Dan sees a problem among young Objectivists.
For years, I have watched (mostly young) Objectivists struggle with a specific form of the Malevolent Universe Premise. I call it the "Malevolent People Premise." One with a Malevolent People Premise expects the worst out of each new person he meets. He realizes that everyone has the capacity to be rational, but he expects those he meets to be irrational. While he may develop relationships with new people who seem virtuous, he always expects to find faults, and he carefully scrutinizes new friends or lovers for any evidence of irrationality. When he discovers a flaw in the person, he feels betrayed and angry -- but justified.Since I don’t know any young Objectivists, I don’t know if Dan is right that this is a common problem. I suspect he overstates his case. Here are my somewhat random thoughts on dealing with people.
Relations with people, like everything else, depend on one’s purpose. If your purpose is to buy groceries, the relationship with the person at the check-out stand is simple and formulaic. The conversation is the same every time, and unfortunately includes the question, “Paper or plastic?” because environmentalists think plastic is bad for some reason, so apparently it’s better to use tree products. (I once read that someone wrote a spoof academic article called, “Paper or Plastic: An Inquiry.”)
For the most part, relations with people are a matter of manners and etiquette. Manners are not quite what they were before the New Leftist cultural revolution, but they’re still pretty good. I have read that people are nicer to one another in capitalist countries than in socialist ones. This is because socialism makes everyone an enemy competing for a slice of the pie doled out by the government. It is fascinating that the “dog eat dog” smear that socialists lay on capitalism is actually true about their system.
There is no reason why on this superficial level one should not be positive and cheerful, expecting the best from people. Anyone who is typically unpleasant and grouchy at this level of contact, like Moliere’s Misanthrope or Menander’s Dyskolos (The Bad-Tempered Man) has a psychological problem. Comic writers have a lot of fun with grouches, but it’s no way to go through life.
You get beyond superficial relationships when you talk to people more and find out their ideas. This is when disappointment enters. People quickly reveal themselves as mystics, cynics, buffoonish nihilists, gray ciphers, flattering sycophants (social metaphysicians) or some other type. I find two simple questions, asked with an unthreatening smile, most revealing: 1) What does that prove? And 2) Do you have any evidence? The answers to these questions are usually enough to tell you who you’re dealing with. By asking questions without lecturing or arguing, you find out people before they get angry and the defenses go up. First get the facts, then pass judgment.
Most people neither understand nor care about philosophic ideas. It’s good to remember their context of knowledge. You’ve read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, but they probably have not. When you meet someone who is honest and cares about ideas, then you’ve found a nugget of gold amid the dross.
H.L. Mencken was something of an elitist who called the common man “booboisie.” He can be a little intimidating as he wrote before the coming of the New Left, when cultural standards were higher. I remember reading him once sneer at people who blow in their soup; I thought, “Gee, I’ve done that…”
(Another example of being intimidated by people who were around when America and the west were better places: When I heard on tape Ayn Rand dismiss Wagner as organ grinder music, I thought, “Whoa! I’m a guy who is happy with the Beatles and Black Sabbath and she’s looking down on Wagner?”)
Is being a curmudgeon like Mencken a bad thing? I suspect Mencken was much more polite to people in person than he was in print. I doubt that he went around being unpleasant and rude. Writing has a different purpose than personal relations, and being a curmudgeon in print served his purpose of entertaining readers and making money from writing. To me, Mencken’s curmudgeonliness was just recognizing the reality that if one sets one’s personal standards high, most people will fail to meet them. If you want the best out of life, you will be in the minority, as most people settle for much less than the best.
In our culture, most people do have wrong premises of one sort or another. In that respect it’s not irrational to “look for the worst” as the chances are the worst is there waiting to be found. But even so, honest people, however flawed, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity until they prove otherwise. And what they choose to think is their responsibility, no one else's. One has no duty to run around like a religious fanatic saving other people's souls.
The most frustrating thing about "the common man"? He occupies his mind with trash and nonsense. In my day job I listen to FM morning talk shows across America, so many of which are obsessed with Hollywood gossip. People love gossip! I don’t want to contemplate someone like Michael Jackson, who has all the personality of a sea cucumber, but others might talk all day about him. (Women are a bit more likely to love celebrity trash than men.)
At the age of 50 I find it tempting sometimes to think like Dominique in The Fountainhead or Kay Gonda in Ideal. I long for the ideal, but instead I get “American Idol.” I end up feeling, more than anything, boredom. As a result of being bored and uninterested in most people, I stay home too much and I have to force myself to get out and socialize. The advent of the internet has made staying home even more attractive. Were it not for acting in plays, I might be a total shut-in.
UPDATE: Slight revision.