Back in January, I finally listened to Leonard Peikoff’s first six podcasts. He has posted a bunch more since then, but I’ve not yet heard those. While I knew I’d find them interesting, I didn’t listen to them sooner because I’m on mostly break from studying Objectivism while writing my dissertation. They are definitely worth a listen or two, as the questions are almost always well-chosen and well-answered.
In the sixth podcast, Dr. Peikoff discusses the pitfalls of discussing Objectivism in online discussion forums. I won’t repeat his comments here, but I largely agree with his concerns that such online debates risk divorcing a person’s ideas from his values and promote disintegrated examination of ideas in isolation. It’s also true that many self-described Objectivists arguing with confidence online are completely clueless, rationalistic, or even outright dishonest.
I would add a few points, based on extensive experience reading and posting to such discussion forums over the course of about 15 years. (For the record, the only public discussion forum that I regard as remotely Objectivist is ObjectivismOnline. The contributors can be far better than found elsewhere, but I still think the forum suffers from the standard problems of that medium.)
First, thoughtful and productive discussion is a rarity on most discussion boards, whether supposedly Objectivist or not. Mostly, the threads consist of discombobulated streams of unjustified assertions, ill-considered opinions, nasty remarks, ignorant assumptions, and outright dishonesty. To participate in those discussions is, at best, a huge waste of time. The fact that someone has said something particularly stupid in some online debate is not a good reason to spend hours arguing with that person and his fellows.
Second, the capacity to beat the pants off some random opponent in online debate doesn’t mean that you know what you’re talking about, that you’re thinking clearly, or that you’re right. Unfortunately, people often suppose that argumentative might makes right. And so they seek the thrill of victory in online debate with all the fervor of a crack addict. In fact:
If you wish to seriously test your ideas in debate, the proper approach is to carefully study and think about some issue of personal interest to you, then discuss it in private with someone whose knowledge and judgment you trust, whether in person or e-mail.
Third, if Objectivists want to change the culture for the better, they ought not waste their time and energy by arguing with other Objectivists — even on the better forums. To actually change the culture, Objectivists need to present their ideas to people unfamiliar with them. That’s often harder — but far more rewarding in the long run. (That’s precisely why I created my OActivists mailing list.)
However, even with people unfamiliar with Objectivist ideas, lengthy online debates will likely be a waste of time. (If the person is someone known to you in real life, then the situation is somewhat different. Then long-running debates can have some value.) With strangers, the goal should be to clearly and briefly make a point or two that might intrigue an reasonable reader and perhaps point him in a new direction. That’s often all that the better people require.
In general, with any protracted online debate, I recommend asking oneself: Could I be spending my time in a more productive or enjoyable way? If so, then do go that other thing! If not, then get a life! And yes, that includes protracted arguments in the NoodleFood comments.