I remember fighting with my sister, and when things started going badly, I resorted to the ever-useful “Oh yeah–well, you’re stupid!” There–that’ll show HER.
My own children began using that brilliant slur, and many others just like it, when they ventured into sibling arguments. A couple of them tried telling me they didn’t do well in class because the teacher was stupid and ridiculous. They tried that until we home schooled and I worked alongside the teachers in our little home school program. (A smart kid won’t try that too often when the mom is one of the teachers. I have smart kids.)
Anyway, the attack on one’s opponent, called ad hominem, occurs when one 1)runs out of a reasonable line of argumentation or 2)is losing the argument. It is a fallacy of distraction. See how easily it works? Political candidate “A” calls his opponent “B” a tool of Wall Street because he used to be a banker. Suddenly the argument becomes not a discussion of issues, but a defense of one’s personal character. Success! “A” now has the upper hand, and “B” is on the run.
Watch Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-NY, defending himself against accusations of ethical violations. When a reporter asks him a question regarding these accusations, what does Rangel do? He tells the reporter his question was “dumb.” He confronts the reporter, repeating that his questions are “dumb,” and belittles the young reporter for wanting to make a name for himself in the news business. Has he answered the question? No, and the reporter doesn’t push through the ad hominem attack; he follows right down the path Rangel wants him to go: away from the discussion at hand. It almost makes you think of a wild animal trapped in a cage, lashing out viciously. Oops–was that an ad hominem attack?
Ad hominem is one of the simplest fallacies to spot, because it is so easy to commit. It is part of our human nature, to reach for a low point instead of appealing to a more upright, honest level of discussion. Why go for honesty when you can drag someone through the mud?
When you watch this fall’s election campaigns, see if you can spot ad hominem attacks. The streets will be filled with the mud of these filthy, childish tactics. How should a politician, or a news reporter or commentator, answer ad hominem attacks, instead of allowing himelf to be driven down the muddy route?
We’ll examine other fallacies in political debates this fall. For more information about ad hominem and other fallacies, see my text book, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric 1.