The Editors’ Guide to Bad Liberal Arguments

Here at the Tory, we seek to offer you, our readers, education in conservative ideals, practices, and principles. As part of this education, we aim to provide thoughtful commentary on some of the major issues conservatives often find themselves debating over on campus, in order to help you make meaningful contributions the next time marriage and the family, the economy, or the disaster that is Obamacare come up in conversation. But as we all know, equally important to providing your own points in any debate is trashing your opponents’. We fear we haven’t done enough to aid you in this area, so with restitution in mind, we here present the Editors’ Guide to Bad Liberal Arguments. These are some of the rhetorical strategies and techniques that, as we have found through our own experience, your liberal friends are likely to employ next time you wade into a debate with them. Here’s why you shouldn’t give them the time of day:

The Arbitrary Handrail Fallacy:

You may be taken aback the first time you are faced with this embarrassment-to-rhetoric, simply because it is typically trotted out with such oblique confidence and naïveté. The Arbitrary Handrail Fallacy, as we have dubbed it, consists in denying the validity of any argument simply because it is centered upon the reductio ad absurdum. Odds are, you will face this challenge when you are debating marriage, and point out, in your horribly homophobic way, that, if marriage is redefined as an emotional union rather than a conjugal one, there doesn’t seem to be any principled reason for, say, denying marriage to polygamous groupings as well as gay couples. The challenge will be quick: “Oh please, that’s just a slippery slope,” they’ll say, as if labeling the rhetoric invalidates it. Of course, the reduction to the absurd is a completely legitimate mode of argument. Every position is founded on certain principles or assumptions, and this form of rhetoric takes aim at faulty foundations by illustrating that, when carried to their logical ends, your friend’s principles lead to positions or beliefs that cannot be held by any rational person, and thus must be discarded. But your opponents will often think instead that, in employing the reduction to the absurd, you are accusing them of actually holding the absurd beliefs at which their assumptions must arrive, or that you are attempting to guarantee some extremist vision of the future which even their most unbridled progressive thinking has failed to foresee. They should realize this is not what you’re doing, however. You aren’t accusing them of supporting polyamory or guaranteeing that, if gay marriage is legalized everywhere, polyamory will follow; rather you are simply attacking their original assumption about the nature of marriage by pointing out where it logically leads.

But of course the ultimate irony of denying the validity of the reduction to the absurd is that, often, when society acts on the kinds of faulty assumptions the reduction tries to attack, these assumptions’ unseemly ends often actually are fulfilled in the end. Witness our example of polyamory, which has gained undreamed-of popular support during the past few years’ fight to redefine marriage, and which is even being sued for in federal courts as you read this article. This is why we dub the objection to the reduction to the absurd the “Arbitrary Handrail Principle.” Liberals, when they embrace faulty assumptions and condemn you for pointing out where these assumptions must lead, place their trust in an arbitrary handrail, a breaking point of sorts, past which they are sure society will never go, which they imagine exists just over the edge of the ravine into which they are about to plunge. But every liberal sees this handrail at a different point along the slope, only to find, as society crashes by it, that it was never really there.

The Appeal to the Social Construct:

Another argument you will likely encounter when debating your liberal friends is the appeal to the social construct. Though this trick may blindside you during virtually any discussion, liberals most enjoy bringing it to bear when talking gender. Even here, the specific context varies greatly, as the theory may be applied to the question of whether there are any real differences between the genders, whether different genders ought to occupy different roles within society, whether “gender” even exists, or whether the whole notion was invented by dead white men to secure their place at the top of the social hierarchy, etc. But whatever the specific context, you may be assured that your friends will commit the same offense when invoking the social construct; namely, while the topic-at-hand may in fact be a theory about how society is formed and relates to itself (i.e. a social construct), in spite of the fact that many social constructs may actually be quite positive things, your friend will always use the term in a manner suggesting that, simply because something might be a social construct, it is a prison built by the oppressive past and must be destroyed. The belief that it is possible for a woman to live a fruitful life as a homemaker, for example, he will label a social construct, expecting this to be enough to prove its malice—never mind that a social construct would put women in the workplace, as well. As with the slippery slope, your liberal friends will think that, simply by throwing out the term “social construct,” they magically end the argument—don’t let them get away with this.

The other major problem with arguing within the framework of the social construct, is that it tends to be all-devouring. Conservatives value ancient institutions like the family and the church for their abilities to form children’s characters and pass wisdom from generation to generation, and seek to sustain them. Liberals see these institutions as hives in which prejudices and injustices are bred and inculcated, and seek to tear them down. Social construct theory is an easy means by which they may accomplish this, because an institution which is merely constructed artificially loses much of its legitimacy and may be modified or discarded at will. Thus fundamental institutions, and especially hierarchical ones, like the nuclear family, which philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle saw as both naturally formed and beneficial to their participants, and common-sense principles like those which teach that men and women have different strengths and abilities to offer to society, are labeled “constructs” and assumed illegitimate as such. So next time your liberal friends attack ancient norms or institutions as social constructs and sit back expecting to be applauded like victorious Roman generals, strike back by attacking their assumptions that this theory governs all human interactions, and that this necessarily makes our customary interactions suspect things.

The Laundry List of Human Rights

Conservatives should also beware of the liberal appeal to an ever-growing laundry list of human rights. We could list some of the rights typically included—such as the right to Social Security, the right to healthcare, the right to a college education, or at least the opportunity for one, the right to marriage, the right to have children, and the right to paid vacations—but the fundamental point here is that new territories are constantly being claimed by human rights every day as people come up with new ideas about what it would be nice for all human beings to have.

Of course, we do not necessarily say that those “rights” we just listed are bad things, or that our society should not make an effort to guarantee at least some of them to all its members. But simply because society values something does not make it a human right, and our practice of labeling everything we see as important to us in these terms often does more to confuse than clarify our debates about how extensive such “rights” actually are and to whom they should apply. We see this, for instance, in the abortion debates, in which, because we have labeled something we prize, personal autonomy, a fundamental right, conservatives, who believe a human being’s right to life more important, and liberals, who believe a human being’s right to autonomy more important, are left endlessly debating in circles around each other with no resolution in sight. Debate is not the only thing that suffers, however, when we become careless in how we label our rights. When we label an individual’s desire to raise children a right, for instance, we change the status of a child from a gift for whom parents exist to nurture and care to a commodity who exists to fulfill his parents needs and desires.

Human rights are unassailable things, which is why liberals love justifying the next progressive social experiment as simply fulfilling some newly discovered right. So next time your friend accuses you of heartlessly denying something so fundamental as a right, be sure he is not actually talking about a privilege we would like to be able to afford everyone but realistically cannot, such as a college education, or a fundamental human institution in which not everyone can partake, such as matrimony or parenthood, or a concept meaningless in itself which he may use to justify nearly any objectionable behavior, such as privacy. And if he is, roast him.

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2 thoughts on “The Editors’ Guide to Bad Liberal Arguments

  • April 6, 2014 at 12:47 am

    Conservative? Liberal? I dislike these labels, as they usually elicit a package of extremist dogmas that most people despise, create a false sense of unsolvable division and hide the fact that we all have far more beliefs in common than the few at the fringes where we might disagree. Having said that, I actually like this article. A shame that such good thinking had to be framed in this non-sensical, growingly strident and deteriorating tug of war between “conservatives” and “liberals”. Ideological thinking is not black or white, but an endless array of shades of gray. You, as part of the new intellectual elite in our country, should, more than anybody, remain above this non-sense and contribute with fresh thinking to overcome, and not perpetuate, this madness.

  • May 18, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    No doubt there are people who misuse various argument strategies. But this article then misapplies this bad argument to specific, hot-button issues in illegitimate ways that are either themselves illogical or ways in which no sane liberal intends. For example: yes, it is consistent that if one condones gay marriage one should condone marriage as any permanent emotional and legal bond between consenting adults—including polygamy. Problem is, most of the existing and historical examples of polygamy, and the institutionalization of it in some quarters, are specifically NOT between consenting adults–they are mostly child abuse and pedophilia. Another example: there is a vast difference between saying that, traditionally, an exclusive ideal of “barefoot and pregnant” for women as housewives is a social construction that empowers the males who create it, versus that therefore “it is [not] possible for a woman to live a fruitful life as a homemaker”; to identify a behavior as enforced by a destructive ideology is not to say someone couldn’t reasonably choose that behavior, or a modified, informed version, IF that person had the knowledge of what’s involved to do so and the power to choose otherwise. In sum: no reasonable “liberal” argues what this article accuses them of arguing. The writers of this article are wedded, so to speak, to certain questionable premises: 1) that existing ideologies (such as traditional female roles and traditional marriage) are just fine and have no fundamental imbalances of power and privilege, and that those in them have had complete freedom to understand and make choices about fulfilling those roles; 2) that it follows from any exposure of such ideological imbalances that a critic is denying there could be anything positive, or chosen, or in fact IMPROVED, about these roles. In fact, exposing and criticizing traditional female roles is the first step toward letting people choose better versions of them, if they so desire.


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