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What is Fallacious About Ad Hominem Attacks? | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

Meme of a NFL referee holding his hand up with the Caption "We have an Ad Hominem attack. Personal foul, attacked the opponent instead of his argument."
“Logical Fallacy Referee- Ad Hominem” Image via KnowYourMeme.

There have been quite a few responses on The Conversation website to Bill’s article on the 100 year anniversary of the fundamentalist movement. Most of the comments are positive and/or informative. 

But responding to the point that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was developed in the late 19th century, one fundamentalist posted a response in which he labeled Bill’s argument as “deceitful” and “quite a lie,” while also describing Bill’s view of the Bible as “perverted.” He also put scare quotes around “professor“ and “scholarship,” of course suggesting that Bill is neither a professor nor a scholar. And there’s more. And all this in a tidy 44 words!

Then there was Ken Ham’s diatribe against Bill for his blog post that highlights how Ham’s Ark Encounter has not benefitted the little town that did so much to make the building of the Ark possible. Ham also employs scare quotes — “supposedly ‘scholarly’ blog” – to suggest that Bill is not a scholar since his blog post is obviously not scholarly. This suggestion is reinforced by Ham’s statement that “we do hope Prof. Trollinger is providing real academic rigor to the students in his university classes as opposed to what we have exposed here.” 

Ham also asserted that Bill “repeated the misinformation and outright untruths about the Ark’s funding that permeates other atheist blogs.” Ham routinely uses “atheist” as an ad hominem attack, that is, atheists are not worth listening to. Moreover, after lumping Bill (who happens to be Catholic) in the category of “atheist” critics, Ham devoted much of his article attacking arguments that others have made. That is to say, and as Bill made clear in his response to Ham’s screed, Ham did not address much of Bill’s argument.

But Ham’s attack inspired follow-up attacks, including this one that came via email:

You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Surely you were trained better than to mix the too [sic]. Do your homework and check the facts next time. Your bias is blinding and you don’t correct yourself when the truth is obvious. I hope you are not teaching your students to do things this way – how shameful! 

Leaving aside the question as to why fundamentalists seem particularly prone to launch ad hominem attacks, the fact is that we live in a society that, unfortunately, cultivates this practice. With social media, in particular, it is all too easy to launch some hateful attack on the character of another human being whom we have never met and likely will never meet. It’s a cowardly practice that seems to puff up the attacker while diminishing the attacked. 

Even worse, this practice seems to have become normalized. We have come to expect it. If someone is going to be in the public eye at all, so the thinking seems to go, they should expect to get hammered in the most personal way by people who don’t even know them.

Given the normalization of the practice, we want to consider the following questions: What exactly is an ad hominem attack, what about ad hominem attacks makes them fallacious, and why should we care?

An ad hominem attack makes some kind of derogatory statement about someone who has made an argument. The purpose in doing so is to redirect the attention of the audience or reader away from the argument itself and to a concern that is not germane to the argument. 

An example would be something like this: Mr. Richards makes an argument at a city council meeting that the city should expend some of its resources to build a new fire station because the current station is more than 50 years old, is not up to code, and thus poses a danger to the firefighters who spend a lot of time there. Mr. Hill, who is sick and tired of paying taxes to the city, and who finds government more of a burden than a help, rises to say that the council should reject Mr. Richards’ proposal because he is obviously a socialist (given his proposal to spend yet more tax dollars) who has three outstanding parking tickets and is rumored to be cheating on his wife.

What’s important to notice here is that Mr. Hill’s response to Mr. Richards’ proposal does not address the substance of Mr. Richards’ proposal. Instead, it encourages others present at the meeting to reject Mr. Richards’ proposal not because it lacks merit but because, according to Mr. Hill, Mr. Richards is a bad guy. What makes this fallacious is that it seeks to direct the audience’s attention away from the actual argument (which may or may not have merit) to some other consideration that bears no relevance to the argument. 

It is important to remember that even people we don’t like can make good arguments

So, even if Mr. Richards’ is a socialist who has three parking tickets and is cheating on his wife, that doesn’t mean that he made an unreasonable argument. It may just mean that Mr. Hill would prefer not to go have a beer with Mr. Richards after the council meeting. That said, it might also be true that if Mr. Hill actually went out for a beer with Mr. Richards, he might through the course of a conversation discover that Mr. Richards isn’t such a bad guy after all.

So, why should we be bothered by the all-too-common use of ad hominem attacks these days? The biggest reason is because they don’t do us as a people any good. They don’t help us think carefully through an argument. They don’t help us figure out whether we should give a reasoned argument our assent. They don’t help us make good decisions. 

All that ad hominem attacks do is to further cultivate a culture-war mentality, according to which all we need to know is that someone has accused someone else (the accusation, of course, may or may not be true) of something that we are supposed to not like. On that basis, we are supposed to conclude that we should reject whatever they say, no matter the actual merits of their argument.

Ad hominem attacks are not only fallacious, but they further diminish our ability to hear one another while simultaneously increasing our ability to hate one another. This would seem to be the last thing we need in the autumn of 2019.