Ad Hominem (To The Man)

By Zach Scott

Last night I turned on the news. As usual, Donald Trump’s face covered the screen.  He smiled on Fox News, he frowned on CNN, and he looked ridiculous on MSNBC. Each station commented  on his latest policy shift, most against, a few for. Then they brought in someone with a different opinion and proceeded to mock them.  ‘What a fool,’ the reporter laughed.  ‘How could they think that?’ He judged, ‘Unbelievable.’  The news anchors pecked at the people they brought on like crows to a corpse. I changed the channel.  It wasn’t their presentation of the news that bothered me, it was how they reacted to the people. They treated intelligent adults as ignorant children.  In school that day, I heard opinions from every point on the spectrum: for, against, and indifferent, but it didn’t stop with the opinions, each person, regardless of their stance attacked those they disagreed with.  I listened to Republicans dubbed racist, Democrats called stupid, and independents named cowards. In English class the next day, I learned the name of this — Ad Hominem. It is a logical fallacy, which left me wondering why everyone used it.

Ad Hominem derives from Latin meaning, “To the man” (Dictionary.com) and is the action of attacking a person rather than their argument.  A logical fallacy like this, “undermines the logic of your argument” (Purdue University), yet they appear more and more often in today’s society.  Think back to your last political argument over policy. I guarantee that, at some point, the argument descended from a simple difference of ideas to a personal battle.  We’ve all sat around the table for Thanksgiving with the entire family. Inevitably, your uncle brings up politics and mayhem ensues. Your mother heckles him for his last election choice and he calls her out of touch.  It gets awkward as your grandpa gripes about the good old days. The insults shoot back and forth until someone angrily excuses themself from the table. A lingering resentment forms between the different groups, like Montagues and Capulets.  Us vs. them. Ad hominem.

An anonymous person once said, “Discussions are always better than argument, because arguments determine who is right and discussions determine what is right” (Anonymous).  Recently, politics seem especially touchy because the conversations divert too quickly from the topic— policy—and into personal vendettas.  This presidency especially, debates devolve from a discussion to an argument, as if stating how weak an opponent is will somehow make your point more valid.  This mentality leads to a polarized atmosphere that seems more like a battleground than a debate, erupting into open combat or watching uneasily from the periphery.  This has to change. Ad hominem attacks are like a granola bar heavy on chocolate. It may seem healthy, but it’s not. The same is true of an ad hominem attack. It may seem like you’re advancing your argument, but you are not.

Ad hominem attacks are like a granola bar heavy on chocolate. It may seem healthy, but it’s not.

We live in a system that not just allows, but encourages dissenting opinions.  No one side has a monopoly on good - or bad - ideas. Problems have many solutions depending on your priorities, this means you must create coherent arguments.  Defend your assumptions and justify your position. Throwing insults makes you like any schoolyard bully. Debate is a hallmark of the American experience, but it also means you must have something to contribute.  So in your next political argument, debate what you came to debate —politics— and keep ‘the (wo)man’ out of it.

1 comment

  1. Lain Iwakura. 23 March, 2018 at 13:23 Reply

    The issue with this is that it can be really hard to draw the line between what is and isn’t just blatantly hateful. First of all, the thing with arguing politics is that everyone always thinks that they are right and that the other side is wrong, which therefore means that each side thinks that what the other side is arguing in favor of would bring more suffering than good into the world. From that perspective, anyone that disagrees with you is actively trying to spread evil, which from an unbiased perspective obviously isn’t the case, but given that it’s human nature to distrust and dislike things that you don’t identify with or understand, this defense can twist any argument from an opposing party to sound like ad hominem. Secondly, arguments that we often shrug off as blatant racism (neo-nazis, for instance) can potentially be hidden behind clever usage of language to make them seem like they aren’t as bad as they actually are. It’s still hate speech, but because of the way it’s framed, you can’t really call it out as ad hominem (see a YouTube video called Debating the Alt Right by ContraPoints).

    There are some cases where ad hominem is obviously being used in place of an actual argument, but I feel like bringing awareness to it makes it way to easy to use as a scapegoat.

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