Ad Hominem Attacks, or Why Calling the Speaker ‘–phobic’ is Not an Argument

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:

About smash
Women's liberationist.

8 Responses to Ad Hominem Attacks, or Why Calling the Speaker ‘–phobic’ is Not an Argument

  1. Holly says:

    hmm! I’ve never thought about this before. well put.

  2. KatieS says:

    I love the Star Trek way of introducing this. Makes the point perfectly. Ad hominem attacks are frustrating. You will read some brilliant post, and then the comments are full of really stupid ad hominem attacks. This is true irl, but it appears to be a whole professional troll school that specializes in training trolls to do ad hominem attacks 😉 Undercover Punk said something about a professional troll irl and I believed her. . . Now I have pictures of whole schools devoted to varying flavors of trolling. Perhaps ad hominems are at the top.

  3. KatieS says:

    When I saw this, I thought of your post here. It’s “Fourteen Propaganda Techniques Fox “News” Uses to Brainwash Americans”

    The second one listed is ad hominem attacks. Others may be familiar to radfems such as “flipping” (reversals), scapegoating, rewriting history, confusion, etc. I also note that trolls will use similar techniques to derail arguments, or simply make replies unreadable/confusing. This also fit the discussion we’d had about propaganda, though I think the Bernays approach was not so toxic as this, from what you posted.

  4. smash says:

    Thank you for that link. I think that Bernays would call these techniques bad propaganda, and would disapprove of their use. But as the article says, they are very effective techniques, which means that if we’re going to support the use of propaganda, we need to be very clear that being effective is not as important as being truthful.

    It is so important to be aware of these techniques because as you say, they are the main weapons in the troll arsenal. This list is basically a trolling how-to manual. Thanks for finding it!

  5. awww smash, you’re just phobic-phobic!

    Reverting to seriousness, yes, when detractors use these techniques they are merely trolls. But it is difficult for them to form valid criticisms, given that their arguments are usually based on selfishness, greed, individualism (in the bad way, fucking everyone else), etc. So of course they have to resort to trolling and namecalling.

    I did call my blog “twanzphobic” after all. Heard it a million times. It has no sting for me – in fact, whenever they trot out the dreaded transphobia, you just know they don’t have a valid counter argument or position. When you start thinking about it this way, it doesn’t bother you any more.

  6. elkballet says:

    Well said! I hate the phobic argument. Ad-hominem attacks are so irritating, partially because it’s so difficult to argue once someone starts being irrational and partially because they’re so effective on listeners.

  7. KatieS says:

    I’ve long thought that what we need is to number the troll attacks. There are various lists around like the one I posted. So, say that someone makes an ad hominem attack. Anyone who was posting could say, “#2” and then just ignore the comment. Or “#4, then #2” then move on. #4 is “rewriting history” on that website. After a while I think the trolls might just give up. Based on your idea, elkballet, this would prevent them from entering into an argument that they were just trying to disrupt and also would clue any listeners in to what they were doing. Then the ones making valid arguments could just continue with their discussion. If enough people were to do this, maybe we could get on with business.

  8. Pingback: On The “Cotton Ceiling”, Rape Culture, and Feministe « smashesthep

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