[Originally posted on Facebook October 21, 2020]
Don Watkins posted another article on Medium, this time claiming that in a recent Facebook comment I quoted Onkar Ghate out of context. Don is wrong again, and his article is misleading in the extreme.
Don contests the final four sentences I quoted from Onkar speaking to seventy OAC students about my statement regarding the McCaskey affair. Here’s that passage:
It’s garbage… It’s terrible… Of the many philosophic concepts misused in that statement are the nature of the arbitrary, the nature of possibility, the nature of contextual knowledge, both of Ayn Rand’s statements that are quoted, the nature of moral judgment and what a judgment is, the nature of moral neutrality… I’m not going to go into all the details of the nature of the statement or what is wrong with it… If you read and can understand the philosophical issues involved in Craig Biddle’s statement, there are significant problems here… It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement. But I am not a student. I am a professional philosopher. And I can see many things that you can’t see.
Don says that those last four sentences “seem really weird.” Then, in an effort to show that I took those sentences out of context, he quotes a passage from OPAR. That passage is excellent and relevant, so let’s put it on the table too:
[Quoting a person out of context] means quoting some statement [of his] while ignoring other statements that constitute its background and determine its proper interpretation. By this device, one can make a person appear to advocate virtually any idea. Such quoting is fallacious, because men do not write or speak in a vacuum; they do not emit a stream of disconnected sentences, any one of which can stand independent of the rest. To communicate a viewpoint, a man must say many separate things, each relying on the others; the viewpoint is understood only when the listener grasps the relationship among the items and thus the total. To interpret any single remark, therefore, one needs to know: what else did the man say (or presuppose) that condition[s] his statement? What was the surrounding framework? What is the context?
All of that, of course, is true. So let’s bear it in mind as we consider Don’s effort to convince you that I have somehow quoted Onkar out of context.
According to Craig, Onkar is seeking to establish “why my statement was wrong and why it demonstrated that I don’t understand Objectivism.” But is that really the context? Well, I can only go by my notes, since I don’t have a pirated recording of the meeting. But as best I can tell, that is not at all the context. The context was explaining why ARI chose to cancel Craig as a speaker under its auspices as the result of his McCaskey statement…
The problem with Craig’s statement, [Onkar] argued, was not that Craig was siding with McCaskey, but that in the course of doing so, Craig published something that in ARI’s judgment revealed him to be unfit to speak on the Objectivist ethics. And that context helps us make sense of what would otherwise be a baffling set of statements: “It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement. But I am not a student. I am a professional philosopher. And I can see many things that you can’t see.”
Onkar wasn’t asking the students to agree with his assessment. He was explaining why ARI canceled an event… That is a very different point requiring very different evidence than the one Craig portrays Onkar as making.
First, I never claimed that Onkar was asking students to agree with his assessment. Would that he had been so direct.
Second, it is true that when Onkar said “It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement. But I am not a student. I am a professional philosopher. And I can see many things that you can’t see.”—he was discussing ARI’s cancellation of my campus talks. But he was not talking about my Facebook announcement regarding the cancellation, as Don suggests when he quotes that announcement and writes: “That is what Onkar was addressing” (Don’s emphasis). My Facebook announcement read: “I regret to announce that because of my recent statement ‘Justice for John P. McCaskey,’ the Ayn Rand Institute has cancelled my ARI-sponsored speaking engagements in the coming weeks.” Although Onkar mentioned this announcement in passing much earlier in the call, he did not not discuss the announcement at any point during the three-hour call. I’m not sure why Don is diverting attention to it. But whatever his intent, his claim here is misleading.
Onkar’s language in those four sentences was clear—and so was the referent: “It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement…” (emphasis added). He was referring to the “issues” in my statement about the McCaskey affair and to the rationale for cancelling my talks—which, as Onkar previously made clear, was that my statement “misused” various concepts (none of which he ever explained or concretized).
That was the surrounding framework in which Onkar’s “really weird” statement was made. That is the background that determines its proper interpretation. That’s the context that conditioned his words. And it cannot rationally be dropped. Don’s effort to tear those four sentences away from the relevant context and to quarantine them from the material that makes their meaning clear is not only context dropping; it is an extremely misleading instance of the fallacy. (To make this crystal clear, I have provided a full transcript of this portion of the OAC call below.)
In another extremely misleading instance of context dropping, Don quotes from my October 2010 statement about the McCaskey affair and omits important material that clarifies the point in question. He then uses the resulting decrease in clarity to misrepresent what I said. Here is what I wrote—but with Don’s omissions replaced (the material between the <arrow brackets> is what Don omitted):
The claim by some that we cannot judge Peikoff’s judgment because we don’t have complete information is false. We never have complete information about any person or event, and we don’t need complete information to make moral judgments. We can and must make moral judgments on the basis of partial data; and, as a matter of observable fact, we do so virtually every time we make a moral judgment. <For instance, we don’t have complete information about why politicians take the actions they take, yet we can and legitimately do judge many of their actions to be immoral. Likewise, we don’t have complete information about why John D. Rockefeller took the actions he took, yet we can and legitimately do judge his productive actions to be profoundly moral. One could multiply such examples endlessly.>
The fact that we don’t have complete information means only that our judgments are contextual—i.e., based on the information available to us at a given time. In many cases, the possibility remains that we will gather additional data in the future that will bear on our judgment and require us to revise it. But until such data are available, we are warranted in making judgments on the basis of the currently available and relevant facts. And when our values are at stake, we morally must make such judgments.
When faced with an apparent injustice against a man whom one values and whom one has substantial reason to believe is of the highest moral character, one should gather the available and relevant facts and make a judgment on the basis of those facts. If one later discovers additional facts that logically warrant a change of judgment, then one should revise one’s judgment. But, as Rand noted, “in no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.”
The fact that we can, must, and regularly do make judgments without complete information is essential to my point there. And I provided crystal-clear examples to show that we regularly do. But Don omitted those examples. And with the resulting decrease in clarity, he claimed that “According to Craig, since we ‘never have complete information,’ we must make moral judgments on partial information, and, if we don’t, we’re guilty [of] the kind of moral neutrality Rand condemns in ‘How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?’”
By dropping much context—and by claiming that I said “we must make moral judgments on partial information, and, if we don’t, we’re guilty of moral neutrality” (I never said or implied that)—Don mislead readers again.
Don goes on to commit another fallacy—this time a hybrid that deserves its own name. He managed to combine the fallacies of “tu quoque” and “arbitrary assertion” to create what may be called “arbitrary tu quoque.”
Without offering a shred of evidence in support of his claim, he asserts that 15 or 16 years ago, I said, “some of the major courses on Objectivism from ARI got things about the philosophy wrong.” He further asserts that I refused to give examples and instead said, “If you listen to them, you’ll see the mistakes.” He then concludes, “I remember feeling unsatisfied, as if the speaker was telling me: ‘To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, none is possible.’”
Here we have essentially this: “As my arbitrary, evidence-free assertion shows, Craig did the same bad thing that Onkar did!”
I’m not going to keep going back and forth with Don on Facebook. I think you can see a telling pattern in these few exchanges. If I address further misinformation from him (or others), I’ll do so in a different format.
In the meantime, to forestall further false claims about what Onkar did and didn’t say about my statement during the November 2010 OAC meeting, I’ll post below a full transcript of the portion of the call in which Onkar addressed my statement regarding the McCaskey affair and explained why ARI cancelled my campus talks.
Also, for clarity and fact-checking, here are links to relevant documents:
Carl’s post about events surrounding me and ARI: https://carlbarney.com/2020/10/06/the-truth-about-craig-biddle-vs-smears-by-some-at-ari/
Don’s article claiming that Onkar provided “reasons”: https://medium.com/@dwatkins3/a-word-on-carl-barneys-essay-9b0ff34e38b9
My comment showing why Don is wrong about that: https://craigbiddle.com/2020/10/17/onkar-ghates-pseudo-reasons-and-his-responsibility-to-give-real-reasons/
Don’s post claiming that I quoted Onkar out of context: https://medium.com/@dwatkins3/dangerous-misinformation-ac307540dc66
Don’s Facebook thread where he and others are discussing all of this: https://www.facebook.com/don.watkins/posts/10164188350010545
My 2010 statement about the McCaskey affair: https://craigbiddle.com/discord#mccaskeystatement
A Q&A about my 2010 statement: https://craigbiddle.com/discord#mccaskeyanswers
A transcript of Onkar’s comments about my statement regarding the McCaskey affair and why ARI cancelled my campus talks (from the November 2010 OAC meeting): [The following passage is transcribed from a recording of that OAC meeting, which was temporarily posted on the Internet in November 2010. Here is exactly what Onkar said about my statement to the seventy students on the call.]
It is the quality of that statement which I regard as terrible, philosophically terrible. Of the many philosophic concepts misused in that statement are the nature of the arbitrary, the nature of possibility, the nature of contextual knowledge, both of Ayn Rand’s statements that are quoted, the nature of moral judgment and what a judgment is, the nature of moral neutrality. I think it gets all these issues in significant ways wrong.
Now this is somebody who is speaking at an ARI—or would have been speaking at an ARI-sponsored event or events—both on Objectivism, mostly on Objectivist ethics—who publishes a statement one business day before going on the speaking tour in which he hits me over the head with the fact that he doesn’t understand the Objectivist ethics.
Now we as an organization have a serious decision to make that we have to make very quickly. We have someone going out to speak on the Objectivist ethics who’s given us real evidence of massive confusions about the Objectivist ethics. And given that he’s just published a statement and he’s going to campus clubs which will include in the audience many Objectivists—and the clubs before and after often go to dinner before or after the event or go for drinks after the event—will naturally be asking him about this statement which not only—now it’s true in the specific content evaluation I don’t agree with at all but don’t agree with the philosophic content or methodology of the whole statement—who’s coming as a representative of ARI—that we’re in a real predicament there. And there’s a real question of why did he wait so long to issue the statement? Why one business day before going on events for us?
And indeed it’s also relevant that he spent, as he said, something like 6 weeks on the statement—and this is the quality of the statement? As an institute, and as a philosophic institute, we have to make these kinds of decisions all the time, and I’m not going to go into all the details of the nature of the statement or what is wrong with it or what our standards are for someone speaking at a campus club, but we do have standards for those, and we do make and we have to make judgements about what do we think a person’s knowledge is of Objectivism—or putting it more narrowly, what do we think a person’s knowledge is on the topics on which he’s going to speak.
Now this can be, I knew full well that in doing this that the people who dislike us are going to portray this as, “well, here you can’t say one thing in disagreement with Dr. Peikoff’s email, and if you do, you’re going to no longer have any relationship with ARI.” I know that that will be how it will be spun in certain circles. That cannot affect the decision of whether this person really is capable of representing the philosophy and the Institute at a public event. And I do have serious questions about that.
Did we tell Craig that we’ll never have anything to do with you anymore? No, we told him we have serious questions about your understanding of the Objectivist ethics, and given that you’re going to speak on this next week, you’ve put us in a real predicament. And why did you have to issue this statement a day before going on these speaking events?
Now even in the way that it is spun in certain circles, and leaving aside the sophisticated philosophic issues that are involved in the statement, the statement should seem bizarre to you. It starts off as this is a statement from me personally, Craig Biddle, it doesn’t have to do with The Objective Standard, so it’s not being issued by The Objective Standard, it ends with removing Yaron from the masthead of The Objective Standard, so supposedly it doesn’t have to do with The Objective Standard. If that is legitimate, if it can be removed, and it’s actually not even true that that is what happened, but you’re removed unilaterally, what is so unusual that we say we’re removing you unilaterally from these speaking engagements? I mean why is it that this is a heroic act on Craig Biddle’s part to issue this statement and remove Yaron from the masthead, but when we do it, it’s oh my god, what’s the Institute can tolerate no dissent and so on.
And I’ll tell you even more. If there is a criticism to be made about the Institute that we’re dogmatic, that everyone has to tow exactly the line that our speakers tow, that is not, if that’s a legitimate criticism of the Institute, it’s the other way around. It is that we allow too many people with too shallow a view, too shallow a knowledge of Objectivism, to be speaking on difficult philosophic issues. There are many campus club talks where I think half of it was wrong. There are many talks at OCON where I think well half or more was wrong. There is not this kind of atmosphere at the Institute of “You mess up and make one wrong, one thing that we think is wrong, and that’s it, you’ll never, we’ll never engage with you again, you’ll never speak for us again and so on.” Nevertheless there are some standards. And there have to be standards. What I’m saying is that if there’s an argument, it’s that our standards are too lax, not that they’re so incredibly dogmatic that, and involved in these kinds of personal things that well, if somebody says something that I think Leonard’s email is non-objective, then that’s the end. But that is not.
If you read and can understand the philosophical issues involved in Craig Biddle’s statement, there are significant problems here. And again, you can disagree with that, but it is not some crazy decision that we’ve made. And it again should be, well why did he have to issue this? I mean an outsider can ask why did he have to issue this one day before going on a speaking tour for ARI when it’s reasonable to think that ARI might have some issues with the statement? And now there’s much more background knowledge but I don’t want to get into that.
These kinds of decisions are made and have to be made at the Institute should not be some oh my god, this is some surprise about how the Institute functions. And you might disagree with a particular decision or that we allow a particular speaker to speak on a particular topic and go on and come to OCON or go to campus clubs. And you might disagree that we’ve stopped someone and said no we don’t think you’re capable of speaking on this issue in a way that is sufficiently knowledgeable, professional, etc. to represent the Institute. And you might say that no, I really think this person does have it and disagree with a particular decision. But we make that kind of decision and have to make that kind of decision should not be a surprise.
It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement. But I am not a student. I am a professional philosopher. And I can see many things that you can’t see. And that’s part of my job.
Yeah, I think that’s sufficient on that.
[Here, Debi Ghate begins a Q&A session.]