty Districts at least is concentrating enough votes into a small enough area to win local elections and have a friendly, pro-freedom local gov't, which would then tend to protect our rights rather than help violate them. Apparently, sheriffs in particular have some legal authority to prevent certain incursions by federal and state gov't's. I don't know the details. I also read that Montana passed a law (or is working on it?) to prohibit the US from taking over in the event of an emergency (at least without the governor's permission?).

Even though the extent to which a friendly local gov't could protect residents from violations by the US/State gov't may be limited in practice by the US gov't's willingness to break its own laws and use force anyway, keeping a lower profile might help avoid this problem, so that a Galt's Gulch may be somewhat effective in preserving various freedoms. And, perhaps even more important in the long run, it could provide a safe base from/in which to more easily educate people about their rights and the extremely limited legitimate role of gov't., and to organize and grow more such enclaves.
Old T.
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 742
Hi Gned,

Interesting points.

... the theory behind the Liberty Districts at least is concentrating enough votes into a small enough area to win local elections and have a friendly, pro-freedom local gov't, which would then tend to protect our rights rather than help violate them. ...

But as you note, I think that a local township government (or even the government of New Hampshire) could not effectively protect the townspeople from the sovereign government (which here in the U.S. is the federal government). If it were seriously tried, that would be civil war--or in the case of a few recalcitrant individuals just arrest for violating umpteen laws. One does not effect change by throwing oneself in front of the juggernaut.

And, perhaps even more important in the long run, it could provide a safe base from/in which to more easily educate people about their rights and the extremely limited legitimate role of gov't., and to organize and grow more such enclaves.

In the U.S., we do not need a "safe base" from which to educate. At least for the time being, the entire U.S. is a safe base from which to educate. It allows and protects most freedom of speech, and all the freedom of speech that we must have to communicate our ideas. There may come a day when it is not a safe base, but that day is probably at least decades away, and with sufficient education (persuasion), the course could be changed.

If we want to form a local community in the United States, I would think it would not be for these reasons, but for the positives that such a community could offer, especially the desire to associate with more people who share our thinking and values.
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