Sunday, March 7, 2004


Here is the third column by Burgess Laughlin:

Initiators and responders

Why do some intellectual movements succeed and others fail?

Recently I have been focusing on one particular aspect of this problem: the role of intellectual initiative in social situations. I see three kinds of individuals here: the initiators, the responders, and the inactivists.

Individuals who take initiative -- either by asking a debate-defining question or by making a debate-provoking comment -- are the front-line soldiers in the war to change a culture. For example, in a society that assumed chattel slavery is the norm, the man who publicly questioned the morality of slavery was provoking a revolution.

Those individuals who only respond to others' initiatives also have an effect. The responders may directly answer the question; or they may reply with a counter-question, such as, "What do you mean by 'morality'?" Either way, they at least clarify the issues, and, at best, they open a door to their own philosophy.

Those who neither initiate nor respond, nor aid those who do, have little power in deciding the course and outcome of a philosophical struggle in a particular culture.

From about 1996 to 2001, I enrolled in history and language courses in a local university. Class size ranged from about 100 for freshman lecture courses to 6 for graduate-level seminars.

The pattern of student participation in discussion and debate was consistent. Very few students -- averaging one or two, regardless of class size -- took initiative by asking their own questions for discussion or by making provocative statements that might channel debate in a particular direction. Perhaps three times as many (but still a small number) responded to the initiators. Most students were silent.

I saw the same distribution in study groups I organized at the university, at various business meetings in my 20 years of work in the electronics industry, and in a variety of political activities during the last 30 years. A similar distribution of participation appears in on-line study groups. How many take initiative in starting a thread? How many respond? How many are usually silent?

Why is this pattern so common? Why is there a hierarchy of participation in nearly all such social gatherings?[1]

I have considered several possibilities, but I do not have an essentialized answer yet.

However, I note the same phenomenon in political culture, but on a much broader scale. The rapid growth of (trademark, "Democracy in Action") provides a striking example of the power of a few individuals taking initiative and others responding. See the article, Influence of MoveOn undeniable. (Boston Globe, 02/16/04.)

For itself. [Editor's note: Read my post, MOVEON.ORG: TIME TO MOVE ON...]

Two left-wing entrepreneurs took initiative and hundreds of thousands of people responded positively in one form or another. But there are millions more presumed sympathizers who didn't respond with action.

I see this social phenomenon -- this pyramid of participation -- as an opportunity for members of the Objectivist movement. A few individuals -- who know their philosophy well, who the have courage to speak in public, and who have learned the social and intellectual skills that come from practice in formal or informal debate -- can have a far greater influence than their meager numbers would suggest.

This is one more fact on the hope side of weighing the future.

Burgess Laughlin


[1] The one exception I can remember is observing a sales-training class. All the students were professional electronic equipment salesmen. Every student, except one, was active in the classroom discussion and debate on the day I observed the class. The one exception had the flu.