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Ad hominem rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Ad hominem rant
danel4d requested a rant on what happens to be my favorite peeve in debates.

Ooh. Lots of nice stuff here already... hrm. The tendency of people in 'political' debates to attack the opponent rather than the argument? Like the whole Wah!Misogynist thing that's been popular lately, and the similar Wah!Evil, Wah!Terrorist, etc. HUh. No, I'm not very good at this.

Good G-d, yes. I'm happy to rant about this. Heck, I've been thinking about doing it anyway, ever since I read Intellectual Morons by Daniel Flynn, which--though it had some redeeming qualities--fell into this frankly intellectually moronic trap in chapter after chapter.

So let's get something straight: ad hominem attacks aren't logical fallacies because they're nasty or even because they're untrue. Ad hominem attacks are logical fallacies because they're illogical. And irrelevant. And, in my opinion, they are also very, very dangerous.

I'm just going to go with Intellectual Morons because it's the most recent professional example I have of this, though of course it's an everyday occurrence in common conversation. The book was basically a well-meant rant about the anti-intellectualism involved in academic disciplines which are bent to ideology rather than to a search for truth. This is a good thing to rant about as well, but not the subject of this rant. Each chapter of the book meant to take a popular ideology in academia, go back to its roots, and bust it. Unfortunately, what it turned into was a bash-on-the-gurus fest about half the time. In the chapter on Alfred Kinsey, Flynn correctly points out that Kinsey's results have never been properly duplicated (a necessary step in the process of science, to help guard against particular biases of an individual researcher), but spends the vast majority of the chapter investigating claims about Kinsey's own sex life.

What? Why? Kinsey's own idea of a turn on could be sitting in a giant bowl of tomato soup while boys dressed as goldfish crackers dance around him, and it still wouldn't say anything about his research into people who would just find that odd, if the research were done properly. Flynn starts to get into the issue of Kinsey's sample groups--a legitimate scientific issue--then again gets distracted by personal issues about the guy in question.

And the Kinsey chapter was logically argued compared to, say, the chapter on Ayn Rand and Objectivism, or the one on Margaret Sanger and birth control. With Sanger, he kept going on about her belief in eugenics and so on--which, honestly, is there anyone left who doesn't know that?--and her tendency to be a drama queen milking everything she could for attention, but fails to address the question of how the ideology of free sex (or whatever it is he thinks her ideology is; I was unclear) has interfered with academic education on the subject. With Rand, all he was able to say about Objectivism boiled down to "Are you made of human parts?" The rest of the chapter was devoted to how none of the characters in her novels is interesting, and how there is just no way to describe how crazy she was. Really, honestly. Oh, and the culty behavior of the Objectivists. Fine--so what's wrong with the ideology? In what way does it interfere with the academic search for truth? I don't care how racist Margaret Sanger was or how loony Ayn Rand was--the person who came up with an idea is not equivalent to the idea. Please, examine the latter, as both of the former are dead and gone.

Sadly, though I was disappointed in this, I wasn't surprised, because ad hominem is the order of the day, either negatively or positively. "Vote for my guy, because he's a really nice family man!" "Vote against the other guy because he was a wild frat boy in college!" People who have some beef with civil rights point out, like it's some kind of trump card, that Martin Luther King had an extramarital affair (or something), and people who aren't wild about American pride can't get enough of pointing out that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves.

And of course, there's the ever-popular method of internet argumentation that wound us up with our own communal logic formulation, aka, Godwin's Law: whoever compares someone to a Nazi first loses. I love Godwin's Law (which I believe now has a bin Laden amendment), because it strikes me as a good parry against the ad hominem culture which is so prevalent out there, but of course, hardly anyone pays attention to it.

Really, though, so what? What difference does it make?

A lot. It's lazy, for one thing, but far more importantly, it completely takes the focus off of the ideas that are presumably being discussed (and, contrarian that I am, generally makes me think that the person doing the arguing doesn't have much of an argument to make). An evil person is not necessarily wrong about everything, nor is a good person right about everything. A person may be a complete hypocrite, but private failure to live up to public ideals doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the ideals, any more than the fact that Hitler supposedly loved his dog makes genocide a valid ethical choice.

Nor is genocide wrong because Hitler was evil. Genocide is wrong because it's, you know, genocide. If it were somehow being committed under the regime of an otherwise good person (though in this example, I'm not sure how it could be so; it's one of those ideas that is in itself enough to take a person out of the "good" category; maybe if it were an accident or other people got out of her control or something), it would still be wrong, because some things are true no matter what the circumstances. This is the really dangerous part of the ad hominem culture, because when ideas are judged as worthy or unworthy depending on who holds them, the culture is set up for despotism, just because of the logic involved in it. If what matters is the person more than the idea, then you have the rule of man rather than the rule of law--the cult of personality.

To give a theoretical example, let's say that for some reason, everyone thinks Mary Jo is the cat's pajamas. She runs for office and wins, and she makes a lot of headway doing good stuff that she's wanted to do. And it works brilliantly. Then one day, she gets into a fight with an unpleasant guy who nobody likes, who believes that her scheme to, I don't know, ban cars from downtown or something, is a bad idea. Here's beloved Mary Jo, and she gets miffed and says, "All of these anti-car-ban people are in the way of improving the city! Banish them all, and if they don't go, kill them." By the logic of ad hominem, since Mary Jo, who is a good person and has been a successful leader, has said this, then "There's probably a good reason for it" or "Really, she does need to control this problem, or she'll never get anything done."

By actual logic and morality, someone has to say, "Hey, MJ--are you off your gourd? I know you didn't say that, because... hello?" Or, if no one close to her says this, the responsibility of the people is to say, "No frickin' way. I'm sure glad she got the schools fixed, but there's still such a thing as right and wrong." But because we tend to get trapped in ad hominem thinking, this happens a whole lot less often than it should.

Now, of course most cases aren't going to be that clear cut. Unless you're in organized crime or a murderous political regime, chances are, you're not going to be asked by a cult-of-personality leader to murder the opposition, which I think most people would recognize as a very serious breaking point. But what about lesser things? "My teacher is a vicious woman who bullies me all the time. And she's the one saying all this stuff about democracy. It must be bull, right?" "Johnny is the sweetest man. He volunteers at homeless shelters and listens to troubled kids when they need someone to talk to. If he says it's pointless to vote because both of the candidates are corporate fat cats who don't care about the little guy, he's probably right..."

And so on.

To summarize, ad hominem is a bad thing. And really, did I need to explain it? I'm smart and I said it, after all... ;)
20 comments or Leave a comment
author_by_night From: author_by_night Date: January 29th, 2005 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Chrysantza, should we have Fern post this in the HZ at ec?)

Ahem - forgive the inside reference; that's a debate forum at a messageboard we go to that often turns a bit vicious.

Anyway - about time someone said that.
marukka From: marukka Date: January 29th, 2005 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's a good rant, though I ponder parts of it...

I can sort of see a merit in ad hominem when it concerns bias. Not having read the book you did I don't know what was up with Kinsey (will have to find out, though, I'd not heard about the possible problems with his research before). But if you take an example where the notion is that a man like Kinsey has a strange sex life and is interested in sex issues, then then investigates other people's sex lives looking into notions of non-mainstream behavior, it's not wholly illogical to suggest that he might have found what he wanted to find. Then questioning the person behind the idea is also questioning the validity of the idea.

Ad hominem concerning hypocrisy, though, makes no sense when debating ideas (and really, is far more common).

Poor Godwin's Law seem to be doomed to be about winning/losing... I like the original wording better, where the law simply suggests that once someone has compared something to the Nazis you can ignore the debate, because it will now only rehash 1) the validity of comparing somthing to nazis or 2) Godwin's Law. That's not good/bad, that's just true.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 29th, 2005 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I think you're right, and I think that was where Flynn intended to go with it--his line of thought seemed to be, "Kinsey had certain predilections which it was in his interest to mainstream, and so he skewed his research in the following ways..."

In fact, Flynn did raise the issue of the sample groups Kinsey used and connected it to his presumed bias--which is why the Kinsey essay is semi-logical compared to the Sanger and Rand essays--but he spent the vast majority of the essay talking about what a bad man he was, which didn't address the issue.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: January 29th, 2005 05:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I sgree with you on the Kinsey thing, but I think you have to prove bias first: once you know that he used dodgy sampling techniques, then his personal sexual kinks add to the argument, but you have to show the bias first.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 29th, 2005 05:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Right--his personal life might provide an explanation of something that's wrong, but it's not prima facie evidence that something's wrong.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: January 29th, 2005 06:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
danel4d From: danel4d Date: January 29th, 2005 11:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
On the other hand, once you've proved that something's wrong, you don't really need to talk about his sexual kinks or whatever. Except for entertainment, I guess. Or if you're trying to prove that not simply is this group wrong, but they're wrong in a systematic way for similar reasons. For neo-Marxists, its alright to go on for evidence of systematic borgeois bias and conspiracy once you've proved that you're opponents are wrong; its not okay to accuse them of being borgeois to defeat their argument. It's the only example I can think of at the moment, sorry.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 30th, 2005 12:20 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it's not so much that it's okay as an argument than just sort of... people like to ask "Why in the world would someone ______?"
marukka From: marukka Date: January 29th, 2005 06:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I see your point. I couldn't quite formulate it to myself, but this is why I used "sort of" and "not wholly illogical". In a debate with arguments met by counterarguments it's easier to say what's a clear fallacy or not as opposed to when you're attempting to look over a situation. If someone who had never studied the methods of Kinsey's research said "hey, he was a bit of a weirdo perv, I think he just tried to justify himself" I'd not consider it proof of anything... but I might well consider it a valid enough thought that I'd look it up to see if there's any merit to it. And I'd say it makes sense as an idea to voice, as opposed to an unrelated character flaw. "Kinsey was a rude man, a buffoon like that could never had done good research" is not an argument to make me wonder if it has a point.

Heh, this was always my objection to strict formal logic outside maths. "A = B, A = C, therefore B = C" so rarely happens, "A is generally equaling B, instances A has been found to correlate with instances of C under certain circumstances, maybe it's worth looking into if there's a relation between B and C", now, that seems valid enough to me... ;)
volandum From: volandum Date: January 29th, 2005 05:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you!
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: January 29th, 2005 06:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
::stands up and applauds:: We need more people who believe this.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: January 29th, 2005 06:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! Now, because you have written such a smart and well written essay, I will believe everything you say. ;)
arinellen From: arinellen Date: January 30th, 2005 12:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
*coughs* Very nice. (However I'm just about to move off on a tanget, feel free not to follow, I'm not at all good with this.)

I would like to add though that:
things are true no matter what the circumstances
is and yet untrue (hahaha, sorry I didn't mean to use 'true'). I just wanted to point out that 'truth' is only acepted as truth if everyone believes it. A 'universal truth' is universal because the majority of people believe it. I believe genocide is wrong (so don't go thinking I'm actutly biased in that respect) and that truth differs from place to place. Human rights for example will change where ever you are. We all think we know 'the truth' but it's all perception.
I realise that has nothing to do with your essay so I apologise (but don't we all want to have our own little say on somthing? *laughs*).
danel4d From: danel4d Date: January 30th, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
We all think we know 'the truth' but it's all perception.
I really can't agree with this - it's sounds to me like relativism, which has many flaws - you seem to be saying that there is no kind of truth independent of human perception. Do you mean to say that the world used to be flat, and only became round when people starting thinking it was, or are you merely talking about moral relativism? Even so, you do seem to be saying that genocide is only wrong around enough people who believe it to be wrong - but how can we then criticise Hitler and the Nazis, since they firmly believed genocide not only to be right but to be their moral duty, to save the human race. If there is no absolute truth independent of what people believe to be so, everything becomes opinion, and we're left with no way to honestly criticise that which is evil.
The thing that really annoys me is that a lot of the people who argue this seem to believe themselves to be liberals, or even think that liberals are too right-wing. They dare to call themselves liberals when they are unable even to categorically declare genocide to be wrong?

Whew. Sorry about that.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: January 31st, 2005 01:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I thought a lot about your comment, but my response got too long. If you're interested, I moved it to my journal.
arinellen From: arinellen Date: January 31st, 2005 07:59 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes. But back then was it not a 'universal truth'? Far from trying to say the world is flat I'm saying that at one time it was a 'universal truth'. Now, I know you're getting pent up and saying "but it wasn't true and so therefore they didn't know the 'truth'", but let me remind you we humans are fallible in so many ways. So any 'truth' we claim to know can be false. Correct? Let me rephrase what I mean't, I apologise. The truth is out there, yet we can never truely say what is 'truth'. We can never know without doubt something is true. I can try and say for a fact that my shirt is brown. In all likelyhood (as we know it) it may very well be brown. However there could be faulty lighting and I could in fact have been lied to about what 'brown' is (bad analogy, I know).
So yes, I agree with you. There is truth outside our perception however we will never grasp that or may never grasp that (being a better word) so we can never know 'truth'.
*nods to self* Sorry I distressed you so. I'm never well equipped to explain myself, but I do enjoy this. It was the sole reason as I have been doing maths for a time. A long time.
I'm just saying that in this case, truth (according to humans), can be what we make it. In things such as the value of a life there is no bar that we can measure against. We can only argue our opinions because we believe them to be that 'universal truth'. I can't explain myself too well. I'm sorry. Morals are created to benefit society. Do you believe that we believe what we believe for any other reason then our parents and society tell us it's the 'correct' way to go about things? They set what's good and bad. Genocide is bad because killing people is bad. That truth I believed would have first come from the idea that you don't kill people in society because society is destroyed. I agree what's good for society is 'good' and I wan't no one to die. However that 'truth' has not come about because some unearthy power set rules in us or because some universal truth weaves fate for us but because it's what keeps society afloat.

Sorry, I may have deviated.
arinellen From: arinellen Date: January 31st, 2005 08:06 am (UTC) (Link)
(I'm Labor (Australian) by the way)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 30th, 2005 07:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I disagree with relativism as a general principle. While there are some things (like the length of a person's hair or whatnot) that are totally relative, some things are wrong simply because they are wrong. They would be wrong even if everyone thought they were perfectly fine. If the majority of people around Auschwitz thought it was all right to gas Jews, it still would have been wrong to do it.

In fact, that's mostly what I meant about the danger of ad hominem culture--when you start thinking, "Well, its okay if so-and-so says it" (which is more or less the same thing as "It's okay if hte majority says it"), you wind up losing an external standard of judgment, and you end up with mass graves.
arinellen From: arinellen Date: January 31st, 2005 08:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Okay, yes. It would have always been bad to gas the Jews. I'm not disagreeing with that. I'm just saying that (well, now I am because I'm trying to make myself more clear) morals and 'right' and 'wrong' are set by what's good for society. Now I feel bad when I hurt someones feelings because I put myself in their shoes and think, well I wouldn't like to feel that way. I only do that because I'm told it's not nice. I'm 'looking out' for society. I'm saying that any 'truth' we have can vary from person to person and in things like a persons worth there is no way to argue it but that it's 'bad for everyone if you just start killing people'.
I'm sorry, I can't explain myself.
From: arclevel Date: January 30th, 2005 08:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree. Never listen to people who make ad hominem attacks; they just can't be trusted.

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