The following essay was borne of a few of the frustrations that observing informal and formal debates yield. It will primarily focus upon the misunderstanding of the ad hominem fallacy, with some secondary comments on hypocrisy, critical etiquette and the normative function of debate.
One of the most abused maneuvers in ostensibly critical discussions is that of calling out an ad hominem fallacy. In an alarming number of internet, media and public debates, we see participants reduce and dismiss an opponents argument because it’s an “ad hominem attack”. The existence of an an hominem, we are told, means that the argument has been “lost” by whomever used it.
Despite the ring of sophistication it has, in many cases the term is totally misappropriated and used to merely signify the presence of a personal insult in the discussion, used by those whose cumulative critical skills have be gained from little beyond an indulgence in Christopher Hitchens videos.
The logical soundness of an argument is not necessarily negated by the presence of an insult in its rhetorical form, therefore an insult itself is not ad hominem. For example, in the statement “A and B therefore C, and you’re an idiot”, the fact that the subject has been labelled an idiot does not refute the logic of the proposition, as the insult is totally external to the premises and conclusion, therefore it is not an ad hominem fallacy.
An actual ad hominem can take three major forms; abusive, tu quoque and circumstantial. Abusive ad hominems will attempt to refute an opponent’s argument by dismissing the soundness of their logic citing negative character traits – it will take a form similar to “it does not follow from A and B that C because you’re an idiot”.
An ad hominem tu quoque will attempt to dismiss an opponents position by juxtaposing a position they have taken with actions seemingly inconsistent with this; the subject’s personal hypocrisy supposedly entails a logical negation of their position. This is fallacious because it doesn’t actually deal with the logical basis of a claim; if Genghis Khan makes an impassioned argument in opposition to ethnic genocide, the fact that he is a génocidaire does not mean that opposing genocidal behaviour is logically invalid, merely that his actions are inconsistent with his principles.
The tu quoque formulation is a degree more sophisticated than an abusive ad hominem, as the former tenuously links positions and actions, whereas the latter is arbitrary. However, it is still egregiously illogical and lazy, some notable examples of it are made by those who dismiss the anti-capitalist positions of Noam Chomsky or Russell Brand owing to their personal wealth and success. It is incredibly easy to uncover a level of hypocrisy in an individual’s actions, given the facts of human fallibility and structural injustice it is impossible to avoid peripheral complicity in some endeavour one considers to be unjust. This fact actually informs public activity in nominally democratic societies; the acts of lobbying a politician or signing a petition contain an implicit acknowledgement that legislative bodies are publicly accountable, therefore that individual agents hold some stake in damaging or anti-social policy. It’s easy to overstate political representation of the public, but this is just one way of illustrating how people are compelled to take positions that entail inconsistency yet accrue social benefit. Hypocrisy is therefore not a sufficient barometer by which to discern either logical soundness or character flaws.
A third form of the ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hom, is not necessarily fallacious, as it merely brings into question the role (social, political or otherwise) of the subject making a particular claim. It does not attempt from this to refute the internal logic of the subject’s claim, but is skeptical of its truth value. This form of ad hominem is actually beneficial to critical inquiry; we have ample reason, for example, to be skeptical of the workings of a scientist who is sponsored primarily by Halliburton which deny the fact of anthropogenic global warming. A fuller public understanding of climate chaos stands to be massively injurious to Halliburton, who therefore have vested interest in clouding perception of the issue, so we should not take as granted the results of climate studies which are sponsored by them. We see here that an ad hominem form is not necessarily fallacious, as numerous circumstances can clearly oblige an individual to make false proclamations – if charged with a nefarious crime, we cannot simply take the word of the accused at face value, but it does not follow from this that we are to dismiss their word out of hand, only that we must scrutinise their claims with a little more pep than we would otherwise do.
Asserting one’s own victory in an argument because the other party called names betrays at best a hesitance to engage properly with ideas and at worst an ignorance of what constitutes critical discussion. While it is normally a good idea to refrain from verbal abuse in debate type situations, there are a number of reasons that might inspire someone to communicate extralogically within an otherwise rational framework. It’s worth considering the reasons that cause recourse to personal attacks, including the possibility that you might just be acting like a provocative little shit, a disposition which is entirely consistent with shouting “ad hominem” and declaring yourself victor in the comments section of Youtube.
Debate should ideally transcend petty competition, as the form strives towards a conclusion whereby one or both parties are able to reach more informed positions on a topic owing to reason and evidence. Fulfilling critical discussion needs to be underpinned by the prerequisite modesty of rationality – sadly this is lacking in a world that obliges individualised and competitive urges to the point of farce. Its no surprise that organised debates are all too often glossed in a superficial PR sheen; a spectacle of egos clashing amidst platitudinous soundbite and theatrical putdowns. Parliamentary and presidential debates reveal the established disdain for democratic values in their constant reduction to such impotent methods of inquiry.
The world around us is structured so as to stifle the critical faculties of people at every stage of development, therefore it is heartening when critical language is appropriated by a younger generation who at least appear to desire engagement, it’s simply a shame that it’s too often used as a means to the end of egoistic nourishment.
– Harry Burgess