Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Personification technique

The fallacious reasoning strategy that I like to define as the personification technique is incredibly common generalisation fallacy. Once you've read this article you'll begin to notice how often it is wheeled out, not just by right-wingers, but by advocates of all kinds of other ideologies too. I have already addressed this fallacy once in this series (almost a year ago to the day in fact), when I cited a specific example of the personification technique used by a barkingly right-wing Ayn Rand acolyte called Gary Hull. In that instance I referred to it as the "sentient concept" fallacy because he stated that the abstract concept of egalitarianism has the capacity for hate.

The personification technique is generally used to deride a particularly unfavoured ideology or group of individuals (Islam, Socialism, The Left, Muslims, Religion, Liberals, Jews,  Germans ... ), by tarring the whole concept or group with personality attributes shared by only some (or none) of it's adherents or members. That the personification technique is such a commonly used, and rarely commented upon debating technique illustrates the fact that there must be a great deal of tolerance for abject generalisations and talking in absolutes amongst the general public.

I'd like to imagine that most people would accept the idea that generalisations are "wrong", if asked their opinion directly. However, many people seem to be unable to spot the fact that the personification of an entire concept is not just a form of generalisation, it's the reduction of a complex and nuanced concept down to an absolute, arbitrary and philosophically incoherent definition.


At some point in your life you must have seen some right-wing reactionary spouting off in generalised terms about "the left". You must have heard a right-winger claim that "the left" wants to control people, that it hates free enterprise, or that it is jealous of successful people. These human personality traits simply cannot be ascribed to a loosely defined collective of assorted people, or to political ideologies such as socialism, left-libertarianism, social democracy or communism. It doesn't matter if you consider a particular trait to be held by even the vast majority of people that believe in a particular concept, it is just nonsense to label the entire concept with the personality trait you ascribe to it's followers.

Take this observation from the polemical right wing blowhard Rush Limbough: "I didn't know that the left had such jealousy of the Tea Party", which he made in an argument that the Occupy movement is somehow contrived and the Koch brothers bankrolled Tea Party movement is organic and natural!

You don't have to be trained in philosophy to work out that ascribing the personal emotion of jealously to a nebulously defined concept like "the left" is abject gibberish. That didn't stop the right-wing reactionary brigade from lapping it up and chipping in with their own contributions though. The levels of ignorance and cognitive illiteracy on display in this thread about Limbough's "jealousy" personification of "the left" are really something to marvel at. Here are a few more examples of the personification technique from just that one thread:

  • "What the Left fears is that the Tea Party will mike them irrelevant in 2012"
  • "Tea Party members are educated, have a clear purpose and realistic ideas to better our country. The Left simply has the opposite characteristics."
  • "The Left are ideologies [sic] where everything is based on theory."
  • "Being jealous of what others have is what makes the left"
  • "So their [sic] jealous of me. WOW that’s a kicker! I know they hate my pickim up especially when I blow past em in their little fart cars. Yee haw!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
OK, so the last one isn't actually an example of the personification technique, it's just a wild semi-literate generalisation, but it's worth including for context I'm sure you'll agree.

The fact that these people are only capable of talking in such absolute terms about a generalised "enemy ideology" shows how closed their own ideology is. These poor individuals seem to have been programmed by a diet of Fox News and right-wing talk radio shows to think in these absurdly generalistic terms. They don't give the faintest damn about what socialism or Occupy are actually all about, because they've got a set of simple character traits that they can apply to anyone that does anything they deem even vaguely "left". Why would these people want to cloud the water with stuff like "theory" (that they clearly hold in contempt - judging by the number of recommends given to the anti-theory comment) when they can just idly label vast swathes of the population with generalised characteristics in order to maintain the illusion that they have a perfect understanding of American politics?

Another fine example of the personification technique in action is the work of the (Richard Dawkins approved) far-right Islamophobic ranter Pat Condell, who repeatedly refers to Islam and Muslims as if they are a single indivisible entity. In just one of the Condell videos uploaded to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for "Reason" and Science website, he uses the technique repeatedly. He claims that the entire concept of Islam "makes no secret of its desire to exterminate the Jews" and claims that Islam "rejects" and "despises" America. 

Ascribing personality traits to the entire concept of Islam is a shamefully weak debating strategy. Damning a whole religion with personality traits that are shared only by a minority of its followers is a crap debating strategy, and anyone that is attuned to spotting philosophical bollocks should be able to identify it as the gibberish that it is. That Richard Dawkins didn't spot it, or that he allowed confirmation bias to completely over-rule the critical judgement that he is supposedly so famous for, simply because he agreed with the anti-religious slant, illustrates the fact that Dawkins is not the great logical thinker and champion of reason that so many (including himself) make him out to be.

Another example from the extreme right from a hysterical Islamophobic ranter on the Another Angry Voice Facebook page called Daniela.
"Enjoy Sharia Law you completely deluded idiots ... And whilst we are on the subject, how come there are NONE of you screaming at the tops of your lungs protesting female genital mutilation, which this barbaric ideology demands? I note none of the left like to protest that too much. Oh no that's right I forgot, you are all way to busy supporting this ideology and demanding they be treated equally."
That Daniela makes broad, sweeping generalisations is bad enough, but that she openly concludes that some people should not be treated equally (based on nothing more than their religious heritage) and furthermore, that it is some kind of degeneracy to even dare to argue that they should be treated with equal rights, marks her out as a fascist.

Does Daniela offer any evidence to back her assertion that "none of the left" ever complain about FGM?

Of course she doesn't, she's a hysterical ranter for whom the idea of substantiation is a totally alien concept. There are countless examples of "lefties" (especially the feminist left) who oppose FGM. I certainly classify as "left" in her warped worldview simply because I would never agree with her fascist view that people some should be discriminated against because of their religious heritage, and I have regularly expressed my opposition to every form of child genital mutilation. That wouldn't matter to Daniela though, she's got her closed worldview that the concept of Islam has evil intentions and that "the left" behave as a hive mind of identical Islam supporters and FGM apologists. No amount of evidence to the contrary is going to convince her otherwise, because she "knows" these personality attributes to be true, so anyone arguing otherwise must be dismissed as a Islam loving leftie liar.

Of course it is equally possible for the left-wing thinker to fall into the same trap and start thinking of "enemy ideologies" as having personality traits. However in my experience (anecdotal evidence I know - but I do read through thousands of comments on my page every week) by far the most common users of the personification technique are angry, borderline coherent right-wing reactionaries.

Anyhow, having read this article, you've now got absolutely no excuse for using the feeble personification technique in debate yourself, no matter what your political or theological ideology.


The personification technique is a propaganda strategy used by people that either don't understand the meaning of the language they are using, or that simply don't give a damn. Either they are so locked into their closed worldview that they can't grasp the fact that personality traits can't be applied to concepts, or they do understand it, but hope that the victims of the propaganda they are spouting against their "enemy ideology" are so cognitively illiterate and riddled with confirmation bias that they won't even register the philosophical incoherence.

Next time you see an example of someone wheeling out the old personification technique ("the left despises this", "Islam hates that", "The Jews want whatever") you should note that the user of this strategy is spewing philosophically illiterate rubbish. Vast, nebulous concepts like religions, nationalities and political ideologies are not single, indivisible and sentient. If the person wants to say that some left-wing people, many Germans or a minority of Muslims have a particular characteristic, they should damn well say so, instead of crudely labeling an entire concept with the attributes of only a proportion of it's adherents or members.

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