Allison’s last card

At 11:28 am, Feb 1st, an FDR member named Allison left a message on Stefan Molyneux’s forum that ended this way:

“….As for me, my experience in this thread has shown me that I need to take a break from the forums. There is a mismatch of perspectives and approaches that is creating an environment that’s just not healthy for me to remain in…”

And with that, one of the most remarkable recent conversations on FreeDomain Radio came to a conclusion. During that conversation, over 160 posts were made in that thread alone. Other threads spun off from it. Tempers flared. FDR True Believers fretted behind the scenes. Members defected—some publicly, some privately. One member got banned.

And another seminal work by Molyneux—Real Time Relationships, The Logic of Love—was left in tatters.

Across town, metaphorically speaking, members of rival forum Liberating Minds watched with fascination as a newcomer and a long-time Molyneux supporter graciously led an assault on Molyneux’s logic. The Liberating Minds “spectator thread” itself ran for 15 pages and accumulated 210 posts!

You might say it was some conversation. I say it’s a window.

By the time it was all over, we got a revealing glimpse of the FDR “community.” We saw how the True Believers defend the faith. We saw a backlash against the growing number of uncommitted members who are donating, swelling FDR ranks, but corrupting Molyneux’s pure vision. And a few disturbing little truths about Stefan Molyneux came out into the light. They won’t be in full view for very long. FDR is much like the shore of a beach—each day new waves of threads sweep over the surface, covering the old conversations, slowly pulling them out of sight forever. So let’s just take a look while we can, shall we?

So how did it all get started?

A new member, who chose the name bake, logged on with a question about one of Molyneux’s books. Just eleven days before Allison threw her last card (I’ll explain that in a bit), bake started a thread entitled “Logical flaws in RTR.”

Now, right off the bat, bake was in harm’s way because RTR (Short for Real Time Relationships, The Logic of Love), is a revered book among FDR True Believers—written and self-published by Stefan Molyneux himself. Even Molyneux’s closest followers would acknowledge a minor flaw—perhaps a typo or misspelling—might exist somewhere, but the logic within the book certainly must be right as rain. It just has to be.

The sales literature for RTR states:

“Real Time Relationships” helps you bring the virtue of real honesty into your relationships with your friends, family, colleagues and lovers. Filled with practical examples of how to achieve true intimacy, this book will open your heart to the beauty of love without endless conflicts, resentments and misunderstandings.

Now, someone who knows FDR well might be tempted to stop here and point out that…

  • Molyneux encourages FDR members (while they are in the process of being lured away from their families) to ambush a parent with the RTR technique in which you feed back in real time your exact emotions about what the parent is saying instead actually responding to him or her. Of course, such a strange shift in dialogue would make any unsuspecting person frustrated. So, when the hapless parent does respond in frustration, well that—Molyneux tells his acolytes—simply confirms his/her evil nature…
  • or that Molyneux has frequently stated his primary use of RTR is end relationships…
  • or that many of Molyneux’s most ardent followers—while fully subscribing to the logic of love—tend to live alone and are unable to sustain relationships in their private or work lives…

…but that would simply draw us off track. This story is about bake and Allison.

Bake wasn’t being hypercritical in her comments. In fact, she was highly complimentary of the book’s impact and expressed gratitude to Molyneux for the work. It’s just that the book had a few errors in logic, that’s all. Perhaps a clarifying discussion would pave the way for a few edits, no?

Did bake know just how significant the question was? Certainly, most followers of the thread didn’t realize it.

But Molyneux knew for certain.

What’s a few flaws among friends?

You see, Molyneux has been building the philosophy of FDR for several years. It’s all based on the scientific method, he says. Or sometimes he says it is built from first principles. The point is, Molyneux’s unified view of PhilosophyPoliticsEconomicsPsychologyRelationshipsReligion is an intricate, self-reflexive structure that started with A is A, and was built upon each unassailable truth that followed, brick by logical brick.

That is why I say he is an absolutist and why the Molyneux philosophy must be swallowed whole.

So, do you see why bake’s question might rattle Molyneux? To the rest of us, if someone finds a flaw in our work, it means a little re-thinking and re-editing is necessary—perhaps even major rethinking—but that’s the process through which we learn.

But if Molyneux’s fundamental logic is revealed to be flawed, it would be as if someone just shoved a black hole into the center of his philosophic universe. (If you saw the latest Star Trek movie, you know how pesky that can be.)

As Yeats would say, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

It was of small consolation to Molyneux to hear first from bake, and then from other members—even some of his True Believers—that RTR was very useful, despite the logical flaws. Isn’t Molyneux the same man who has thundered for years against works such as the Bible for similar offenses? In fact, because Molyneux interprets a few biblical passages as exhorting Christians to kill unbelievers, etc., to him the entire work is no longer worthy of discussion. Only a fool would expect to find value in it.

That’s why Molyneux believes RTR is more than simply valuable. It is pure. It’s part of his attempt to show the world a new way—a world entirely built on logical principles.

So, to even acknowledge such flaws would collapse everything. The thread started by bake wasn’t simply a discussion. To Molyneux, it was like being forced to walk blindfolded down a street with all the manhole covers removed. One misstep and it’s all gone.

And don’t forget that whole “War against Academia” thing…

As I covered in Part 1 of the Promise and Failure of UPB, Molyneux apparently hates to be forced into explaining his premises. It appears that he views such questions as a personal attack. Against him.

…Right, and, of course if they like you, they’ll let that go and say ‘well, of course, that’s accepted by everyone.’ But if they don’t like you, they’ll say ‘well, you haven’t made that case.’ Right? And then when you try to make that case they’ll say ‘Oh, well, that’s a whole different article and this is too long and you haven’t made that case.’ So, you’re stuff will get bounced, right? Your stuff will get rejected.

Molyneux’s description of his life in academia, a small part of which I excerpted above, suggests his work is not a separate thing from himself. In other words, questioning one of his premises is another way of saying “I don’t like you.”

Molyneux discovers big things. Stuff like a “cure for ethical cancer.” As one can see during Molyneux’s behind-the-scenes rage at Danny Shahar’s scholarly dismemberment of UPB, he does not believe he needs to explain exactly how he got to the cure to some…academician.

And now here was bake, out of nowhere, logging onto FreeDomain Radio to discuss “Logical Flaws in RTR.”

Into the thread…

It all starts casually enough. bake makes a respectful opening statement, mentions her respect for Molyneux and the significant merits of the book. Then she lists specific examples of logic errors that bothered her. Now, one or two years ago on FDR that might be enough for an instant charge of “troll” and subsequent banning. But this is the 2010-kinder-and-gentler FDR. The bigger-tent FDR that’s trying to recruit new donators without immediate pressure to defoo. And there’s no denying that bake’s argument is precise, courteous, and complimentary.

A few people show some interest. One subscriber admits he also noticed some logical flaws. Molyneux himself pops in and asks for clarification. But bake, in her response, asks Molyneux an interesting question: “On a side topic, are you open to editing RTR?”

Did bake know more about the gravity of her opening post than it appears? Because no matter what Molyneux says publicly, the answer to the question she’s asking here must be no. The logic of love is perfect, thank you.

A few gambits from FDR members are attempted on Page 2 of the thread. Traditionally, FDR True Believers who perceive outsiders to be “trolls” won’t try to answer their questions about Molyneux’s philosophy directly, but tease around the edge of the question, misdirect, and hopefully pull the whole conversation off course. One member suggests it’s a language issue. Another asks for all examples to given in syllogisms. And one, of course, gave the quintessential RTR response: “What emotions came up on the first attempt to read the book?”

No one wanted to deal with the actual question. Molyneux began to roll out a bizarre gambit, again not addressing bake’s question but asking instead if bake had bought the book or read the free version.

Allison joins—and now it’s shake ‘n’ bake.

But then, surprisingly, a long-time FDR member named Allison makes her first post in the thread, adding another dimension to bake’s question. Disarmingly, she says “I wish I was formally trained in philosophy, because I don’t feel like I’m capable of expressing my thoughts as clearly as I’d like to, but oh well.”

Allison neglects to mention that—like bake—she has a razor-sharp mind and she came to play.

So what were Allison’s views on RTR?

I was at first disarmed by how brilliantly divisive and decisive the book is, but reading it again some 14 months later, I would agree with what I think bake is saying, that it oversimplifies things, and follows seemingly logical chains that upon further examination aren’t actually logical. Thus, as interesting as the book is in and of itself, the lack of nuance and context prevents it from being entirely applicable to the complexity of real life. Whether there’s any way to take life’s complexities into consideration and still end up with a book that actually says anything, I’m not sure.

Allison’s post continued as she laid out her specific concerns with the logic of RTR. Again, not the conclusions of the book—simply the logical arguments that lead to them.

Whether bake or Allison knew it at the time, they were in for a long slog. First, to address a Molyneux error, one must address him as student-to-mentor, with deep admiration and respect, and frame all questions in a way that they do not appear to be a challenge from one of equal stature, but a humble request for clarification from one seeking enlightenment.

It was this technique that served Danny Shahar well in the early days of trying to make sense of UPB. But I don’t think anyone anticipated a performance like the one that was about to happen.

And there’s another reason that the conversation would be difficult. Whether it was by design or their own natural courtesy, bake and Allison’s language suggested they perceived themselves to be in a joint effort with Molyneux, working together to find the truth about a point of logic. With Molyneux, however, you’re always in a debate. And that’s a little different, because debates aren’t about truth; they’re about winning (or at least appearing so).

Why, what can be more exciting than to be center stage, all eyes on you, manipulating a crowd into believing something that you’re saying solely because of your wit and rhetoric? For Molyneux, not much.

Molyneux loves debating. He was a proud member of the debate team as an undergrad at York University in Toronto. You can find articles about Molyneux in that debate team in the school newspaper. It was there—and perhaps even earlier—that he developed his thirst for winning an argument, for being right, whether he actually believed in his points or not. That’s what debate teams do.

In fact, Conrad, the adminstrator of Liberating Minds, once wrote a brief summary of the ten techniques Molyneux uses to escape his challengers and claim victory. It has nothing to do with finding the truth. Molyneux already knows that. (By the time the bake and Allison thread was over, Conrad had added an eleventh.)

Page 2 of the thread ends with pointed question by Allison to drag the conversation back in focus: ” Stef, I’d love to know what you think about the thoughts that have been put forth in this thread. :)”

The game is afoot

But Molyneux was having none of that. By Page 3, he was spinning madly, pushing bake on the number of Molyneux books she had read. Confusingly, Molyneux stated he was doing so because bake had started the thread with questions about “integrity with standards.” (Which she clearly had not.)

The conversation was starting to have an impact rarely seen at FDR. More FDR members began appearing with requests that Molyneux address the issue bake had raised. Even one of Molyneux’s most ardent followers chips in, before having second thoughts about the post and deleting it, leaving behind a single period. Later in the thread, a Philosopher King would do the same.

Calmly, bake and Allison keep the conversation on track. And the chorus of FDR members asking “why don’t you address the topic?” continued to grow.

Page 3 ends with an unexpected surprise. Allison asks the startling question “I was wondering to myself as I went about my evening routine, what was/is your emotional experience of this thread?” That’s a common and, as they say, “curious and empathetic” question to ask at FDR. Exactly the kind of question RTR asks for. But it just sounded wrong.

You see, RTR is something Molyneux teaches. He lectures to his members about it. Somehow it seemed curiously inappropriate for one of his members to actually use it on him, as if she were his…equal.

So, in addition to the thread full of people politely asking Molyneux to explain his logic, one was now asking him to bare his emotional soul about why he wouldn’t.

Backlash and rising tempers

As the thread continues, some Molyneux supporters begin to push back on the questioners in earnest. One says, “I’m sorry, perhaps I’m missing something, but you don’t see accusing a philosopher who values logic of ‘misusing it’ as questioning his integrity?” He asks a leading question about “black and white thinking” that threatens to derail the thread. Another member immediately piles on with another post.

Bake answers them all calmly and then uses a trick that completely protects the thread from any further derailment. She replies, “I’ll answer that in a new thread.” And thereafter, in each attempt by a True Believer to pull the “logic errors” thread off track, bake would open a new thread for the question. Few of those threads went anywhere, since the challenger wasn’t really interested in the question to begin with.

Tempers began to flare. Some were angry that Molyneux’s logic was challenged. But most seemed angry that few genuine attempts had been made to answer bake’s concerns. Finally, one FDR member had had enough with bake’s treatment. He deleted his account, leaving the following message:

I’m seeing a lot of really creepy pseudo-curiosity and passive aggressive character assassination, and its really disappointing and saddening to me. Almost nobody is dealing with the substance of Bake’s arguments.

A while back Stef posted an article which painted Ayn Rand in an unfavourable light, with the a comment along the lines of “it would be nice if people criticized her work instead of her character”.

Actually, you know what? This has upset me to the point that I don’t want to have anything more to do with this discussion board. I actually feel sick to my stomach at the stifling atmosphere, the double standards and the emotional manipulation, not to mention the fogging and subject-changing.

Bake, you’re doing an admirable job, and I think your civility throughout this discussion reflects very well on your character.

I’m going to try to delete my account now, and if I can’t figure that out perhaps a moderator would be so kind as to do so for me.

The first FDR defection had occurred. But more would soon follow.

Once the account was deleted, the original post above was deleted with it. Fortunately, the message survived because another FDR member had preserved it in a quote—so it remains in the thread. Later on, however, we’re going to see some actual tampering of this thread by a site administrator.

At this point, the thread seems to settle into one specific example in the Molyneux book, taken from a mediocre romantic comedy, “The Break-Up,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. (In the FDR thread, poor Vince accidentally gets renamed to Vance.) Molyneux uses a scene from the comedy to logically demonstrate that Vince doesn’t respect Jennifer because she has to continually nag him.

Of course, as Allison said much earlier, such black-and-white logic isn’t possible in the real world. There could be a wide variety of reasons why Jennifer feels she needs to nag Vince. Many of the board members, including Molyneux, begin to focus on this one incident and the argument drags on over the next several pages of the thread.

An uncomfortable digression on friends, or lack thereof

Speaking of Vince/Vance and Jennifer, this might be an opportune time to point out something that troubles me.

Quite a few relationship examples in RTR are made-up examples using made-up people. You hardly notice it at first, as Molyneux often writes very well. But writers of similar books quite often use real-life examples to support their theories. Compare RTR to what might be the most well-known relationship book of all time—How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Here’s one link to a .PDF version, but it’s not hard to find other free versions on the Web. Don’t bother with any summaries—read the book.) Dale Carnegie’s book is filled with personal observations of real relationships gathered over many years. While the book is also about selling, its fundamental purpose is to teach readers how to build good relationships, personal or otherwise. I have no doubt Molyneux himself read and utilized the principles of the book during his days selling software solutions.

Although it sounds terribly unkind to say this, it seems unlikely Molyneux himself could produce such examples because he doesn’t seem to have close relationships beyond that of his wife and child. I could be wrong—and I’m trying to be very respectful here—but I don’t remember hearing among any of the 1,500 podcasts or reading in any of the forum posts about Molyneux having weekly poker nights with his college buddies or the dinner parties that the Molyneuxes often throw for their dear friends. There’s no life-long best friend. No other couple that the Molyneuxes share their true private lives with. In fact, the majority of personal relationship matters I’ve heard Molyneux talk about are the difficulties he had developing female relationships prior to his marriage to Christina.

What the Molyneuxes consider to be their “family” is small, since Stefan has defooed the rest of his and Christina has done the same with hers.

During one podcast, he admits that he adopts a jovial personality while he records his podcasts—in other words, he adopts a persona in order to sell. FDR members, even those who believe they have a relationship with him, are relating to that persona. You see, the members of FDR are not his friends quite so much as they are students/customers. Even in the inner circle—where members feel closest to Molyneux—there is a wall.

Because he expects to be paid for his time.

Speaking of those members, many of them—even those who fervently defend RTR—now live separated from their family and former friends. They have trouble connecting to people outside of FDR and complain of troublesome relationships with their co-workers. Some FDR members, when considering moving to another city, will make a post on FDR asking where other members live in the hopes of finding one other person they’ll feel comfortable talking to face-to-face.

And so, for example, you’ll find a member deciding to move to a city the size of Philadelphia—not so much because of the employment, cultural, and lifestyle opportunities there, but because he knows there are three or four people there who can engage in a periodic FDR “meetup.”

Honestly, I don’t want to be cruel. I wish happiness and fulfillment for everyone at FDR. But to discover that in this nearly relationship-free environment one of the most cherished tomes is a book on relationships written by Molyneux is somewhere in the top three or four most intensely paradoxical concepts I’ve ever heard.

Just sayin’.

Too baffling for words (i.e., you don’t know it yet, but there’s a podcast in your future).

The stunning inability (or I suspect refusal) for some of the members to understand that there are many possible answers to the Vince/Vance and Jennifer situation will rage on over the next few pages, but the very first post on Page 5 of the thread is stunning. Molyneux finally replies to Allison’s “how do you feel about this thread” question and this is what he says:

“Thanks for the questions Allison, I really do appreciate it — I am a little baffled, and I’m having a hard time understanding what the actual criticisms are, they have not been made any more clear throughout the thread.”

I’ve written about 3,000 words of this article so far, but everyone does remember that bake pointed out logical errors in RTR and wondered if Molyneux would clarify them, right? Apparently, Molyneux does not.

By Page 6 the “relationships” within the thread begin to crystallize. bake is the calm, courteous one—unfailingly on point with crystal-clear logic and unfailingly patient as she continues to keep the thread focused on The Question No One Will Answer. In many ways, bake has out-Shahar-ed Shahar by taking on a Molyneuvian sacred cow with precisely the right (i.e., unbannable) tone. And people were beginning to listen.

Allison is the self-deprecating FDR member simply seeking enlightenment, but whose questions have the knack of landing on the most revealing logical disconnects—as if she were gently throwing nuclear darts. She responds to Stef’s “bafflement”:

I’ve come up with a way of characterizing your bafflement that is similar to the dilemmas presented in the first post. Let me know if it resonates for you. The question is, why are these criticisms only coming up now, years after the book was published? The dilemma is, either there are logical inconsistencies, in which case, no one has pointed them out to you in all this time, or there aren’t, in which case we’re all incorrect in the posts we’ve made in this thread. From such a perspective, the conclusion that some of your listeners(/readers) are being deceitful is inevitable. It makes it so that questions can’t be asked without someone being called a liar. But again, I think that putting the situation into such black-and-white terms abstracts away complexity that is vital to understanding what is going on. Perhaps people didn’t feel self-confident enough in their understanding of the book/philosophy to bring up any questions they had. And certainly reading other people’s thoughts can spark thoughts of your own. The point I’m making here about how simplifying a situation into a dichotomy might prevent correct understanding of it applies to the examples provided by bake, as well.

That was kind of a big ouchy. “Speaking of relationships, Stef, I’m going to use your own readers’ response to your book to demonstrate why applying your binary, black-and-white thinking (you know, the same thinking you used for UPB that didn’t work there, either) has no relationship to the real world.”

Oh, but wait, there’s one more little thing.

From my understanding of RTR, this entire set of asssumptions and rather serious allegations built on the back of the woman’s actions is exactly the problem. It is useful to understand just how much your actions can communicate to another person, but, having that knowledge, and still allowing that communication to affect your own thoughts and actions without attempting to intervene, escalates the situation unnecessarily. Using RTR, the entire situation might have been defused if the man had stopped and told her about the feelings that arose for him in conjunction with the situation, if they had tried to dig down to truth instead of building up conjectures. However, in my reading of this section, building up a set of assumptions and allegations is deemed as an appropriate response to the woman’s actions. This is directly contradictory to RTR, and could leave the reader seriously confused about the message of the book. I’m scratching my head even now. Am I missing something fundamental here? If so, I’d love it if someone could explain it to me. I have more examples of situations presented in the book that seem to contradict RTR methodology, if those would be helpful.

It’s important to dwell on this for a bit. There’s something that may or may not have been on Allison’s mind when she wrote those words, but she certainly reminded me of it. This is it:

The vast majority of what goes on at FDR is a presumption of what outside parties are thinking. This is yet another synapse-threatening, unexplainable paradox of FDR.

  • Get an e-mail from a defooed parent? Molyneux will tell you what they were thinking when they wrote it.
  • Is there a paragraph in the letter you don’t understand? He will tell you the hidden manipulation behind it.
  • Have a confusing RTR conversation with a parent? (It’s almost guaranteed you will). He will show you how the parent is using guilt to control you.
  • Are you sad? Talk to Molyneux and he will link your current feeling to a parental abuse in your childhood and tell you what your parents were thinking when they did it.

Allison has aimed her dart aimed at another problem you don’t immediately notice about RTR. Much of the book may be about curiousity and empathy, but a greater portion of it is spent making assumptions about parents and others.

So yes, it’s paradox time once again. RTR is a cherished book in an environment where curious and empathetic members intentionally cut off communication with friends and families and spend the rest of their lives presuming how those ex-friends and family members think.

Well! We haven’t even seen the best of the thread yet, but I think this is a good spot to break for now.

I’ll leave you to consider Allison’s graceful head shots here and pick this up again next time. (And maybe even explain what I mean by “Allison’s last card!”)

Continue on to Allison’s last card, Part 2

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