[content warning: brief reference to sexual abuse]
I recently read The Ayn Rand Cult and it has given me various thoughts.
I think, to a certain degree, “cult” is a bad category: it combines two things that are more productively thought about when separated.
The first is abusive social groups. Abusive social groups are similar to abusive relationships: they are social groups that attempt to maintain complete power and control over their members’ lives. The Ayn Rand Cult is full of descriptions of how Objectivism exercised unreasonable power over its adherents: disagreement with Rand was often met by a screaming fest or an excommunication; Rand would require people who were genuinely incompatible to date each other; there were objectively correct opinions about all matters of aesthetics from television to dance, and incorrect opinions were a sign of poor moral character; Objectivist therapists revealed private information, dated people they were providing therapy to, and sexually abused their patients using Objectivism as a flimsy justification.
The second is a group with a lot of new or unusual ideas.
Reading the Ayn Rand Cult was an interesting experience because I kept finding myself going “yes, so?” in response to ideas the author seemed to believe would horrify me. If you feel unattractive and can’t get a date because you have a large nose, one ought to at least consider that the solution is a nose job. It is reasonable to expect your partner to respond positively when you say you want to fuck the next-door neighbor. Whom you’re attracted to does seem to be related to your fundamental values, although certainly not all the time, and certainly not as directly as Objectivists as presented in this book seemed to believe. Consensually hitting your partner does make sex more enjoyable for many people, and asking people before kissing them seems much less awkward than just going for it in most cases. People should be more thoughtful about whether it’s a good idea for them to have children. And artforms (including non-literature artforms) do seem to reflect a “sense of life” of the author, although it is perhaps a bit much to make moral conclusions about individuals based on what books they enjoy reading.
There is a certain amount of sense in being wary of new and unusual ideas. Most unusual ideas are bad ideas, simply because most ideas are bad ideas. If an idea is old and popular, it has been extensively tested and you know what the flaws of putting it into practice are. If an idea is new and strange, the tester is you.
A lot of Objectivism’s ideas turned out somewhat poorly in practice. (I’m not talking here of the economic ideas– an Objectivist may, quite rightly, object that Objectivism’s economic ideas have never been put into practice– but the ideas of how one lives one’s life.) It turns out that the idea that all your actions should be compatible with your values leaves a lot of people guilt-ridden and constantly gazing at their navels about whether some twinge of altruism has possibly escaped their notice. It turns out that the idea that all emotions should be the product of one’s rational beliefs leads to repression of emotions that don’t go well with Objectivism and legitimation of destructive emotions that can be rationalized into an Objectivist framework.
On the other hand, if no one tries out new ideas, progress is never going to happen. Someone has to be the first person to try out everything from marriage for love to desensitization as a treatment for phobias. Some things can be studied using randomized controlled trials, but tragically we are not in a world where we can assign half the population to the Marriage For Love condition.
This observation does suggest one way of reducing the harm of new and unusual idea sets: if an idea can be tested through a randomized controlled trial, it should be (given a reasonable grace period to publicize the idea and get funding and so on). If an idea has not been tested through an randomized controlled trial, or the results were inconclusive, you should probably stay away from groups about how awesome it is and definitely not spend thousands of dollars on learning it. (I’m thinking here particularly of Dianetics, of course.)
Part of the problem Objectivism encountered, I think, is that it’s a closed system. It’s pretty easy to correct both of those problems through adding a little more nuance: “make all your actions compatible with your values and being guilty all the time is definitely not part of your values”, “it is better to be honest about nonObjectivist emotions than to repress them.” Since Rand’s inner circle was also an abusive social group, there was no such process of self-correction.