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Extropians' Poorly-Made Case Won't Win Any Converts

Guest column by Jeremy H. Brown

Imagine, for a moment, that every word The Thistle ever wrote was absolutely true. Good. Now, imagine that every word the MIT Extropians wrote in their letter to the freshmen was absolutely true. Good. (For the sake of your mental health, don't try imagining both at once.) Now, unless you've forgotten to medicate your schizophrenia today, you probably just had at least one powerful, knee-jerk "no way!" reaction. More likely, you just had two.

And so this message is for the staff of The Thistle, and both members of the Extropians, and anyone else who believes they know a Truth that needs dissemination: Without Marketing, the Truth can't win converts. All your ideals, proofs, conclusive evidences, and deeply held beliefs won't convert a single soul to your way of thinking if you present them badly - and most of you present them so very, very badly indeed.

Because of space limitations, I'm going to spare The Thistle and simply consider the letter the Extropians sent to the freshmen. Assuming, for the moment, the absolute accuracy of its primary content, there are two things remaining that dictate the warmth of its reception: form and forum.

We can pass over the Extropian choice of forum quickly, observing that reaching freshmen using a stolen mailing list whose acquisition ultimately gets one's group derecognized by the Association of Student Activities represents a poor way to convey a message that can inspire knee-jerk calls of misogynism, racism, and long-winded boorishness.

So let's talk about bad form instead. By "form," I am referring to the choice of phrasing, the ordering of thoughts, the quality of argument, and the overall voice of the speaker or writer. In disseminating a Truth, the following rule is critical to a successful form: The speaker must not sound like an ass.

The Extropians break this rule in at least four different ways.

One: They surround their primary Truths with obviously stupid secondary ideas. Sex on Friday nights is bad. IHTFP and SPAMIT T-shirts are signs of wounded self-esteem. Nietzsche had something intelligent to say about romance. Gentlemen, this is not your primary content. These are not the points you want to be defending; they are indefensible. They make you out to be the ignorant, frustrated, ego-wounded victims you call others.

Two: The Extropians' presentation is too long and utterly humorless. There are few and far between that can read a document that amounts to a 17,000 word complaint, unlaced with one bit of deliberate humor, without thinking ill of those that wrote it - and without looking for unintentional humor. That's not hard to find, because of the next problem

Three: The Extropians' presentation is pompous and laden with hubris. What would Nietzsche have to say about their romantic encounters, they ask? "What is Prime Male Meat?" Are you an Ubermensch? Are you a Promethean? "Fellow Enders this letter was composed to five of you" Are you a character from a science fiction novel? Have you had enough hyperbole yet?

The Extropian voice is the voice of the Elite crying out for other members of the Elite to acknowledge their greatness - and that's a voice just begging to have the chair kicked out from under it.

Four: The Extropians use poor logic to justify their primary theses, making the theses themselves look stupid. If one accuses biology of being a "gut" course of study, one should explain why math majors need take only nine courses and write no thesis. If one wishes to explain why MIT is 40 percent, or 80 percent, full of losers, one needs to explain why it is that the remaining three in five, or one in five, aren't so exceedingly successful compared to the remainder that we haven't all noticed.

If one wishes to accuse MIT's religions of having "a chilling effect over the intellectual climate," one needs to provide at least one example. (Incidentally, if one insults the ideals of another, and then claims to worship at the ideology of Nietzsche, one wouldn't appear to have read Nietzsche very closely.)

Proof by incomplete argument, by assertion, and by anecdote, are poor techniques in any forum, and in the MIT environment, in a creed worshipping technology and rationality above all, they are particularly ill-applied.

Now, all that said, I'm sure that the Extropians and The Thistle and the others all can point to the myriad of people who have come to them and said "Yes! Your ideas are right!" But all they've really done is to find their choirs; you can preach in any voice to the already-converted, and they'll nod their heads and mumble along with you.

The hard part of disseminating the Truth is convincing the uninitiated; for that your message form has to be calm, polite, to the point, modest, unpretentious, and non-threatening. A long-winded, pompous, humorless message will die almost as fast as one that objects to sex on Friday nights.

Jeremy H. Brown, MIT undergraduate class of '94, got his master of engineering degree in 1995 and is currently working on his doctorate in computer science.