The Meaning behind Ad Hominem….
People can argue about everything. They debate politics and try to find solutions. They talk about TV shows they love or music they hate. Discussion can be fun and an opportunity to learn. Healthy debate challenges our assumptions. A good argument will change your mind. Even if you don’t change your mind, explaining why you feel the way you do is a good mental exercise.
Good arguments can be hard to come by. They can be really hard to find on the internet. Many people rely on personal attacks as a way to win an argument. It’s not an argument that persuades, though; it’s calling the opponent names and thinking that counts as debate. The personal attack instead of a real argument is how we define ad hominem. It doesn’t actually win the argument, just makes it based on who can sling the most mud or make the most accusations.
Ad hominem attacks
In Latin, ad hominem means against man. An ad hominem argument is more like trying to persuade someone by calling your opponent or someone your opponent is referring to a jerk with an ugly face. Someone is arguing by being against the man, or the person making the counter argument. Opinions and ideas should stand on their own, no matter who makes them.
Ad hominem is a term a lot of us might have first heard hanging out with the debate club. Maybe it’s something you first studied in philosophy class. In philosophy classes it might be referred to as an argumentum ad hominem fallacy.
Lawyers need to learn all the modes of debate to be effective so they also study things like ad hominem attacks. Many examples of ad hominem attacks can be drawn from the courtroom. When a lawyer says a witness to a mugging can’t be trusted because they once lied to get out of a parking ticket, it’s an ad hominem attack. Lawyers use it because it works. We don’t always decide things through logic.
Personal Attacks Not Logical Arguments
Wherever we first heard the term, we’re all familiar with what it is since we were young. We’ve all had immature fights where we attacked the other person for saying something we felt was wrong. We didn’t have a good way to argue it was wrong so instead we called the other person names. Maybe we implied the other person couldn’t possibly know what they said they knew. We made a bad argument.
Remember when you were very young and a teacher said it was important to wash your hands but you just didn’t want to? Did you argue that it was a waste of time or did you just call the teacher a name and say that’s why you wouldn’t do it? We grow up and our way of arguing should. Ad hominem attacks are some of our first ideas of what an argument or debate is.
Still, it can be convincing. It’s nice to think that bad people can’t make good arguments or have good ideas. So only good people who never do anything wrong should be listened to or respected. It’s an also easy to make an ad hominem attack. People can’t possibly believe a word that jerk says! He’s a jerk! Relying on calling someone a jerk is the basic ad hominem definition.
Why Personal Attacks Work
Some ad hominem attacks are easy to see through. It’s an obvious case of calling someone a jerk and that’s why they’re wrong. Sometimes, it’s harder to see through the attack. After all, lying to get out of a ticket is a lie and maybe someone would lie once and then lie again about what they saw.
Ad hominem attacks come in three flavors. Personal ad hominem attacks are calling someone a jerk and a liar. Circumstantial ad hominem attacks are saying because a person has an interest in something being true, they can’t argue it’s true. A circumstantial ad hominem example is saying a chaplain has to say they believe in God or they wouldn’t have a job. Therefore a chaplain can’t be believed when they speak about God. Another kind of ad hominem attack is saying someone has a hidden agenda and therefore can’t be trusted when they argue for or against something.
These ad hominem examples might not sound so wrong. Some people do have hidden agendas. Some people do lie. Ad hominems aren’t about pointing out hypocrisy or lies. Ad hominem is ignoring or denying arguments because of the person making them. We have trouble seeing which is ad hominem and which is exposing hypocrisy or a bad actor. Our own personal biases can make us want to believe an ad hominem attack when we disagree with the person being attacked. Some people find conspiracies and hidden agendas comforting to believe in because a conspiracy or people targeting them makes more sense in a way than random bad luck or their own failures. Circumstantial ad hominem and what’s called poisoning the well can play to our prejudices. They can confirm our unconscious racism or sexism.
Examples of Ad Hominem Attacks
A great place to find ad hominems is on the internet. Someone will post that they really love a particular TV show despite what critics say about it. They’d love to get comments from other people who love the show or even people who just want to talk about the show. One person replies writing that they’ve read other posts from this person, and the first person is basically a loser who does nothing but watch TV and has no taste. It’s an ad hominem because they’re saying nothing about the TV show; they’re attacking the TV fan. Is it just being mean or do they not like the show? The reader can’t tell because there’s no argument there.
The next person who replies to the post comments that the TV show fan has the same job as the lead character of the show, so of course they love it. Another ad hominem because it’s not about the TV show, it’s about the person and the circumstances of the person who liked it. Does that mean only people who don’t have the same job as the lead character get to have an opinion about the TV show?
The third reply is from someone who writes that the fan is clearly a plant from the TV show’s marketing people. No one really like the TV show, so this person has to be personally biased to enjoy it. You guessed it; it’s an ad hominem attack.
It’s hard to respond to ad hominem attacks. Look at the example above. Is the TV fan supposed to reply to a comment saying no, no, they’re not some loser who only watches TV? It will sound defensive and won’t contribute to a discussion about the TV show. They can’t have a discussion with the second person either apparently until they quit their job. It’s not even the discussion the first poster wants to have.
There’s no way to write that the TV fan isn’t a plant with a hidden agenda, after all it’s the first thing a plant would say! None of the first three comments lead to a discussion. It’s all different forms of name calling. The best the TV fan do is ignore the comments or reply asking if they have anything to say about the show. The TV fan isn’t likely to receive much of a reply.
Understanding Ad Hominem Attacks
Look at the comments on any post about politics or crime or possibly even a bake sale and you’ll find ad hominem attacks. Ad hominem attacks are meant to damage the side being argued. The idea is to take down the speaker instead of having a real dialogue.
This is especially true of the third type of ad hominem attack, called poisoning the well. The name comes from old medieval European stories that spread about Jews causing the Black Plague by poisoning the wells. It was an untrue story, of course. Accusing someone of having a hidden agenda, or being part of a conspiracy poisons the well of discussion. It’s too hard to prove it isn’t true and any audience will be more focused using their imagination on a conspiracy to hear the words being said. Generally, when people are said to be poisoning the well, it happens before the argument. The well is poisoned like the speaker will be disbelieved in advance.
An insult isn’t an ad hominem attack. It’s the insult designed to derail the argument. Ad hominem attacks just serve to end debate or make it worthless.