Sunday, 5 January 2014

Liberal Culture and the Loss of Reason

Laurie Penny
A recent article called "It isn't feminism. It's Islamophobia" by Laurie Penny in The Guardian is a good demonstration of where politically correct thinking takes us eventually. In his book The Retreat of Reason Anthony Browne argues that political correctness is an abandonment of Reason in favour of feeling; feeling guided by those presented as victims versus those presented as villains, typically those deemed to be powerless versus those deemed to be powerful, poor/rich, weak/strong and so on. Laurie Penny’s article takes us into this mental landscape.

Robert Spencer has provided a very good rebuttal of her article here but I want to explore the mode of thought that it represents. Penny deploys a catalogue of fallacious arguments. The ones I’ve identified are:

  1. Poisoning the Well – vilifying the speaker in advance in order to discredit what he/she says.
  2. Argumentum ad odium – (argument to hatred) whereby either the speaker is deemed to be so hateful that their argument should be discounted or the argument leads to such a hated conclusion that it cannot be true. Sub-type of appeal to emotion.
  3. Argumentum ad hominem – (attack the character of the speaker)
  4. tu quoque – a charge of hypocrisy as an attempt to invalidate what the speaker has said. It’s still a fallacy even if the charge of hypocrisy is justified.
  5. Straw man – exaggerate or take an extreme case of what the speaker is saying in order to counter this instead of the more reasonable case that the speaker is actually making
  6. Guilt by association – the speaker’s argument or point of view is invalid due to the people they can be associated with or the people who may share their point of view
You will find fuller definitions and examples of these fallacies at

The above are examples of fallacious reasoning which have been recognised for centuries but Penny (and modern liberal culture) introduces new variants of fallacious reasoning which are the fruits of political correctness:

  1. An argument is valid because the speaker belongs to a recognised victim group and what they say must be accepted uncritically
  2. The speaker cannot be criticised because he/she belongs to a recognised victim group
  3. An argument can be true for one group and simultaneously false for another. Each group can have a different truth.
  4. Some arguments are highly offensive to certain recognised victim groups and must therefore be false. One suspects that even if true they would still be forbidden.

One thing that we learn from studying fallacies is that Reason has rules. Go against those rules and you go against Reason. Reason has guided us out of the darkness for centuries and we abandon it at our peril.

Instead of trying to write cogent arguments Penny attempts to discredit viewpoints through vilification (or assumed viewpoints which are given to her a priori as a consequence of which group someone belongs to in her conceptual world).

She writes, “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.”

This statement reveals a lot. She has labelled those showing concern about women’s rights under the impact of Islam as Islamophobes. This label is a term of vilification for her. She thinks that anyone she defines in this way cannot possibly have any real concern for women. She is thus poisoning the well by declaring that anyone in this group should not be listened to regarding women’s rights. She thus attempts to invalidate their arguments based on the group she assigns them to. This is fallacious reasoning and we can see how it arises out of politically correct modes of thought.

Instead of being pleased that support for women is coming from unexpected quarters, she proceeds to base her evaluation of this concern on her own prejudiced and demonized view of those expressing concern. If she took the time to listen to their arguments and the evidence that supports them she would discover that she has in fact missed something. But she will not do this because she has defended herself against reason will fallacious thinking.

“It's the dishonesty that angers me most.(1) It's the hypocrisy of men claiming to stand for women's rights while appropriating our language of liberation to serve their own small-minded agenda.(2) Far-right groups like the English Defence League (3)  and the British National party (4) rush to condemn crimes against women committed by Muslim men (5), while fielding candidates who make claims like "women are like gongs - they need to be struck regularly". (6)

(1) Appeal to emotion
(2) Conclusion drawn from stereotype – what makes the EDL far-right?
(3) Assumption based on her own prejudice
(4) Guilt by association
(5) The nature of the speaker does not invalidate the accusation
(6) Biased sample, guilt by association, tu quoque

Penny is playing games with victims and villains in this paragraph. Her thinking is dominated by which group a person belongs to and who they are associated with in her own mind. The validity or otherwise of the things they say are buried underneath this heap of fallacies. Of course, having accepted guilt by association as a valid form of reasoning she is hoisted on her own petard since she now feels that feminism may be deemed in some way guilty by association because members of the EDL and BNP are actually agreeing with them. Perhaps the motivation for the whole article is an attempt to forestall this terrible eventuality.

Elsewhere in the article she says,

I am not writing here on behalf of Muslim women, who can and do speak for themselves, and not all in one voice. I am writing this as a white feminist infuriated by white men using dog-whistle Islamophobia to derail any discussion of structural sexism; as someone who has heard too many reactionaries tell me to shut up about rape culture and the pay gap and just be grateful I'm not in Saudi Arabia; as someone angered that so many Muslim feminists fighting for gender justice are forced to watch their truth, to paraphrase that fusty old racist Rudyard Kipling, "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools".”

There is a lot of politically correct diplomacy at work in this paragraph (as well as a fantastic array of fallacies). She doesn’t want to appear culturally imperialist so we get the disclaimer about not writing on behalf of Muslim women. There is an implication that all Muslims are black when she says that “she is writing as a white feminist infuriated by white men using dog-whistle Islamophobia” and that all those opposed by Islam are white men. White men are apparently her principal villains and we have already seen how poisoning the well has poisoned her thinking about them. The black/white footwork is probably designed to distance her from any accusations of racism – the cardinal sin of the left. But the thing which really intrigues me in this paragraph is the phrase “their truth”.

This points to epistemological relativism, the view that the truth status of something can only be evaluated relative to the cultural background and assumptions of the speaker. It’s a popular view with politically correct thinkers because it provides them with a means of escape from making judgements about other cultures which could be deemed culturally imperialistic. So, within the Islamic culture that we’re concerned with here it is true that Muhammad was Allah’s final messenger and it is their mission to cleanse the world of unbelief. That’s the truth for Muslims whatever we might think of it so we have no basis on which to question it since we belong to a different culture.

It is on this basis that Penny and her ilk give Islam uncritical acceptance because the people holding these beliefs belong to a “good”, politically recognised group. Of course, if she was to be consistent (dream on) she would also accord the likes of the EDL and BNP “their truth” since they belong to a culture or sub-culture which could be treated as self-validating. But no, they have been assigned the role of villains and nothing they say or think has any validity.

Consistent with the cultural and epistemological relativism that Penny espouses we would presumably be forced to accept (which in fact we are) the argumentum ad baculum (the use of force or threat of force to silence an argument) which is justified in Islamic culture (but which is nonetheless a logical fallacy from the viewpoint of rational culture).

For Penny, as for many in her camp, an opinion is not to be judged on its merits in terms of evidence and supporting arguments (abiding by the rules of logic) but rather given uncritical acceptance or rejection based on who is speaking and which ethnic/racial/cultural or political identity that she assigns to them. This mode of thinking is particularly vulnerable to the effects of affective priming and perceptual set discussed elsewhere.

One commenter at “Comment is partly free” gave another twist to this which was very witty,
Laurie is understandably upset that certain sections of our society are too lazy to make their way to Oxbridge, but the fact remains the testimony of 4 feminists is only equal that of one male EDL supporter
In order to maintain her black and white conceptual world Penny has to ignore or find some means of excusing all those pieces of reality which don’t fit: Muslim patriarchs, non-white members of the EDL, black victims of Muslim persecution, sex slavery justified in Islamic theology, etc. You can see why relativism is so useful to her.

But in this process she continuously distorts reality and supplies justifications for doing so based on her politically motivated assumptions. This allows her to avoid ever questioning these very assumptions. It is rapacious, ill-disciplined thinking like this which has fuelled the explosion of irrationality that we see today in liberal culture.

What Penny’s screed demonstrates above all is the dire consequences of abandoning Reason and its rules: a descent into error, then confusion, then madness (random, emotive, and purely associative ideas predominate). Conversely, it also points the way out of this madness which I have called Malsi-Tung. We must abide by the rules of Reason and follow its guiding light.

If we have truth on our side we have nothing to fear from Reason.