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.


  1. Just a few barebones comments.
    1. Yes, somebody is listening, and I find your posts stimulating and helpful. As I find the irrational approach of Penny so odious that I rarely have the physical capacity to read one of her diatribes, I find this expose of her obnoxious techniques most useful.
    2. I may be one of these "islamophobes" Penny refers to. I have on several occasions pointed out the doublethink involved in promoting "women's rights" at the same time as supporting muslims whose faith condemns women to inferior status.
    3. Your definitions of fallacies head in the right direction but are on occasion overly simplified. Let us look at "strawman". A strawman is a misrepresentation of the opponent's views which can be "refuted" much more easily than the view actually held. It does not have to be an exaggeration or even a simple or ludicrous.caricature, and it can on the surface even appear to be quite reasonable even if incorrect. One of the most common examples is that of appearing to refute an argument against immigration by distorting it into an argument against immigrants or as xenophobic, and then apparently refuting that argument. On the other hand, it is often quite legitimate to take the opponent's argument showing that it leads to an irrational conclusion. (known as reductio ad absurdum). Take for example, showing that immigration of 10 billion people into UK is not sustainable shows that at some level immigration becomes a totally irrational policy, in spite of many claims that immigration is always good. [Of course, for this example I have had to simplify the argument]
    I hope that you find my contribution to the debate, particularly with reference to islam, useful If you feel it worthwhile, I am quite happy to continue this kind of exchange of views.

    1. Hello tami

      Firstly, thank you for your kind remarks. I am very pleased you find my blog useful. Your points about the weaknesses in my argument are most welcome. Thank you for taking the trouble to set them out with such clarity.

      I think that for Laurie and her ilk reason is not highly esteemed. Emotion has become a higher authority for them. Hence the emphasis on seeking ways to demonise their opponents. As you point out with regard to immigration, the pros and cons of immigration are their tactic is to shift from immigration to immigrants, thus turning the subject into a case of personal dislike of certain people and therefore a moral disgrace.

      Reason is the conceptual tool for clarifying and identifying discrepancies. This is another motive for avoiding it, since it would prevent them blurring over problems such as you've identified - the support for Muslims and the aspiration for women's rights.

      Please continue with your feedback. If you wish to make direct contact via email, then just leave your email address in a post and I'll not publish it.

  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for publishing my comment and your positive response. I fear that sometimes I can be over pedantic, but I am aware that our opponents will seize on any opportunity to dismiss our arguments, so we have to be as precise as we possibly can. It is especially important as our opponents have failed to argue logically and so will likely, ipso facto, be limited in their reasoning capacity.

    Thanks also for pointing us in the direction of - a most useful site for clarifying and expanding on topics where it is easy to fall into error, no matter how hard we try.

    Almost as an aside, we must be very wary of trying falling into the trap of defending the strawman argument which our opponent has invented, if we miss what is happening. I came across one particularly obnoxious proponent of this tactic who perversely accused me of moving the goalposts when I repeatedly tried to bring back the discussion to the argument I was actually proposing – one of many similar tactics s/he uses.

    Even if islam had any morally redeeming features (and I think we both agree, it does not), its complete failure to apply any sort of rational analysis, even the most basic, to the doctrine of islam, and thereby the world at large, would mean that its threat to human progress would not be in the slightest reduced. Of course, in practice islam is both morally and intellectually bankrupt and it is completely impossible to untangle these two aspects.

    The individual behind this blog/comment – –
    is far worse than Penny. He has had much longer to create his delusional views. Further, his ability to pervert facts and logic to suit his own limited and biased world view can only be matched by muslim “thinkers” whom he supports. Analogously to Penny, he rails against racism, while all the time making common cause with the followers of the inherently racist doctrine of islam.
    In the specific comment above, he commits a whole raft of logical errors such that it should be obvious that he would be incapable of recognizing a logical argument should he see one. And that is just as I have experienced in pointing out his errors to him.
    Just point out one error in this comment. He (ab)uses the authority fallacy, which he compounds by using himself as authority!
    It may be that you consider it worthwhile tackling him on this or any other of the issues he raises in his blogs. If you do, I would like to see how you approach this task.
    In the medium term, I have it in mind to debunk this piece of baseless propaganda – -
    by the same blogger, as well as the book reviewed.
    If you have come across any work on this, or have done any yourself, I would be interested to see it.
    For the short term, I have another project in mind so I may not be able immediately to make a direct contribution to your efforts . But I shall be keeping a watchful eye on your blogs, and if I feel I can quickly make an effective contribution, or feel we would benefit from some expansion of your analysis, I will be in touch.