Monday, September 19, 2011

Objectivism and the Amount of Anger

In my last essay I argued that an Objectivist should have a great deal of loyalty to the Objectivist movement, but does the corresponding logic in the reverse direction mean that an Objectivist should have a great deal of anger at the corrupt state of today’s culture?

My answer is: No. Instead of experiencing a great deal of anger, an Objectivist should strive to be like Roark and Galt: they were passionate valuers with unbreached, intransigent integrity, they were in fundamental, lifelong conflict with the culture they lived in, but they were only angry once per novel. Neither Roark nor Galt had a temper. Neither dwelled on the negative. Both were in conflict with the world, but at peace with the conflict.

An Objectivist should not compromise with today’s establishment, nor should he experience continual, recurring anger at it. He should emotionally dismiss the culture in the very process of existentially fighting it.

That’s exactly what Galt did and taught. For example, he told Dagny:
“Never think of enemies a moment longer than is necessary to fight them.”
And the corollary is: never expend more emotional energy on enemies than is necessary to fight them. In the scene in Atlas where Galt is rescued in the underground torture facility, his attitude was “It’s over” and “That’s that”, as though he had forgotten about his torturers the instant he was out of danger. His emotional state was simply happiness at being rescued and seeing Dagny. The others experienced deep anger, including the desire to kill Galt’s torturers. Galt had to remind them that there was no value to be gained from the anger, and that there was nothing left of his torturers to kill.

What is the value of anger at today’s establishment? What more is there to today’s intellectuals but cheap, facile conformity? Who cares about them one way or the other? Why waste precious, irretrievable energy over so little? Should one get angry at the contents of one’s toilet before flushing it?

Conceptually, this is an easy point to understand. But it’s a seductive error, a surprisingly easy mistake to make in the moment. The reason is that we are constantly bombarded with this culture’s low-grade irrationality. It is there when we watch a movie, send our children to school, read a newspaper, watch the “news”, scan the best seller lists, or have the most casual conversation with a coworker. It is there when we see billboards on the side of the road. It is there when we see advertisements on the side of the bus. It is there when we go to the grocery store. There is no getting away from today’s irrationality. We have to experience it.

When one hears something corrupt, the natural reaction is to have a reaction. But in today’s world this is a mistake. Today’s culture has gotten so bad that emotionally ignoring a continual stream of droning, low-grade inanity has become a modern skill that everyone must acquire, like learning to type. As Mike Donnigan put it at Roark’s trial:
“Watch your stomach, kid, just watch your stomach. A man can't get sick just because he oughta.”
And I would add: in today’s world, a man can’t get sick every time he oughta. The occasions are just too frequent.

We all know that this culture is going to keep repeating it’s low-grade irrationality for the rest of our lives. But we also know that we can learn not to react to it with negative emotions every time we hear it. We do not have to allow the same negative emotions to repeatedly course through us, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, to the point that we acquire a spiritual repetitive stress injury. We don’t have to allow the mainstream culture to cause us internal damage. We can choose not to let that happen.

In the last year, did you watch too little television? Did you spend too little time surfing the internet? Did you eat too little unhealthy food? Did you exercise too much? There are certain things in life that require proactive attention. Some things need a budget. Anger at today’s culture is one of them. An Objectivist should have a clear budget for how much emotional energy he will spend on the sorry state of today’s culture, and then strive to stick to that budget.

At the same time we are avoiding the trap of spending too much emotional energy on today’s culture, we should also avoid the trap of spending too much cognitive energy on polemics against it. Polemics, like anger, is seductive in the moment. When one hears something false the natural reaction is to argue against it. But in today’s world that is a mistake because one will spend too much of one’s cognitive energy focused on the negative. The vast majority of our energy should be focused on understanding and living by Objectivism, not on what’s wrong with today’s world.

Polemics is to the mind and soul what housework is to the body. Housework makes the body tired, but it does not leave the body stronger. In fact, it wears the body down, just as excessive focus on the negative wears down the mind and soul.

A positive focus on Objectivism is to the mind and soul what healthy exercise is to the body. Healthy exercise, such as aerobics or weight training, makes the body tired, but it does not wear the body down. In fact, it makes the body stronger, just as cognitive energy spent focused on the true and the good makes the mind and soul stronger.

It is true we must spend some of our time on polemics. It is true we must spend some of our time on housework. But the bulk of our cognitive, spiritual, and physical energy should be focused on the clean and positive activities that build us up and makes us stronger. We should not make taking out the trash the focus of our lives, and when we do have to engage in such a chore, we should strive not to let the ugliness of the chore negatively affect our fundamental view of life.

In fiction, the great examples of the correct attitude in regard to anger and polemics are Roark and Galt. In real life, the great living example is Yaron Brook. He is in constant contact with this culture, regularly in the media, regularly in a position where he has no choice but to focus on the negative and criticize. But he always comes across as warm and genuine, never giving off even the slightest aura of anger or bitterness, as though the state of today’s world, and fighting it, have had no negative effect on his soul at all.

Please keep in mind that the point is not that today’s culture does not deserve any anger or polemics that would come its way. It certainly does. It deserves more angry polemics than Objectivists could possibly dish out. The point is not that the angry polemics against the culture is unfair to it, but that it has too negative an effect on us.

The potential negative effect on us is alone a sufficient reason to guard against excessive anger and polemics. But as gravy to the argument, consider the fact that from the purely external standpoint of changing the culture, excessive anger and polemics are counter-productive. Objectivism is true and beautiful. It is the most important cultural event in two and a half millennia. Human beings have a natural desire to know the truth and to achieve happiness. Today’s culture leaves that fundamental need unmet. The primary thing that Objectivists can do to change the world is positive: if we present the truth and beauty of Objectivism to the better minds and souls that still exist around us, then, across time, those minds and souls turn towards the light. We do not need to focus on the garbage that they have already had enough of, we need to show them that it does not have to be like this, that a better world is within reach, that there is a profound, shining alternative for them to choose. If we can do that – if we can present the shining positive without getting distracted by the droning negative – we can fix a broken world and enjoy the process.

The most inspiring historical example of the correct cultural attitude is Aristotle. He lived his entire life in the long, graceless decline of Athens, much as we are living our entire lives in the long, graceless decline of America. In fact, Aristotle’s death was the symbolic and literal end of the classical era. Aristotle wrote:
“Anyone can become angry - that is easy; but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not easy.”
It may not have been easy, but Aristotle achieved full rationality in regard to cultural anger: despite the fact that he lived all his life in a world he saw falling apart, there is not a hint of excess anger or bitterness in his entire corpus.

And consider what Aristotle’s philosophy was able to achieve without polemics. The reintroduction of his philosophy broke the Christian death grip on Western Civilization, giving rise to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the birth of the United States, the Romantic art movement, and the Industrial Revolution, all without including so much as a single word of polemics against Christianity.

It takes centuries, not decades, for a culture to reverse direction and heal. Despite the fact that we are helping to create it, no early Objectivist is going to live even one second of his life in the beautiful culture of the future. Instead, each of us will live our entire life in this one. It may not be easy, but we can and should learn to peacefully, joyfully fight for the future, even while living in a present which we will never accept.

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