On "The Sounds of Silence" in the Presence of Evil, or, "Inside the Criminal Mind"

Jmaurone's picture
Submitted by Jmaurone on Tue, 2017-10-03 01:44

The question has been asked, on this forum, why so many Objectivists stay silent when they should be speaking up against evil. I've had that question in mind for some time now, myself. And in my own attempts to speak, I once wrote an essay on how to "sell" liberty, and Objectivism. While not without merit, in retrospect, I think that essay reveals a youthful naivete on my part, that people simply needed to hear the message in the right way in order to change their views. That optimism was similar to that of a young Leonard Peikoff, as told by  Barbara Branden, in The Passion of Ayn Rand:

“I know that I am challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years,” [Rand] said. She was ruefully amused when Leonard Peikoff’, the youngest of the collective, seemed to hope that within a few years of publication, America would return to complete political freedom and a laissez-faire economy. Branden quotes Rand as responding that “That’s not how things happen, or can possibly happen,” she insisted. “I will have an influence—Atlas will have an influence—but it will be a very slow process. We won’t begin to see its concrete results in action for many years. I may not fully see them at all.”

Recent years of frustrated attempts to change minds towards Objectivist ideas, in the wake of the Obama administration have tempered that optimism, but it was a personal experience, involving family relationships gone sour, that really woke me up. Leading up to that experience was a hope that people could change, if one just worked hard enough. Not only did I learn that people have to want to change, but some simply don't want to. And to make matters worse, some will lead people on and string them along with phony promises and and apologies, with no intent to change whatsoever.

In other words: evil exists, and it's closer than one would care to admit.

The Denial of Evil

Regarding the initial question of why so many Objectivists remain silent in the face of evil, Rand has said that "one problem with Americans is that they don't believe in the reality of evil. You better take evil and irrationality seriously: not in the sent of regarding it as important...but in the sense of not evading its existence." -From AYN RAND ANSWERS: The Best of Her Q&A. She says again, in "Don't Let It Go", that "It is not merely the existence but the power of evil that Europeans believe in. Americans do not believe in the power of evil and do not understand its nature. The first part of their attitude is (philosophically) true, but the second makes them vulnerable."

I suspect that the silence among many Objectivists is, in part, a denial not about the existence of evil per se, as much as it a denial about the scope, the extent to which it is manifest in our personal, day-to-day lives. ("It can't happen here.") It's easy to condemn the big events, the terrorist cases, etc.; it's harder when it's found in one's own back yard, in one's workplace, community, friendships... in one's family, even.

I know I didn't want to believe it. My own personal experience has told me otherwise, however. Not to reify my own experiences for the whole, but I suspect I'm not the only one, either.

Many others have yet to have such epiphanies, and may never have that revelation. I personally put up with things from family that I wouldn't have from others, out of a misguided sense of being "on the same team", ultimately, even if that team was dysfunctional. What I didn't realize is just how much that team was not on the same side. I suspect that is the case throughout much of the U.S.. Many people who are holding back are doing so out of a sense of not wanting to hurt family or friends in the process, or may even be questioning their own views in order to keep that family and friend connection.

In other words, the problem is not just "out there", but closer to home. Some of it is about worrying about losing one's job or place in the community. But it's deeper than that. And most people don't want to believe the worst about their family, or friends. They don't want to fight with them. They think they're on the same side. And that benevolence is keeping them silent.

But that benevolence is potentially being used against them.

Now, most people in the US are NOT Objectivists, let alone libertarian, for that matter. In my case, I think that's what helped me wise up, sooner, where those with a more conventional outlook are at a disadvantage. Still, it really challenged me on a deep level, despite my philosophic outlook, to a very serious degree, precisely because of the family ties, which are the oldest and hardest to break. But it wasn't just that it was family, I learned, but the kind of people that were in my family, and it clashed with my Objectivist leanings. It had me re-reading those passages in Atlas between Rearden and his family...how could he just walk from his family, parasites or not? (Think of how long it took Rearden to come around,in the novel...how long he stayed quiet, and rationalized their abuse...) My own situation had me in therapy, for my own good. It was clashing with my own desire to help and change mine...at the same time, I was reading the scene where Dagny was in the Galt's "anteroom", where the new strikers slept their first night, which was usually the hardest...fighting that desire to go back and help...

What I learned, during all this, was that I was missing what was really going on. Because of my personal situation, I've been trying to help people who did not want help (not the kind of help I was offering, anyway, beyond the immediate kind of help of money and effort spend tending to their material needs...) I learned about malignant narcissism, bordering on criminality, and the dynamics of how such people use words differently than what we think they're saying, play mind games, manipulate emotions, and prey on the integrity and benevolence of family and friends. A book was recommended to me, Inside the Criminal Mind, by Stanton Samenow. The theory presented is that criminals are not biological determined, but are driven by bad ideas and thoughts, and don't "think" like non-criminals, and don't want to. And the idea of rehabilitation is flawed, because they've never been habilitated, to begin with.

But the book is not limited to a discussion of outright criminality. It also applies to those who may not be criminal, in a legal sense, but in a moral sense, as well, and to demonstrate that these kind of people rarely change, whether they are malignant narcissists, borderline-personality disordered, whatever the case may be. Some people, in rare cases, do change, but usually from within, as opposed to from someone changing them, and it's usually something drastic that wakes them up. (They become disgusted with themselves.) Their thought patterns and sense-of-life are SO entrenched, so entrained, that to change and realize their guilt would shatter them. (Think James Taggart.) And they prey on the benevolence of others, and rely on their integrity and morals to keep them in their grasp. (And use techniques like "gaslighting" and such to keep people off balance, make them think they are the problem...one reason why some women stay in abusive relationships...) So much so, that their enablers good motives, benevolence, and integrity are used as a trap, to keep them trying to fix things, while the goal post are constantly shifted, to the point where they are driven to despair, and in the worst-case scenario, even suicide.

(There are elements of this described in Atlas Shrugged, of course, and as Barbara Branden quoted, Rand knew that change wouldn't happen overnight, partly because of elements like this. But I think that Samenow and others writing on criminality, malignant narcissism, etc are filling in something specific that Rand, at that time, may have missed, that led her to be too open around certain people and optimistic in her expectations regarding those she hoped to win over.)

"What Can One Do?"

 The point, then, is that I suspect that much of the silence spoken of is partly based on a similar dynamic. The biting of tongues "for the greater peace", so to speak, whether out of benevolence, preferring to effect change by "living by example", a misguided sense of empathy or fair-play, giving a "benefit of the doubt" for a peaceful solution or a holding-out expectation that people will change, or even want to change. Or, yes, maybe even out of cowardice. It's not just a problem of the enemies without, but within. In the larger cultural atmosphere, many families are a mixed bag of convictions and premises.

The same is true of the Objectivist community. Not only is it libertarianism vs Objectivism, but now organized Objectivism is experiencing a new kind of schism, one that has nothing to do with the previous "affair"-based schism, but a schism over the application of the principles in today's political situation.

If I didn't know what I know, now, I'd be more confused about it.

Here's the rub: If these kinds of people rarely change, because their thought patterns and sense-of-life are so resistant to change, then the same may be said of their enablers, who have most likely have had their ideas and beliefs similarly reinforced throughout the years. And why just saying "Read Atlas Shrugged" is not enough. Like the criminals who rarely change, the enabler has to have something drastic happen to them, too. (I was lucky enough to read her at 21, but unlucky enough to have had years of reinforced abuse before that, hence the conscience of crisis.) Some will be lucky enough not to have experienced such, but others, no so lucky. Most will probably not turn libertarian or O'ist, which is why someone like Trump was necessary to beat Hillary Clinton, let alone holding out for a Galt-like event. But, just as a Galt is not going to spring forth, Athena-like, fully-formed from the head of some political swamp-draining of Zeus's head, neither are many Objectivists going to suddenly shed their current family and cultural associations overnight, and some will even abandon O'ism or even libertarianism as futile, choosing their reinforced family and cultural associations. Some will turn on Objectivism...some will attempt to destroy it from within.

I'm thinking that Rand was also right when she said, in "What Can One Do?", from Philosophy: Who Needs It, that "It is too late for a movement of people who hold a conventional mixture of contradictory philosophical notions. It is too early for a movement of people dedicated to a philosophy of reason."

However, she did continue to say that "it is never too late or too early to propagate the right ideas— except under a dictatorship. If a dictatorship ever comes to this country, it will be by the default of those who keep silent. We are still free enough to speak. Do we have time? No one can tell. But time is on our side— because we have an indestructible weapon and an invincible ally (if we learn how to use them): reason and reality."

What she wrote, there, goes just as much for the personal as it does the political.

Just as Leonard Peikoff's naive optimism had to be put in check, and if it's correct that many people, whether criminal or enabler, are too resistant, after a certain point, to change their convictions, then we have to temper our expectations on whom to rely. Rand did offer this, in the same essay:

"In an intellectual battle, you do not need to convert everyone. History is made by minorities— or, more precisely, history is made by intellectual movements, which are created by minorities. Who belongs to these minorities? Anyone who is able and willing actively to concern himself with intellectual issues. Here, it is not quantity, but quality, that counts (the quality— and consistency— of the ideas one is advocating)."

I really hope so. Even though Rand put Peikoff's expectations in check, I think she may have fallen pray to a bit of too-early optimism, as well, regarding the "changability" of some people.)  For the most part, we'll have to temper expectation with reality. Those who will speak, will. Those who can change will have to change themselves. Those who can't, or won't, are ballast, as best.

But that said, and despite organized Objectivism being what it is, Objectivism is a self-correcting philosophy. I just hope that individual Objectivists can do the same, if burdened by corrupt family, associations, or whatever it is that holds them back. But just as Rand said that change wouldn't happen overnight, neither will the self-correcting. And I hope that it won't take something too drastic to happen, whether personal or cultural, for that to happen.

Once more, I will reference Stanton Samenow's Inside the Criminal Mind. Samenow makes the argument that the reason why criminals often win out over good people is because their view of themselves depends on it, that if they were to see the truth about themselves, that they would collapse and self-destruct. Therefore, they will fight tooth-and-nail, to the death, even, to prove themselves in the right. They will do everything and anything necessary, no matter who they hurt in the process. Most good people don't understand how the criminal thinks, and like Rand said, don't understand evil, and therefore, are too

With that, I will conclude with Rand's concluding remark about evil in "Don't Let It Go":

 "On the day when Americans grasp the cause of evil's impotence-its mindless, fear-riddden, envy-eaten smallness-they will be free of all the man-hating manipulators of history, foreign and domestic."


Tore's picture

That's the key. I'm the first one to say: acknowledge the "animal" part of "rational animal." Doesn't mean one must mindlessly indulge it in those instances where it's inimical to life. Just don't pretend, as Rand did (and Socrates), there aren't innate conflicts. To know the good is not necessarily to practise it. But we should all try, whatever our "animality" has bequeathed us. That's part of heroism. Living as though the mind mattered.

Sure. One has a choice.

But knowing that this is human nature, one also learns what to do to never get deeply disappointed: the art of approaching human beings with reasonable expectations (somewhat lower than "the world will be laissez-faire when i tell everyone the shoe-shop analogy").


Lindsay Perigo's picture

But to get there, they all had to learn, and to accept, that they indeed did have a choice in the matter. Whatever their context was, whatever manner of defiance or resistance took, they had a choice to evade or resist, to blindly react or to consciously respond.

That's the key. I'm the first one to say: acknowledge the "animal" part of "rational animal." Doesn't mean one must mindlessly indulge it in those instances where it's inimical to life. Just don't pretend, as Rand did (and Socrates), there aren't innate conflicts. To know the good is not necessarily to practise it. But we should all try, whatever our "animality" has bequeathed us. That's part of heroism. Living as though the mind mattered.

The Matter of Choice

Jmaurone's picture

Luke, Tore, thank you. You both touch on something I didn't have time to include in all that, which is the matter of choice. Yes, there are biological considerations, nature vs, nurture, etc, but at the end of day, the question of evil (and how to deal with it) comes down to the choices we make. (Objectivist morality makes clear that morality is not possible without the power to choose.)

We've all most likely heard arguments about the matter of choice in a criminal's actions, but I think less commonly we hear about the power of choice in those dealing with it, from the victim or would-be victim's side. So many people, I think, stay silent because they believe they have no choice but to do so, and not just in obvious cases of having a literal gun to ones head. There's emotional and moral blackmail, in some cases. Also, in some cases, it's self-inflicted cowardice, the fear of making a moral judgement, because of the responsibility that comes with making that judgement. (And hoping someone else will take that responsibility, leaving one's hand's clean.)

Again, I'm working from personal experience. I know about the Objectivist position on choice and responsibility, of course, but I found myself feeling like I had none in my situation, because of the people involved. (Without going into detail, I'll only say that it's not a situation where I voluntarily choose something and incurred a moral duty to follow through. It was more of a "no good deed goes unpunished" scenario.) I got involved in a situation where it seemed as if I was the only person who could assist, and therefore, I had no choice in the matter. I had to have it drilled into me that I did, indeed, have a choice. It was very much a demonstration of Rand's question regarding assisting a beggar: before asking if one should or should not give money to a beggar, ask first if one is obliged, is there a choice in the matter? And then, I had to ask myself, if I choose to continue to assist, not only at my own expense, and that assistance was doing more harm than good, then what is my responsibility to the harm it was causing overall, not only to myself, but to others?

And that's a question anyone who chooses to stay silent needs to ask themselves. Is the short term reward hurting in the long run?

Since the issue of biology and human nature was addressed, along with walking away from drug addicted family, etc, I'll mention a study involving rats where the baby rats were subjected to abuse. This study found that the "flight or fight" aspects of the brain were overridden, and the babies stayed with the mother, despite the abuse. It was postulated that the loss of the caregiver was a factor, and the fear of abandonment or the unknown created a "better the devil you know" type-situation. There was a correlation in abused human children. However, humans are not rats, and have the ability to reason these things out and "override" that urge to stay, however harmful. It comes down to reason, and choice. And there are issues of somatic effects interfering with logic, ptsd affecting muscle memory, etc, such as the psoas muscles in the abdomen getting stuck in a chronic "fight/flight" position, affecting the body. But those things can be dealt with, depending on the severity of the trauma. But that requires reason and reexamining one's thoughts and ideas in addition to physical therapy.

Same with any question of dealing with evil. Sometimes our emotions and reason clash with our reasons, which is why it was insightful for Rand to have that "torture chamber" in Galt's Gulch where the striker's spent their first night. Or the scene depicting Dagny's solitude in the woods, her emotional strike that was pre-empted by the Tunney disaster. Or Rearden's struggle with his family, or Cheryl's suicide over learning the true nature of James Taggart. Because Rand did have her "ideal" man presented as some kind of "ubermench" (though I won't say Nietzschean, out of respect for her explicit rejection of his ideas; "post-Nietzschean, maybe), it's easy to overlook her portrayals of her other characters struggling to get past the cultural and families they were born into.

But to get there, they all had to learn, and to accept, that they indeed did have a choice in the matter. Whatever their context was, whatever manner of defiance or resistance took, they had a choice to evade or resist, to blindly react or to consciously respond.


Tore's picture

...generally do not have a clue when it comes to human nature. They approach human beings in general with the starting point that the human brain is like some blank slate super computer. The human mind is proven to be a lot more animalistic, emotional and yes, irrational than Rand thought. Rand is forgiven, she lived in another time. Randroids, not so much.

Objectivists doesn't expect humans to be human, they expect a nietzschian ubermensch.

This is why humans and the world disappoints them and crushes them.

They think that "hey, we can just show people facts, and they will change their mind!" - nope! That is not how any human mind works. Not even the autistic ones.

One needs to keep up with what happens within brain science. Learn what is a human being.

When it comes to family, show up for the holidays, eat turkey, get shitfaced, leave. And if they are so goddamn evil that you must severe ties, do it. The offspring of drug addicts and alcoholics mostly do that, so why not? It hurts like hell, sure, but life is a shit sandwich. And we all have to take a bite. That is a Kubrick quote, someone who understood a lot more about human beings than anyone at the ARI.

On topic: Great post! It hurt like hell to read it. I read it this morning, and I still feel bummed out. You are a brave man to come out with this. 


Luke Setzer's picture

Joe, thank you for this thoughtful thread.

The issue of silence versus speaking brings to mind a classic quote from Aristotle:

"Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."

I think the hard part of all this is determining exactly how to manifest this classic ethic so we can lead fulfilling lives pursuing good without burning all our precious life energy combating evil. While the latter is necessary at times, it should serve as an exception rather than a rule. That is the part with which I struggle daily, namely always trying to answer the question, "Can I best fight the evil in question through positive combat or negative withdrawal? Is my attention feeding the troll or starving it?"

I spend a lot less time on message boards these days because I realized I was just feeding trolls and wrestling pigs, and we all know how well that works.

Ayn Rand accurately characterized evil as various forms of blobs, parasites, and mindless beasts. It is impossible to reason with such creatures. The most one can do is spend minimal energy publicly identifying their nonsense in some persuasive way for the benefit of sane observers, and then get back to pursuing the good things in life.

Review of INSIDE THE CRIMINAL MIND relevant to today's events

Jmaurone's picture

Review by Dr. Michael Hurd: Review: Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton Samenow, Ph.D. (2014 edition)


"The next time you read of a horrible murder, mass shooting or terrorist event, you won’t have to ask yourself, “Why? How?” Stanton Samenow’s book contains the answers, based on many years of actual evidence, carefully gathered and studied."

"Inside the Criminal Mind 2014 edition avoids the traps of theory detached from evidence, as well as evidence without reference to theory. Real-life case studies illuminate the thinking habits of typical criminals, and conclusions are not evaded. The book is neither liberal nor conservative; it’s simply truthful. It starts with the facts, and generalizes to conclusions about the distinguishing characteristics of the criminal mind. It does so in a clear, logical and coherent fashion that is at once intellectual and intelligible to any interested person, whether scientist, clinician or casual reader."

"Over the years (with the earlier edition), I have known people who read the book and gain insight about themselves or others they know, including non-criminals. Although it’s primarily a study of the criminal mind, Dr. Samenow’s astute observations open up insights and discussion into the nature of human psychology as something determined primarily by the way a person thinks."

"Is rehabilitation the answer? Dr. Samenow astutely rejects the premise entirely. “Rehabilitation” suggests that a responsible and rational method of thinking that was once present can potentially be restored. But criminal personalities never adopt this self-responsible method of thinking in the first place. Rehabilitation is a self-refuting concept."

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