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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ad Hominem is Not a Synonym for Insult

For the last several years, probably coincident with the increase in online forums and comments, I have noticed that the general public seems quite confused as to what ad hominem really means.  In many cases, someone who flings an insult is immediately accused of committing ad hominem, while ad hominem without including an insult is often not even recognized as being ad hominem.

The purpose of ad hominen is to misdirect attention from the logic of the argument to the qualifications of the person making the argument.  Specifically, ad homimem intends to disqualify its target. Ad hominen is a tactic of last resort when the logic of the argument seems otherwise unassailable.  In fact, if someone throws ad hominem at you, they have tacitly admitted to losing the debate. Ad hominem is used against the argument of a specific person as a misdirection from the logic of the argument to the character of the person. Ad hominem is usually used when someone has no logical answer to the argument itself. Someone who uses  ad hominem  hopes the target will be distracted from the issue at hand, take it personally, and engage in self-defense, thereby entirely forgetting about the argument that they have already won.

I saw an example of a fascinating variation of the misunderstanding of ad hominem in an online discussion about California issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.  The local newspaper had headlined their story,  Illegals line up for driver's licenses.

Many people responded indignantly that “illegal” cannot be used as noun because human beings themselves are not illegal, only their actions.  One speaker who I will call “student” asserted that since the headline was ad hominem directed to a group; therefore none of the individuals who objected had standing, that only the group being called “illegals” had the right to object to the use of that ad hominem.  Another speaker who I will call “teacher” responded that the word “illegals” as used in the headline might be an insult, but it was not ad hominem.  The conversation continued:

Student:  Ad hominem is an attack on character, rather than an attack on the argument presented. An ad hominem attack on a group is an attack on the character of members of the group.

Teacher: Your definition of ad hominem is incomplete. "Ad hominem is an attack on character, rather than an attack on the argument presented" in an effort to debunk the argument as if the character of the person is relevant to the argument.  Ad hominem is a LOGICAL FALLACY, usually employing personal attack on character, intelligence, status, etc   Personal attacks are not necessarily ad hominem. How can I make it clear? If you are mugged, you have been physically attacked. If someone drives by and hurls a slur, you have been verbally attacked, but these are not examples of ad hominem because the attack is not in the context of making an argument.  Thus many people objected to characterizing a group of human beings as "illegals," but those who committed the grievance are not actually engaging in ad hominem against the group so characterized.

If a group of illegal immigrants were engaged in a discussion with others about whatever, and one of those others said,"You guys are illegals, so your argument is thereby refuted," that would be an instance of ad hominem. Insults often accompany ad hominem, but insults themselves are not necessarily ad hominem.

Student:  How can I make it clear? - you can't; you're wrong. Ad hominem - you attacked your opponents's character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument. References to people as members of a lawbreaking class is an attack on their character.

Teacher:  Calling illegal immigrants "illegals" is an attack on character. It is not an attempt to undermine an argument; it is just an attack on character, like calling the guy who blew through a red light an "idiot." There is no undermining of an argument.

Student: The basis of the argument was giving undocumented people California drivers licenses.

Teacher: In order for ‘illegals” to be ad hominem against illegal immigrants, the illegal immigrants themselves would have to be asserting the reason why California should give them driver’s licenses.  However in this case, other people who are not necessarily illegal immigrants are engaging in argumentation about the issue.

Student: argument: "a set of diverging or opposite views, 2) a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong." The action is giving undocumented residents California drivers licenses, as I said.

Teacher: The purpose of ad hominem is to deny someone status or qualification to engage in discussion. For example, to attempt to refute an argument by calling the proponent "a moron" is simply a way of saying that the person is too stupid to listen to. Or if a civilian gave an opinion about the military, someone might say, "How can you have an opinion if you never served in the military?" in order to disqualify the civilian’s opinion from consideration. Both of these are ad hominem, but only the first one adds an insult.  An "action" regarding California drivers licenses was taken, but the action is actually irrelevant to the question under consideration: Is labeling an illegal alien "illegal" ad hominem? It was not ad hominem, but according to those who took offense, it was an insult.

Here is a link to one California drivers license debate:

The pro side includes a group called The Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund (MALDEF). If someone wanted to commit ad hominem against MALDEF, they would probably say, "Of course, you support them. The illegals are your own compatriots." This would be ad hominem against a group, MALDEF, but it is not an insult toward MALDEF.  It is also NOT ad hominem against illegal aliens because MALDEF is making the argument, not illegal aliens.

If a group of illegal aliens presented their opinion, a non-insulting ad hominem might be, "You are illegal aliens, so you have no right to give an opinion about California’s laws."   Their status as illegal aliens is a statement of fact.  Whether their status disqualifies them from comment is a separate issue.  An insulting ad hominem would be, "You are a bunch of wetbacks, so your opinions do not count," or in the view of some, "You are a bunch of illegals, so your opinions do not count."

I am finding online comments as repository of data on human nature really fascinating these days.  It is interesting see that some people, like this "teacher," target their comments to the readership rather to the person they are nominally responding to.

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