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The TAS Graduate Seminar (first in a series)

Carrie-Ann and I returned late Saturday night from a week at George Washington University for The Atlas Society’s Graduate Seminar–my first engagement with “organized Objectivism” in sixteen years, and her first engagement with it as such. I had invested a great deal of time and energy in my preparations for the seminar, had sold the seminar itself to many people, and had high expectations for it. But now that it’s over, I must confess to having very mixed feelings about it, feelings that reflect my misgivings about organized Objectivism as such in its current form. On reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can at present neither participate in nor recommend participation in the activities of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) or The Atlas Society (TAS). While I think ARI is the more morally problematic–but also the more intellectually rigorous–of the two institutions, I think the problems I encountered at TAS are sufficiently severe to preclude participation in it for the foreseeable future.

In fairness, I should begin by mentioning the “asset” side of the [ledger].* The topic of the seminar, as remarked earlier on this blog, was applied ethics. The seminar began with a series of presentations on issues in epistemology and method relevant to ethics: the role of hierarchy and context in the application of ethical theory; the nature of judgment, ethical and otherwise; the epistemology of definitions (especially of moral terms); and the use and abuse of thought-experiments in ethical theorizing. It covered some important mid-level issues in ethics as well: the nature of emergencies, conflicts of interest, moral luck, and racism. There were some very good discussions of nitty-gritty issues in applied ethics proper, including some distinctively Objectivist issues (e.g., the requirements of the trader principle and the principle of sanction), some issues not much discussed among Objectivists (e.g., the ethics of social science research, the ethical treatment of animals, environmental ethics)–and some fairly standard issues discussed in a distinctively Objectivist way (e.g., the nature and limits of truth-telling). One of the most philosophically challenging presentations fell into a category of its own: what are the ramifications (one presenter asked) of Attention Deficit Disorder on the Objectivist theory of volition and moral responsibility? It occurred to me while listening to this last talk that one of my mentors was right to insist, as he often did, that we have much to learn from those with disabilities, and much to lose from ignoring them from the hauteur that springs from false pride.

All of the issues addressed were important. Many of them were addressed in a competent, responsible way. Many of these, in turn, were addressed in a distinctively Objectivist way that would not have been possible outside of a seminar geared to an Objectivist context. Beyond that, the discussions were often intense and productive. I learned a great deal from them that I would not otherwise have learned or had the opportunity to discuss. I met some old friends, and made some new ones, including people whose names I had heard for years but had never met. So I am very far from saying that the seminar was worthless. On the contrary, all of the preceding in it deserved praise–in some cases, high praise. Over the course of the week, I identified no less than twenty topics addressed at the seminar potentially worth blogging here. I doubt I’ll get to blogging even a small fraction of those, but I’ll try to blog some of them, if only to give readers an idea of some of the important ground that was covered at the seminar.

Having said that, many of the problems I observed at the seminar were, to put the matter bluntly, an offense against the practice of philosophy and of inquiry quite generally. I said that many of the presenters presented their material in a competent, responsible way. But some did not. I think candor compels the assertion that some of the presentations given were shockingly deficient in argument, evidence, and coherence. This would be a relatively minor issue, or at least a remediable problem, if the atmosphere of the seminar had been conducive to an open airing of the relevant problems. But it wasn’t. This latter defect–a defect of openness obvious to just about every participant in the seminar–calls into question The Atlas Society’s much-advertised claim to practice an “open” form of Objectivism not practiced elsewhere. With all due respect, I must dissent from this claim, and insist that those who make such claims acquire more inductive evidence about the rest of the Objectivist movement before they make them. Movement Objectivists should also (let me suggest) stop deriding academic philosophy and start learning something from it. The fact is, there is more openness at the average academic conference–I’ve run five in the last five years–than there was at the TAS Graduate Seminar.

I have on principle refused to participate in activities sponsored, even remotely, by the Ayn Rand Institute since I learned of its existence in the early 1990s. I have resisted ARI’s attempts (since the 1990s) to recruit me into that organization, as well as its attempts (which they dishonestly deny) to try to hire me as a member of its faculty. I refuse to sanction ARI in any form, and have repeatedly made that fact known, in private and in public. Nonetheless, I have (until recently anyway) interacted with ARI-affiliated scholars under the auspices of The Ayn Rand Society, and in other non-ARI-sponsored contexts as well. I know from more than a decade of first-hand experience that it is simply false to assert that ARI scholars are, qua ARI-affiliated, less “open” than scholars associated with TAS. On the contrary, ARI-affiliated scholars have been clever enough to create organizations for themselves that permit them sufficient insulation from the direct supervision of ARI’s leadership to do high-quality philosophy, but involve enough sacrificium intellectus to permit them the imprimatur of orthodoxy.

I don’t mean to imply that these scholars’ modus vivendi is morally justified, nor do I mean to imply that the strategic maneuverings involved permit genuine exemplifications of the virtue of independence. For the most part, I regard them as cynical ploys intended to buy time and space as the ARI-types wait with baited breath for Leonard Peikoff’s demise–the hope being that the death of the Revered Leader will at last bring them the academic freedom they so desperately crave but are too afraid to demand. The fact remains, however, that the ARI scholars’ strategy has bought them time and space, which they’ve used with some skill. I know from first-hand experience that discussions by ARI-affiliated scholars take place in a fashion that mimics the independence required by the unfettered search for truth. Mimicry is a poor substitute for the real thing, but it is better than a great deal of what I encountered last week at TAS.

In “The Argument from Intimidation,” Ayn Rand makes the following remarks:

There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure (Virtue of Selfishness, p. 162).

The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt, or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce [or accept] a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy (pp. 162-63).

All this is accompanied by raised eyebrows, wide-eyed stares, shrugs, grunts, snickers, and the entire arsenal of nonverbal signals communicating ominous innuendoes and emotional vibrations of a single kind: disapproval.

If those vibrations fail, if such debaters are challenged, one finds that they have no arguments, no evidence, no proof, no reason, no ground to stand on—that their noisy aggressiveness serves to hide a vacuum—that the Argument from Intimidation is a confession of intellectual impotence. (p. 164)

Unfortunately, Rand did not discuss the possibility that arguments from intimidation might become the lingua franca of Objectivist discourse, but the TAS seminar demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that they have become just that. (ARI demonstrated it back in 1989.) For five days, almost every participant in that seminar was subjected, repeatedly, to exactly the sort of argument from intimidation that Rand condemns in the passages above. For five days, a group of adults supposedly committed to the primacy of existence and the virtue of pride endured outright abuse while trying their best to act as though abuse was a metaphysically normal condition for philosophy, or the price of inquiry for interaction with self-avowed “experts” on Objectivism. For five days, seminar participants were laughed at and reprimanded for asking questions, were made the objects of bizarre and unpredictable temper tantrums, and were involuntarily obliged to witness maudlin displays of uncontrolled emotion offered in presentations supposedly intended to make claims on their credence. In five days, the only push-back offered in response to this behavior came from a guest auditor in the seminar (not me), who objected (on one occasion) to sarcastic laughter as a response to a legitimate question. One criticism by a non-official participant in response to five days of abuse by a member of the faculty. In twenty-six years of higher education, I’ve never seen anything like it.

The behavior I’m describing here is not appropriate to a philosophy seminar, or to any forum dedicated to rational discussion. Intimidation is to discourse what lies are to love and force-initiations are to human interaction generally. Each transgression subverts the activity it invades, leaving its victims torn between the requirements of the activity itself and the imperative of self-defense against the transgression. That is the dilemma every TAS Seminar participant faced for five solid days. Do I continue doing philosophy or do I stop to defend myself against the abuse coming my way?

I took the first option until the last minute of the seminar, then boycotted the final dinner in protest against the whole sequence. From now on, however, I refuse to do philosophy under the conditions of hysteria, belligerence, authoritarianism, dogmatism, and systematic procedural irregularity that I encountered at the TAS Seminar. Anyone who wishes to do philosophy under such conditions is welcome to do it on their own turf. But they will have to do it without me.

By contrast with what I encountered at TAS (and that I know is the policy at ARI), IOS is open to Objectivists and non-Objectivists alike, regardless of their degree of agreement or disagreement with Objectivism. You can, at our events, feel free to think that Objectivism is all true, or all false. You can feel free to think that it’s a heroic achievement, or a rationalization for evil. And you can feel free to speak your mind on any of that. But you must do so in a way that is intelligible as argument. You must do it in a way that respects the autonomy of your interlocutor. You must do it in a way that demonstrates your consistent commitment to the requirements of epistemic virtue and the moral demands of discourse. You must bear the burden of proof for your assertions, or concede that you haven’t met them or can’t (at least temporarily). If you’re making a presentation, you must answer the objections asked of you, or else take issue with the legitimacy of the question, or defer the question for now (but grant its legitimacy), or concede your inability to provide an answer (at least temporarily). You need never concede what you have not been given sufficient reason to concede. But you must not shift the burdens of your dialectical incapacities onto innocent victims because they have committed the crime of observing that your arguments fail.

Whatever the value of the discrete discussions we had, the TAS Seminar violated these precepts. Each one of us “tolerated” (and was expected to tolerate) epistemic and discursive vice for five days. Meanwhile, we wondered (some of us wondered) why the seminar had, by its last session, collapsed into a bizarre hybrid of a dysfunctional marriage and a fundamentalist madrasa. In fact, there was no need to wonder. I’ve heard Objectivists of the Kelley camp talk up a big storm about how “tolerant” they are. But tolerance was not meant for vice: vice finds its home among the indiscriminately tolerant. That’s what we saw enacted before our eyes for five days.

The bottom line is that the underlying causes for the resort to intimidation have to be uprooted within organized Objectivism (which will often mean “uprooting” the people who practice it from the positions of power and authority they hold in “the movement”). Until and unless this happens, I intend to remain uninvolved and unaffiliated with either TAS or ARI (or any of its affiliates, offshoots, or front organizations). People who attend ARI or TAS events may feel free to attend IOS events, as long as they can sign on to our mission statement without deceptive mental reservations. But I don’t intend to attend either ARI or TAS events for the predictable future, and can’t recommend either organization to anyone else. These organizations will have to learn a different mode of interaction before they can expect rational people to come to their seminars in the expectation of doing philosophy. As far as I can see, ARI will never learn, and TAS has a long way to go.

I’ve spent the last twenty-plus years of my life in rejection of Leonard Peikoff’s “Fact and Value,” but I’ve always thought that Peikoff got some things absolutely right. This passage–the ellipses tell you what I reject in Peikoff’s view–makes the relevant point:

The most eloquent badge of the authentic Objectivist, who does understand Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is his attitude toward values (which follows from his acceptance of reason). An Objectivist is not primarily an academician or a political activist (though he may well devote his professional life to either or both pursuits). In his soul, he is essentially a moralist—or, in broader terms, what Ayn Rand herself called “a valuer.”

A valuer, in her sense, is a man who evaluates extensively and intensively. That is: he judges every fact within his sphere of action—and he does it passionately, because his value-judgments, being objective, are integrated in his mind into a consistent whole…. Any other approach to life comes from and pertains to another philosophy, not to Objectivism.

It is perhaps too early for there to be a mass movement of Objectivists. But let those of us who are Objectivists at least make sure that…in the quest for a national [or global] following we are not subverting the integrity of the philosophy to which we are dedicated. If we who understand the issues speak out, our number, whether large or small, is irrelevant; in the long run, we will prevail.

If we engage in quality-control now…whatever the short-term cost and schisms, the long-range result will be a new lease on life for mankind. If we don’t, we are frauds in the short-term and monsters long-range.

I think it’s time (probably long past time) to acknowledge that the problems with “quality control” began with Ayn Rand’s own insistence on packaging arguments from intimidation and gratuitous psychologizing into her own prose. The problems continued with NBI’s suborning the same tendency and institutionalizing it. They continued again under ARI’s domination of the Objectivist movement, and they have now, despite its illustrious past, infected TAS’s academic programs as well.

Things need not be this way. There is another way to do philosophy, a way that makes truth the goal of inquiry, that dispenses with intimidation and dogmatism, and that achieves what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle set out to achieve 2,400 years ago for the discipline. It’s time for the organized Objectivist movement to discover it. Those of us who have discovered it, and live it, will not accept less.

Irfan

*I had originally written “equation,” but that mixes metaphors.

 [Thanks to Carrie-Ann Biondi and Michael Young for extensive discussion, in real time, of the TAS Seminar, and to Roderick Long and Kirsti Minsaas for enduring my long and anguished emails on the subject. All four of the preceding offered some valuable reality-checking on the subject, but none of them is responsible for the views I express here.]

P.S., August 22, 2013: I should perhaps remind readers that the views expressed in this email are exclusively my own views, not those of the Institute for Objectivist Studies. Positions taken by the Institute are co-signed by Carrie-Ann Biondi and Irfan Khawaja. All other views are exclusively the view of the signed author of a given post, and only of that author. To clarify a point that’s been raised in private correspondence: I do indeed take my post to be an attack on TAS’s fidelity to its announced mission of promoting “open Objectivism.”  I see no reason to retract anything I said in the original post.

Irfan Khawaja

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30 Comments

  1. I’ve taken to citing Gorgias 473e the way some people cite John 3:16: “Here we have yet another form of refutation — when a statement is made, to laugh it down, instead of disproving it.”

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Yes. Actually, the rest of the passage through 474c is entirely apt. In fact, the Gorgias is an apt text in many ways. I think Objectivists could use a real dose of Socrates’ anti-sophistry message there. There’s also a recurring tendency among Objectivists to think of the Objectivist Ethics as a sort of egoistic maximization ethic, and the Gorgias is useful on that, too.

    Irfan

  3. […] IOS 2.0, my friend Irfan reports unhappy tidings from the Atlas Society grad […]

  4. Rocinante says:

    I attended and I did not have the same reaction. The talks could have been a lot more intellectual rigorous, but I only saw intolerant reactions from only one of the speakers. This was also the only speaker I saw becoming overly emotional. One difference between TAS and ARI was that the reaction was not due to intellectual difference. I had advanced similar arguments about the harmony of interests years earlier, and I was applauded for my open inquiry. The reaction was over the combative manner in which is was presented. I’ll also add, the person levying criticisms on the harmony of interest didn’t give the speaker a chance to finish his outline before attacking him on things that were scheduled later in the outline. Nor will that person or any other person be socially ostracized or not invited back. This comparison between intolerance across organizations is overblown.

    It’s too bad you won’t be coming back. The only way it will improve is by more constructive criticism.

  5. irfankhawaja says:

    I’ve decided not to name names on the blog and simply hold TAS responsible institutionally for the caliber of the seminar. I see your point, and I’m not entirely disagreeing. I actually was not referring to the reaction to my own talks, by the way. I don’t think I was badly treated during my own talks. I was referring to observations of the way others besides me were treated. And I was referring in particular to the end of the seminar–late Thursday and Friday. (Though the problems started on day 1.)

    You’re right that the differences between TAS and ARI are that ARI’s exclusionary policies are self-consciously ideological, and that TAS has no such policy. I’m not disagreeing there. But my point is that in this case, that ended up being a distinction without a difference. The fact remains that seminar participants were harangued over points of “doctrine.” At one point someone asked a question, and the response to him was an angry rhetorical question, shouted at the questioner: “What is Objectivist doctrine on the welfare state??” The suggestion seemed to be that the questioner had violated “doctrine,” and doing so was impermissible. I sat there thinking, “What’s next? Are we going to call the questioner a moocher or a looter?” The rhetorical question was a very clear attempt to intimidate the questioner into silence. I wasn’t the questioner in that case; I just watched silently. But my answer would have been: “Sorry, but a question doesn’t answer a question. Either answer the question, or say you can’t. But don’t give me a lecture on Objectivist doctrine. And don’t reprimand me for asking a question.” I regret that I didn’t make an interjection of that kind earlier in the seminar. But then, I wasn’t leading it. I’m not sure who was.

    What TAS needs to learn, and learn well, is that in many cases there is no “Objectivist doctrine,” and the very use of that phrase is a bluff. I don’t say this as any kind of enemy of Objectivism. I say it as a committed Objectivist–an Objectivist without tenure who is asserting that fact in public. If the leaders of the Objectivist movement cannot understand that Rand’s writing has lacunae and weaknesses, that the “doctrines” are vulnerable to dozens of so-far unanswered but significant criticisms, then those of us who are professional philosophers cannot be expected to help fill those lacunae or defects. The very reference to “lacunae” or “deficiencies” in Rand was repeatedly taken as an affront at this seminar, as though one cannot say such things out loud and is obliged to re-phrase them in some other, nicer language. But pointing to lacunae or deficiencies in Rand’s writing is not an affront. It is a fact. The intellectual leaders of the Objectivist movement have to deal with this fact or face the ostracism of professional philosophers. That is my ultimatum, and I regard it as a non-negotiable demand. They cannot expect us to remain silent about lacunae or defects, or blunt our language, and then expect us, quietly, to fill the lacunae and remedy the defects. Either we deal with the problems in Rand’s writings in an open way, calling them problems in need of resolution, or the enterprise of Objectivist seminars is worthless and should be abandoned. That is my view, and if a given Objectivist forum cannot deal with someone who takes such a view, they cannot deal with me.

    Between 1991 and (roughly) 1997, I was associated with Kelley’s original IOS. Between 1997 and 2012, I spent my time almost entirely in the company of ARI Objectivists who had the “Objectivist team spirit” attitude. This experience, possibly unique, taught me that while policies may be different across Objectivist organizations, the underlying attitudes are very similar. I mentioned in a talk I gave at the APA in 2007 that the Objectivist Ethics had gaps in it, and I was met with a temper tantrum by a well-known ARI philosopher. The ARI person’s temper tantrum was no different from the TAS temper tantrums I just saw. In fact, the ARI person’s temper tantrum involved better arguments than the TAS ones. But what the ARI person said was: “It’s just so damaging when talented people like you talk like that.” In other words, it was damaging when an Objectivist says in public that Rand left some important work undone, and that this unfinished work affected the adequacy of Objectivism as currently stated. I said nothing to this, but internally my response was: “Damaging? You mean damaging to your ’cause’ or ‘movement’? Maybe. But not damaging to me. I am not damaged by the defects in Rand’s writing because I have nothing invested in the writing as such, or Rand as such. If I discovered that Objectivism was false, I would abandon it without too much trouble. I’m beginning to wonder whether the same can be said of you.” Granted, no one said anything like “It’s just so damaging…” at TAS. But the ubiquity of arguments from intimidation suggests to me that some similar attitude is at work. Anyway, if the leaders of organized Objectivism cannot handle my “I’d abandon it without trouble” attitude to inquiry, they cannot handle philosophy. ARI has the extreme (and most dishonest) version of the problem. And I myself have been careful to insist that ARI is worse than TAS. But TAS has or is catching the disease.

    I agree that some of the questions from the audience may have been over-combative or over-long or unclear or whatever. But that isn’t an excuse for arguments from intimidation. None of the questions from the audience–and I paid close attention to every one of them, in every session, from Monday to Friday–were comparable to the reactions I have in mind. Some questioners were reprimanded simply for asking difficult questions. The problems got worse as the seminar went on, until by the last day they became intolerable.

    I’d urge anyone who had a different impression of the seminar to feel free to disagree with my rendition of it here or anywhere.

    It’s not that I won’t go back to TAS, period. But I won’t go back until I can be assured that the problem has been resolved. As your comment itself indicates, one way to improve things is by offering constructive criticism, but I can do that from right here. Finally, not everything I have to say about the seminar is (or has been) critical. The first post was critical, and was intended to get the issue out there and out of the way. I have a bunch more planned, all positive.

    Irfan

  6. Rocinante says:

    Is it fair to say that TAS similar to ARI over the responses one faculty member? I think there’s a huge difference between an organization that requires faculty to respond to dissent as a policy and one where a single faculty member reacts as such, probably with frowns from his supervisors.
    For all we know, the institution is addressing your concerns as we speak.

    Once again, the faculty member had a bigger problem with the way the questions were presented than the ideas themselves. My own presentation of the ideas (years earlier, when you were not there) prove that. So there’s a fundamental distinction between de facto tolerance shown by that faculty member and ARI.

  7. Hi Irfan:

    First, congratulations on starting this website! I didn’t hear about it until today.

    I was disappointed and saddened to hear about your experience. Seems like the seminar has fallen off the rails since the first one that I attended. For me, there was one incident in which a female participant cried because the criticism she received from a faculty member was so harsh. Other attendees attempted to comfort her and I believe the faculty member later pulled her aside to talk to her. Other than that, though, I don’t recall people being intimidated or shouted down. There were one or two intense arguments between certain participants that required a moderator/faculty member to intervene, which was the appropriate thing to do. If you want to know some specifics, please message me. I also have some general opinions that may be of interest to you.

    Regards,

    Walter

  8. Amanda says:

    Irfan, thank you for calling attention to this issue. I experienced something very similar at a TAS graduate seminar in 2008, and I was similarly appalled and upset by the way that I and others were treated. I, too, have experienced much more openness and honest discussion in academic settings, and my impression of the graduate seminar was that it was embarrassingly unacademic. I, too, saw abuse and ridicule and temper tantrums, and I was shocked. Like you, I was disturbed for most of the week, quietly crying with my hands and my hair covering my face on one dark day. But I attended the final dinner against my better judgment. I chose to criticize the unacceptable behavior in my seminar feedback, and not to the whole group. (I now regret that.)

    And I moved on. I have not returned to another graduate seminar, but I also have not been invited. I am not suprised, given my criticism of this unacceptable atmosphere. Nor have I donated to TAS now that I am financially able to. TAS will continue to lose good people, and donations, if they do not fix this.

  9. Amanda says:

    Just to clarify, I am not the “female participant” that Walter mentions, though it did happen to me too. Because of the moderation, Walter’s comment did not appear before I wrote my comment. (And Hi, Walter!) I tried to keep it to myself, so other attendees were not comforting me when I cried, and the faculty member did not pull me aside later.

    Also, I don’t care for the characterization that “a female particpant” cried, etc. It is not an essential characteristic, and it (inadvertently, I’m sure) plays into subtle sexism. (Women are too emotional, they cry easily, etc.) Now we have two data points of women who cried about how they were treated – one openly, and one who at least tried to keep it to herself. But we also don’t know how many men cried in private. Or how many men were upset about the abusive treatment. I’m usually a pretty tough cookie, and this is the first and only time that I have ever cried during an “academic” discussion.

  10. irfankhawaja says:

    I think it is fair to say that TAS is similar to ARI over the responses to one faculty member. When you spend five days in a seminar with a faculty member who’s essentially out of control, you expect action to be taken by whoever’s running the seminar to deal with it. When that doesn’t happen, the organization has to take responsibility for the outcome. Though I would insist on the the moral difference between TAS and ARI–TAS is certainly better–the similarity is there. And I would know.

    TAS may be taking steps to deal with the problem. If so, I’m glad to hear it, but that isn’t an argument against my identifying the problem and saying so out loud. What I would have liked to see is some recognition, in real time, in the seminar, that there was a problem–and some attempt made within the seminar to deal with it. There was no such thing. When things go so far that a non-official auditor has to be the one to say, “Please, the sarcastic laughter must stop,” we are confronting a leadership problem for which the organization must take responsibility. (I’m referring to an event during the last session on Friday.) Many of us, when confronted with inappropriate behavior, defended our theses more vigorously. But only one person questioned the appropriateness of the behavior as such within the seminar. That person was a guest! But TAS was the host.

    Irfan

  11. irfankhawaja says:

    Walter,

    Thanks for the comment. Obviously, I can’t comment on specifics at seminars where I wasn’t present, and can’t endorse or reject testimony one way or the other. This seminar was the only TAS event I’ve attended. But if this is a long-standing problem, people deserve to know. I’ll let them make up their own minds as to the credibility of testimony one way or the other.

    Irfan

  12. Damian says:

    Irfan, I’m curious whether you tried to talk to the faculty member in question, or other faculty members, about your grievances. If so, what was their response?

    I don’t imagine the conversation would be pleasant, but I suspect that discussing it with them directly would create the best chance of positive change. That said, given your feelings, I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t feel right to initiate a direct conversation at this time.

  13. irfankhawaja says:

    Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, comments are moderated (and I’m occasionally rather slow in getting to them, alas) so the comments appeared in the order you mention. As I said to Walter, I can’t deny or affirm testimony of events I haven’t attended, and I leave it to readers to exercise their own judgment about the credibility of anything said here about such events. But at the same time, I think Objectivism has a serious transparency problem, so I’m not inclined to view what I saw at the seminar as something that can be handled merely by private feedback. The ARI version of the problem is essentially analogous to the behavior of the Popular Front. The TAS version is less intense in its dimensions and more obviously remediable. But it’s still a problem, and my view is that you don’t fix a problem of transparency with opacity.

    Irfan

  14. Rocinante says:

    Not being able to address a problem in real time is a matter of finesse, not of philosophical error or institutional incentives. I agree that it could be between. I confess, I haven’t always done it well my seminars or classrooms. I don’t think it was 5 days out of control, but just two or three sessions that I saw.

    As for a long painful week that Amanda alludes to, I’ve never felt that way and I’ve been to 9. But if multiple good people feel that way the grad seminars do need fundamental reform. Where I disagree with you is that I think it will happen. If good students don’t go back, I think it makes it less likely, rather than more likely, that change will happen.

  15. irfankhawaja says:

    I didn’t discuss the grievances with anyone in real time, but the reasons why are too specific to be discussed here. It’s not because it didn’t feel right to initiate a direct conversation, and not because I have any aversion to direct confrontation in the moment. To be more specific than that, I’d have to name names, which I don’t think is productive in this context. (I’m willing to go as far as a public criticism of the organization, but not to list a public bill of particulars against individuals, though I certainly have such a list.) So I have to leave your question there.

    Irfan

  16. Damian says:

    Makes sense. Thanks for clarifying. I can imagine reasons why it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss your grievances in real time.

    Now that the cat is out of the bag, though, so to speak, I hope some sort of dialogue (or larger discussion) with the target of your criticism and other relevant parties, will ensue, regardless of who initiates it.

  17. irfankhawaja says:

    I was present for every session; you may not have been. It’s worth noting that three out-of-control sessions in a five day seminar amounts to a fairly large chunk of a seminar of this length. But I think things were problematic from the start, got worse, were left uncorrected, and ended very badly (in the last two days). I don’t regard that as merely a matter of finesse. It’s an institutional abdication of responsibility. I’m a department chair. If I knew that my faculty were running their classrooms the way this seminar was run, I would be obliged to say something in their performance reports, and would be obliged to take immediate action. If I didn’t do that, I’d end up in the Dean’s office or the Provost’s office myself. For all the derision I heard of academia at this seminar, I saw no recognition of these obvious facts–obvious to anyone with administrative experience.

    I think a commitment to change should precede anyone’s going back. You don’t go back unless you know what you’re getting yourself into.

    Irfan

  18. Rocinante says:

    “If I didn’t do that, I’d end up in the Dean’s office or the Provost’s office myself.” I doubt deans would attribute this to philosophical error. I think they would attribute this to interpersonal skills and classroom management, which is what I meant by finesse.

  19. irfankhawaja says:

    Right–I didn’t mean to be attributing philosophical error. My point was that a failure of classroom management, of this kind, is an institutional failure.

    Irfan

  20. Hi Amanda. I’m not so sure about the sexism implication. I was trying for specificity without giving away names. If it were a male attendee who cried, I would have mentioned that too, and in mind, it would have been even more noteworthy! In North American culture, men tend to be socialized not to cry at all (e.g., “Be Tough. Suck it up.”), never mind in public. I mentioned that crying part to illustrate the harshness of the criticism, that it was practically a shaming experience for her, not that this woman was “too emotional.” From what I recall, the incident bothered most people there. That women are more expressive of their emotions–positive or negative–is a good thing. Men could learn from that.

  21. I noticed no email link for you Irfan, so here’s my email: walter.foddis.at.gmail.com . I just wanted to share a few thoughts with you privately.

  22. Amanda says:

    No worries – I know you would never mean anything that way, but I only wanted to note that it plays into the stereotypes. And some people would not take it as seriously if a female participant cried because, you know, we’re all irrational and emotional. Thanks for clarifying. I mentioned it because I think most people would not mention the sex of a male participant. (See, e.g., Irfan’s comments.) But I do understand and of course believe you. By the way, when you mention a female participant at a TAS graduate seminar, you are practically identifying her. 🙂

  23. Thanks, Amanda. Just read your other post. Sounds awful. Sorry to hear about your negative experience. At least you made your concerns known to TAS, although it didn’t seem to have any visible impact. Perhaps this discussion will lead to something fruitful for changes to occur within TAS. If you haven’t already, Irfan, I would encourage you to write to TAS with his concerns. Seems to be they would take your concerns seriously as an attending faculty member.

  24. Rocinante says:

    I’ve actually never seen a disruptive participant addressed in real time in 10 years of graduate school (three different graduate programs), including a time when someone told a racist joke and another time when a student said to another “All right! Give the man a PhD!” sarcastically. It was always done in someone’s private office after the fact. In those two cases, students were not allowed back to the particular class. I’ve seen many cases where students didn’t bother complaining, even though they were bothered, and it went unaddressed.

    —-This is not to say it shouldn’t be done in real time, but my experience of academia does not line up with yours.

  25. irfankhawaja says:

    What those anecdotes show is that there’s a lot of cowardice in academia, which I’d be the last to dispute. A member of my dissertation committee tried to intimidate me during my dissertation defense. He obviously hadn’t read the dissertation past p. 60, and had gotten fixated on something I said that was about his work. He didn’t like what I said (didn’t understand it, either), and decided to make a scene. He had no arguments, just non-sequiturs, innuendo, and threats. The implication seemed to be that I was guilty of some great (but unspecifiable) offense, and ought to back down and admit to “it” for fear of not getting my degree. The problem was that I didn’t actually fear not getting my degree. What I feared was an unnecessary concession in the face of blackmail. No one said a word in defense of me until I’d said quite a few in defense of myself. (The one sentence defense of me: “Well, actually, he’s right about that.”) I told the “questioner” that his question was illegitimate and wouldn’t be answered. It wasn’t. I told him to come up with a real question, and that when he did, I’d answer it. He hadn’t expected that answer and didn’t seem to have a question ready. When he finally came up with a real question, I answered it. I guess that worked because I got the degree. But it would have worked even if I hadn’t.

    Irfan

  26. Amanda says:

    Thanks, Walter. A little more color: at that point I had gone toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names and brightest minds in legal academia, and they had all respectfully and thoughtfully considered my points even when we might have disagreed. (We agreed on quite a bit more than you might expect.) I was accustomed to an academic atmosphere where arguments and counter-arguments were seriously considered, where people acknowledged where their arguments were weak or might need refinement, where people were very open to the possibility that they might be wrong or that someone might have knowledge that they did not, and where it was okay to explore more interesting tangents if they helped shed light on the main subject.

    Given that context and history, I was expecting my experience at this “academic” seminar to be similarly respectful and thoughtful. Instead, I saw the same intimidation and closed-mindedness that Irfan describes. To be fair, it was from one particular person, and my fellow students and the other faculty were all thoughtful and respectful. But one person with temper tantrums, sarcastic laughter, etc — in the position as moderator — can ruin the whole atmosphere. And no one stood up to stop it. If I had expected just another objectivist/libertarian argument-fest, then I may not have been so let down. But I truly was expecting an academic discussion and did not have one.

  27. irfankhawaja says:

    That’s very well put. In 2009, I gave a talk at the California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race, an essentially left-leaning organization. To say that my views were at odds with theirs is an understatement. But we had productive disagreements, and I left very impressed with the organization and its leadership. One undergraduate was rude to me during the Q&A (he made a somewhat comical statement of protest against my talk, then got up very conspicuously, and left). I found it somewhat amusing–he was Pakistani, and I knew this was a public way of conducting a certain kind of intra-ethnic squabble–but the moderator chased the kid down after the session, found him in the hall, and demanded that he apologize to me. I had to stifle laughter, but I accepted the apology.

    Irfan

  28. John says:

    Will Thomas just commented on Facebook (at https://www.facebook.com/zader/posts/10153169643960019?comment_id=44187690 ):

    “I’ve tried communicating directly with Irfan, but he will not discuss his concerns with me reasonably.”

    That is all he said.

    Would you care to respond?

  29. irfankhawaja says:

    I had not wanted to bring names up in public, and have so far said nothing critical of Will Thomas; I’d intended to restrict the discussion to TAS as an institution. In any case, my response to Will Thomas is that I can’t discuss my concerns reasonably with a person whose commitment to reason is itself in doubt. I intend to bring my concerns up with David Kelley when I get a chance (if he’ll listen). He’s the Chief Intellectual Officer of TAS, not Will Thomas. Kelley can bring those concerns up with Thomas if he wishes. I’ve already had five days of failed conversations with Thomas, and I’ve seen all I need to see to form an estimate of his capacity for reason. I can’t afford to waste a sixth day on further discussions. An immortal robot might be able to perform that task. But not me.

    Irfan

  30. Is there any sequel to all this? Did you speak to Kelley?

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