Ad Hominem Attacks, or Why Calling the Speaker ‘–phobic’ is Not an Argument
July 21, 2011 8 Comments
An ad hominem “argument” is a fallacious way of making a point.
It involves attacking the character of the speaker, rather than logically evaluating the content of her speech.
Here is an example.
Captain Jean Luc Picard says, “I support the Prime Directive, which is to avoid interfering with the natural progression of other cultures.”
Captain James T. Kirk says, “Jean Luc, you’re just an interference-phobic man.”
Kirk has just lobbed an ad hominem attack onto Picard. His response does not engage with Picard, explaining why the Prime Directive is actually a bad thing to support.
Whether or not Captain Picard is interference-phobic is not at issue here. What *IS* at issue is whether the content of Picard’s sentence is logically inconsistent with reality, immoral, missing the point, or any number of other good reasons for criticizing his claim. Attacking Picard’s character is a fallacious argumentation style.
Here is another example.
RadFem Franny says, “Prostitution involves unjust systems of power, and perpetuates the patriarchy.”
Sara Q. SexforMoney says, “You are just being whore-phobic.”
Sara Q. has not critiqued Franny’s actual statement. Rather, she is throwing it away because she has just categorized it as “whore-phobic”. She has not rationally engaged with Franny’s claim, and her ad hominem attack is not effective.
Sometimes, people we speak with really are racist, or sexist, or ablest, or ageist, or whatever. If we’re ever going to have a dialogue and convince these people of the incorrectness of their beliefs, name calling is not going to work. We should engage with what they are actually saying, and point out why it is immoral, inconsistent with reality, missing the point, or whatever.
Of course, if the –phobic, –ist person isn’t worth engaging with because she/he is not open to discussion, there’s really no reason to continue talking. In that case, it’s still not too useful to name call.
And now for something completely different: