Archive for March, 2012


‘And debate with them in the best of ways’; two logical fallacies.

In General Discussion on March 4, 2012 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu


So, as you may have guessed, a lot of my posts have a strong relation to arguments I get to on the Wild West of discussion that is the internet. I thought I would discuss a couple of logical fallacies in relation to good discussion, and relate them to my previous post as well as the concept of adhab in Islam.

So to start with, we have what is called the ad hominem fallacy. This fallacy is often colloquially used to refer to insults, but it is more than that. The ad hominem fallacy is an argument that, rather than focussing on the points made, focuses on the character of the person making the points. Now it should stand to reason that the two are unrelated, yet we as humans often fall into the trap presented by this fallacy.

One of the main ways this occurs is accusations of hypocrisy. An individual will point out a contradiction between what a person advocates in their argument, and what they actually do. In reality an individual’s hypocrisy will rarely have any relationship with an argument (unless, for example, it is an argument about character). If I drank, yet told others not to drink, would my hypocrisy have any bearing upon the validity of my argument about the negative nature of drinking?

Another way this creeps in is through arguments about an individual’s motivation. It is a common tactic in discussions to point out that a person’s background is the reason behind the argument they are making. That may be true, but what does it have to do with the validity of the argument they are making? Nothing. A Palestinian or Israeli’s investment in the conflict does not make either of their claims more or less true. The truth of their arguments is what defines the truth of their arguments!

Finally, the most classic form of ad hominem is the aforementioned insults. If I’m thick as a block of wood, it won’t make me saying ‘one plus one equals two’ any less true. The character of an individual, any flaws, physical characteristics or anything else, are irrelevant to any points they make.

It is important to be able to both identify ad hominem in other’s points as well as your own. The first is in order to point out what is a cheap or ignorant tactic in a debate. The second is purely a matter of good conduct! You must remember that you never have to resort to ad hominem. Indeed if you do, you are showing that you do not trust your own arguments. As Allah says: ‘and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious’[1], not only does ridding your argument of such fallacies make them more sound, it will be an act of good adhab (manners) and an emulation of Prophetic character.

The second is related to the first, in that it is about irrelevant points of discussion. It is called the non sequitur fallacy. The literal meaning of non sequitur is ‘it does not follow’ and is similar to ad hominem (Latin for ‘to the man’) in that it is both easy to make and quite common, despite being easy to spot. A non sequitur fallacy is when there is a disconnection between two parts of someone’s argument. It can also refer to a point made against another argument that has nothing to do with it.

An example of the latter type of mistake would be me pointing out that ‘I think that Mushroom is disgusting, because it is a fungus and has a horrible slimy texture when cooked’. To which the person committing the fallacy would reply with ‘but mushrooms are a good source of protein’. While the point the person is making may be true, it does not relate to my assertion. It is thus a non sequitur.

An example of the former would be someone saying ‘you are critical of people un-critically accepting narratives, post-structuralists reject absolute truth narratives, and therefore you are a post-structuralist’. The first statement is true, the second statement is true, but the third is not necessarily true, it does not automatically follow.

This type of fallacy is surprisingly common, especially in political debates. They are however easy to avoid, simply by making sure that there is a link between each premise and its conclusion. Avoiding such fallacies is again a matter of good adhab, as non sequiturs are a type of falsehood. When one thing has nothing to do with another thing, but is presented as though it is, one is lying. The non  sequitur is thus often used by people deliberately to distract from the unsupportable nature of their own arguments. ‘Look at how bad it is for the Palestinians, things are worse there than here, so why ask for reform?’ sound familiar?

I pray you are all in the best of health and iman.

Til next time!

Walaykum Salaam Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu.

[1] Surah An-Nahl , Yusuf Ali translation.


Ragged Human Edges

In General Discussion,Specific Discussion on March 1, 2012 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu,


I hope this finds you all in the best of health and iman. I would start with an apology for my lack of posts, but since that ends up being what I do every time, I will try and stop it from becoming customary.

Jason Stearns, in his book ‘Dancing in the Glory of Monsters’ about the war in the Congo said the following:

The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands – some historic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but ragged human edges.

That idea, of ragged human edges, is what I wanted to focus on today in talking about the relationship (yet again) of scepticism and politics.

While scepticism defines no particular political ideology, it is an essential tool for anyone who involves themselves in politics, and exists as often a counterpoint to ideology. Ideology is, at the end of the day, about narratives. An informed scepticism is a check to those narratives, a balance for the tendency of ideology to encourage self-deception.

I began to think about this in relation to the book that the quote is from. Stearns discussed how the balance of media coverage, of Africa anyway, was strangely skewed towards conflicts with easily grasped narratives. The Congo, a conflict that has accounted for at least 3 million lives, thousands of rapes and war crimes that makes one numb with horror, received a tiny percentage of the coverage of things like the civil war in Libya or the conflict in Darfur.

This, he argues, is because for those conflicts one can draw out easily recognisable ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. There are the heroic rebels, the genocidal Islamists, the comical dictators and the simple story of a rebellion, or genocide or whatever.

What his point shows is the level to which human beings generally balk from nuance. The conflict in the Congo is not covered because of a conspiratorial menace, but rather because people shy away from things that require a complex understanding; conflicts where the line between perpetrator and victim are constantly shifting, or don’t exist at all.

The reality is that that nuance is the norm, not the exception. Life and politics in general, rather than being about goodies and baddies, is precisely about the ragged human edges. No conflict conforms perfectly to an ideological narrative because such narratives usually stem from self-interest, and such interests usually lead to self delusion.

I have been engaging in discussion relating to Syria of late, and found that the above trend is very much present. One finds two extreme positions, one that wholeheartedly endorses the rebellion, endorses Western intervention and anything else to get rid of Assad. The other swallows the Baathist party line, where the people in Homs are massacring themselves to get sympathy and Assad is the great defender of the Palestinians and without the Baathists the entire Middle East will be conquered by Israel.

I am not on the ground in Homs or Damascus, so what I know of the conflict is always going to be viewed through the lens of a range of biased sources. However what we should instinctively do is question such clear, black and white narratives of the conflict. We must ask ourselves to what extent all the assumptions of either side are required.

Does one have to support intervention to support the Syrian people? Does one have to support Assad to oppose it? Does a fear for what will happen after Assad automatically have to equate to a support of his regime?

Of course interests abound that muddy the waters. Ideology plays a huge role here. Western Leftists naturally like the idea of a socialist hero, standing without support against American imperialism. The idea of a kafir Alawi government oppressing a Sunni majority with the backing of Iran appeals to Sunni /Arab narratives of the Iranian menace. Enthusiastic Westerners love the idea of a popular uprising against a dictator and the Shia can readily view an attack on pseudo-Shia Assad as reinforcing a persecution complex.

When a narrative appeals to you, that is the point at which you must be wary, for we rarely accept unappealing falsehoods, it is those that appeal that slip through the cracks in our incredulity.

This is not a world of easy, pleasant narratives, it is a world of ragged human edges.

I pray that we are all given the sagacity to see truth clear from falsehood, to seek nuance and intellectual conviction.

Keep well til next time!

Walaykum Salaam Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu.