The ad hominem attack
by The Editor
SERIES: South African public discourse is awash with bad logic and poor reasoning. So much so that much of it is not even identified, let alone criticised. Illogical Logic is a series designed to look at the different kinds of crooked thinking out there, to identify and understand each in turn and, hopefully, to help promote better argument. We start with the ad hominem attack, possibly the crudist kind of sophistry.
Argumentum Ad Hominem
The ad hominem attack (a shortened version of the full Latin, argumentum ad hominem, which translates “argument against the man”) is perhaps the most common of all logical fallacies; if not, the crudest.
An attack is described as ad hominem when one attributes to their opponent some negative personal characteristic, the disparaging nature of which detracts from both the topic of debate and the veracity of one’s argument.
Put another way: by saying something derogatory about one’s opponent – and unrelated to the discussion at hand – an ad hominem attack misdirects debate, turning attention away from an argument and towards the character of the person making it.
In turn, an ad hominem attack can be used to seemingly discredit a valid argument by disingenuously associating it with those negative ideas that accompany character assassination.
• Person A makes claim X.
• Person B launches a personal attack – Y – on Person A.
• Person B suggests, because of Y, claim X is false.
That last step is not always enacted. Often it is enough simply to launch an ad hominem attack merely as a distraction, thereby shifting attention. In its crudest form, the last step is also carried out and the suggestion made the argument presented by an opponent fails because that opponent suffers some personal and negative trait.
One can see almost immediately the possible benefit of any ad hominem attack; in particular, the benefit to someone who is advocating a weak argument: The more outrageous – and thus distracting – the ad hominem attack, the less likely their opponent or the audience will be to focus on the superficial and brittle structure on which their actual case is built. Instead, attention will be drawn to the subjective nature of the insult hurled. So it is a helpful and devious defence, often deliberately employed by those unable to conjure up a plausible counter-position, one reliant on evidence or logic.
And it matters not whether the critical personal remark made is ultimately true or false, because its purpose is to detract from the subject at hand. As the old adage has it – ‘explaining is losing’ – and anyone caught in an ad hominem trap, whether able definitively to disprove an insult or not, in so trying is no longer in control of a debate and arguing on their opponent’s terms.
The ad hominem attack is so effective because it goes straight to a person’s self worth and ego which, when under attack, pride often compels one to defend. It takes great discipline to ignore an ad hominem attack and return to the subject at hand because one risks some random and personal assault being left unanswered, as if the point was conceded. And so ad hominem attacks are often met, in turn, by ad hominem retorts, and rational debate quickly disintegrates.
One can see too the public appeal of any ad hominem attack. Personal criticism fuels much of our public debate – certainly it is diet on which the mainstream media has grown fat. It holds within it the possibility of a hostile exchange – if not, then of provoking one – and so inevitably they are given much prominence and presented with much fanfare and drama; all of which is to the detriment of real and meaningful discussion.
Towards the end of last year (1 December 2011), Cosatu’s Western Cape Provincial Secretary Tony Ehrenreich released a media statement titled ‘Western Cape Premier has no clothes on’ and which contained upfront the following paragraph:
“We have reached the halfway mark of the Premier’s term and all she has managed to do is look younger than when she started her term. This is probably not unusual because what you see is not what you get, with this Premier. There has [sic] been a lot of promises and a lot of hot air but nothing has actually happened besides getting the City to collude in a manner where the Premier could dictate the focus.”
The closing paragraph contained the following sentence:
“There has been no vision or inspirational leadership emerging from the First person of the province, communities are losing hope and all the Premier does is wear a better outfit every day, and shining like a lamp pole.”
Both those statements constitute ad hominem attacks, a reference to Helen Zille’s physical appearance rather than her performance and the implication that the two are in some way related. Predictably it would become the story, as opposed to the other criticisms Ehrenreich put forward in the statement. As it so happens, almost without exception, the other nine points raised by Ehrenreich also suffer some form of logical deviousness – subject for a separate exposition – but that is beside the point: they were lost on the media and, in turn, the audience (deliberately perhaps, because they would not hold up to critical examination). The subject became Helen Zille’s physical appearance rather than the nature of the outcomes she had delivered while in office.
For an excellent example of how the media was distracted, see this story, from the Independent Group, on Ehrenreich’s statement.
One can also see the important role the media plays in identifying ad hominem attacks for what they are, excluding them from hard news reporting and focusing on sound argument, if it is to seriously contribute to generating cogent debate. In the example above, the journalist was suckered by Ehrenreich’s ad hominem attack, as too was the sub-editor, who obliged with a suitably dramatic headline.
In his masterful book on how to use logical dishonesty to your advantage, ‘The Art of Always Being Right’, Arthur Schopenhauer writes the following about the ad hominem attack: “…in becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack to his person (ad personam), by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character. It is an appeal from the virtues of the intellect to the virtues of the body, or to mere animalism.”
“A cool demeanour may, however, help you here. As soon as your opponent becomes personal, you quietly reply, ‘That has no bearing on the point in dispute’, and immediately bring the conversation back to it, and continue to show him that he is wrong, without taking any notice of his insults.”
But that is often harder said than done. So those tasked with protecting and promoting good reasoning have a special obligation in this regard.
Other good summations and insights on the ad hominem attack include:
• The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking [Nicholas Capaldi and Miles Smit; 2007]
• Critical Reasoning: A Practical Introduction, 3rd Edition [Anne Thomson; 2009]
• The Art of Always Being Right: The 38 Subtle Ways of Persuasion [Arthur Schopenhauer, A.C. Grayling; 2009]
• Thinking: From A to Z, 2nd Edition [Nigel Warburton; 2000]
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