The ad hominem fallacy is a tool for winning an argument, based not upon the facts, but by attacking the person arguing against you. In other words, personal attacks are used to distract everyone from the actual facts.
If done successfully, the opponents and observers will focus only on the failings (real or imagined) of the person being attacked, and uncritically accept the conclusion of the person launching the attack.
And yes, this fallacy works… frequently. As I write this, it works amazingly well when applied politically. You can shoot down any number of legitimate arguments just by condemning its advocate as a member of an opposing political party. “He’s a Republican” will negate anything said by such a person to half the American populace. “He’s a Democrat” will negate it for a significant portion of the other half.
And, of course, there are many other applications, such as rejecting an argument because someone has behaved badly in the past. The reality of this world, however, is that nearly all of us have behaved badly, at least a time or two. That’s unfortunate, but having done a few bad things doesn’t mean that we’re wrong in everything we say. Humans are hugely variable, and doubly so over time. They are also clever creatures who will stumble across truths frequently, and even by accident.
One lesson I picked up as a teenager was that we can learn something from almost anyone. And not long after absorbing that concept, it was proved to me in real life, (and you’ll please excuse the indelicate details), when I learned a valuable lesson from a degenerate alcoholic; a man so desperately and continually drunk that he stank of his own urine.
A true statement remains true, whether spoken by a saint or a murderer. And of course, if spoken by those who’ve committed lesser crimes… like being a member of the wrong political faction.
How The Trick Works
This trick generally works in two stages:
- Like many other fallacies, this one seeks to overwhelm our brains with emotional inputs, so that clear analysis is pushed out.
- Next, it insists upon a conclusion that will require pain to reject.
The first point above is one that we’ve all experienced, though I don’t know of research that precisely quantifies it. We’ve all felt befuddled and overwhelmed by emotional pressures being thrown at us. People learn very well how to use such weapons, and do use them for the purpose of winning arguments.
Our brains are truly amazing things, but they are also vulnerable to emotional overload, and such an overload causes us to pull back and observe, at the expense of performing analysis. Under sharp pressure, we tend to stop critiquing and to seek safety.
Once we’ve pulled back in this way, a second pullback is easy enough to initiate, and it nearly always comes in the form of fear; and generally implied fear.
Consider our political party example: If you don’t agree that the heretical member of the XYZ party is bad and wrong, you must be a bad, wrong heretic yourself!
And so again we see a two-wave attack in the common use of this fallacy:
- The other side is wrong because he or she is an enemy.
- Then, if you persist in considering his lies, you will also be an enemy of the tribe, fit to be cast out and despised.
You can even see this in the intellectual’s version of this fallacy:
What you are speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying.
Again, it starts with a personal condemnation of the opponent, clearly implying that “what they are” is stinkingly nasty. Then, since there’s intellectualism mixed in, if you persist in considering him, you are clearly stupid, and will moreover be lambasted as stupid by every smart person.
There could be other ways to run this fallacy, but this seems to be the standard model.
What To Keep In Mind
There are two things to keep in mind when you encounter this attack. The first is our standard advice on fallacies driven by emotion: Buy yourself some time and regroup your thoughts. In this case I’d recommend saying something like this:
Wait, I want to understand… I think you’re saying two things: One, that he’s a wicked XYZ, and two, that he’s wrong about ABC. Is that correct?
Bear in mind, please, that by doing this you’ll be showing a kindness both to yourself and to anyone who is observing the argument. They’ll almost certainly need time to reset as well.
And as before, you’ll be resetting the emotional dynamic of the interaction. Emotional attacks may be potent, but they seldom have a great deal of staying power. (Unless we accept them as valid, of course.)
Once you’ve reset the argument you can take the issues one at a time. My opinion is that you should generally begin with the character assassination part, clearing the field for a rational discussion of the real issue. You might begin with something like, “So, are all XYZs wrong about everything?” And if the other side persists, you can go on to a more flamboyant statement, hopefully pushing back on continuing emotional pressure with an ‘emotionally visible’ statement like this one:
Let’s say I’m a well-known liar and hypocrite who is presently high on crack. Does that change the words I say? Are they not wrong or right based upon their independent content?
If that doesn’t do it, you’re probably dealing with someone so devoted to winning that they’ll oppose you endlessly. And in that extreme, you need to not care.
Not caring about an opponent telling his or her friends what a rotten person you are is actually a crucial ability. If you aren’t emotionally prepared to let people say bad things about you, you’ll remain stuck where you are, unable to escape so long as those people or others like them exist. That is, you’ll be frozen in place for life.
And so, your ability to deal well with this fallacy/attack ultimately rests on your ability to let them speak badly of you.
You’ll never be able to get everyone to like you, and doubly so if you want to find the truth.
It’s not fun to have people talk badly about you, especially if it’s unfairly – I’ve lost friends that way – but in the present world, that’s the price of developing as an honest and thinking human being.
So, let them lie about you. Suffer for it if you must, but hold to what you believe to be true. Your future and the future of the world depend upon such things.
More next time.