by Paul Balles
“Apparently, you are too stupid to comprehend the difference between an insult and an ad hominem argument,” someone argued.
Ad-hominem excuses for argument are rife on the internet, where some writers seem stupid enough to deserve the insults, and others are victims of underserved personal attacks.
When commentators substitute ad hominem attacks for both facts and logical argument, they apparently don’t realize that they indulge in fallacies (wrong-headed logic).
Ad hominem defined: you attack your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine his or her argument.
Richard Nordquist defined it as: “An argument based on the perceived failings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case; a logical fallacy that involves a personal attack.”
An interesting example of this comes after an article by Joseph Massad, an Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. Following is the attack:
“Mr. Massad should be a ashamed of himself, he deeply lack(sic) academic integrity; he brings shame to all, Arab included. His article egregiously distorts factual truth far too many to enumerate. Truly despicable! Massad is as Orwellian as they come and heavily suffers of Freudian Projection syndrome. Too bad he is so hateful of his environment and himself. He should move to live in the backward Arab countries.”
Nothing is offered to show what academic integrity the article lacks. Nothing reveals how Massad brings shame to all. No examples of how it “egregiously distorts factual truth.” No evidence to support how Massad is truly despicable or “suffers of Freudian Projection syndrome.” Massad is accused of being “hateful of his environment and himself” without a shred of evidence to support the accusation.
Apart from the grammatical errors, the comment is full of nothing but attacks on Professor Massad without a shred of factual evidence or reasoning against his arguments.
The shorter version of an ad-hominem attack can be seen in another comment: “Massad is an ex-Jordanian who has never been in Israel. He is the token Arab on staff.”
Another ad-hominem attack begins with. “Joseph Massad is one of the main reasons I went to Penn instead of Columbia, and this essay pretty much perfectly sums up why… This thing isn’t scholarship; it’s beyond the pale to the point of total lunacy…”
Accusations about how a teacher negatively affects another (why I went to another university) and name calling the writer a lunatic are typical ad-hominem rants.
Ad-hominem arguments often elicit ad-hominem attacks in response, like this: “Only according to you trashy traitor and rabid anti-Muslim fascist.”
Whatever arguments, the commentators completely break down in raw name-calling.
In stark contrast, Gilad Atzmon looks at the same Massad article, thoroughly analysing the facts and arguments, never making an ad-hominem attack.
In some cases a personal attack may be justified. This is true when the attack involves some part of the character related to the issue.
For instance, a governor of New York–Eliot Spitzer–was caught paying a prostitute over $4,000 for her services. To attack his character was not a fallacy because he campaigned against corruption in government.
The arguments against ad-hominem argument are probably the only legitimate use of ad-hominem arguments.
Someone I can’t recall once said “A person who can only make their case by attacking others probably doesn’t have much of case to begin with.”
The next time you’re tempted to throw a rotten tomato or your shoes at a writer or speaker you can’t stand, look at both sides of the argument before you do either.