Friday, June 4, 2010

ad hominem

Ever had a discussion with someone and their response was a clear attack on you rather than what you said? There’s a name for that: an ad hominem argument. Take this example.

“That’s interesting what you’re reading there, Philmore. What is that, the new issue of News report?”

“Why yes it is Gerald. That’s exactly right. There’s a great article on the new immigration law just passed in Arizona.”

“Oh it’s an atrocity, isn’t it? I mean, all those people escaping the horrible conditions of their country only to meet even more injustice and oppression in our own. I can’t stand to hear about it.”

“I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with you there, Gerald. Those people have illegally come into our country and broken the law. The process of naturalization that is required for any immigrant is overlooked and shows an overall disregard for the laws of this country.”

“But you can’t really say anything can you? You’re not Mexican. My family immigrated in the 70s and I was the first generation to live in the US. We had to go through the process of becoming citizens and you never did. You can’t say anything about this issue.”

And cut.

See what happened there?

An argument was given and the response was an attack on the person, somehow giving reason to dismantle the argument of the other. That’s called an ad hominem argument.

Ad hominem means “to the man” in Latin, and denotes a style of arguing where the person’s argument- or even her credibility and reliability- are brought under question, and some characteristic disqualifies her argument.

Another example,

“You can’t say Canadians are violent because you’re not Canadian.”

See how the argument is deflected and not even addressed by simply attacking the person? See how irrelevant it is?

Where can someone find this type of argument? It happens in politics all the time.

A black Ivy League professor criticized black churches in the American South for being too theologically conservative among other things. He had a list of criticisms. The response? Something along these lines: “Well, you can’t talk about us because you’re all the way up there in the Ivy League world, so you don’t know what it’s like in our part of the country and in our communities.” Ad hominem. His criticism was overlooked and the counter-argument was directed at the individual.

Unfortunately, like many debates and discussions in our country, to disagree or to offer criticism is seen as a personal attack on the person. I even find myself getting angry when someone opposes me, when in fact- like I do so often with people I may agree with- they could only be inquiring into my specific position rather than responding out of offense at what I’m saying.

Does this happen often? Have you ever had a discussion where the response was an ad hominem argument? Have you ever fallen into disregarding someone, not because of credibility or reliability, but for another characteristic of the person?

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