This is part of a 12 week series where I plan to explore the tactics of verbal cheap shot artists – people who can’t, or won’t use valid arguments to present their case, but instead resort to verbal cheap shots. To make sure you don’t miss a single article, be sure and sign up for my RSS feed or subscribe by email (both are free!) so you can get a new article each Monday!
Verbal cheap shots seem to be in huge supply these days. With everything, I mean everything, taking a political slant, verbal cheap shots are all the rage on television, radio, and even in some print advertising. And verbal cheap shots are extremely prolific in the world of the Internet, where these cheap shot artists hide behind their keyboards a lob their grenades at anyone who dares disagree with them.
Ad hominem attacks
Ad hominem comes from Latin and means “to the man.” It is an attack on the person presenting an argument rather than the argument itself. Ad hominem attacks are one of THE most common fallacies and attacks used in the comments section of blogs and other sites that solicit comments. You even see them on Amazon!
An ad hominem argument has the basic form:
- A makes claim B
- There is something objectionable about A
- Therefore claim B is false
Ad ad hominem attacks the person, not the argument.
“I’m not surprised that you don’t understand where I’m coming from. Did you even finish your degree?”
“The former commenter gushes in his review because he is probably financially connected to the firm in question.”
“Bill’s lack of commitment in relationships makes me wonder how anyone can believe his sales presentations.”
“Before I matured in my thinking, I used to think that way, too.”
“You can’t believe anything Jack says about personal finance – he doesn’t even have a job right now.”
“You can’t condemn me for stealing (or anything else!) – you’ve probably done it too.”
“You can’t know what I’m going through unless you’ve gone through it, so your advice is worthless.”
“She can’t know what she’s talking about in politics, her children are so out of control.”
The US Secretary of State: “Human rights are being violated in your country.”
Other country: “The US used to trade slaves so you can’t say anything to us about human rights!”
Ad hominem fallacies aren’t always negative.
“Bob said that mutual fund is a good one, but since he’s so important and busy, I’m sure he wasn’t able to do enough research to know.”
This is still an ad hominem fallacy, even though it is saying something positive about the person, because it is addressing the person and not the topic in dispute.
Accusing someone of an ad hominem attack can BE an ad hominem attack!
“I’m not going to stand here and tolerate your attack on me!”
Make sure your own arguments don’t attack the person as a way of avoiding the truth, and don’t be afraid to point out someone’s ad hominem attacks if you see them, especially if they’re against you. It’s always easier to support a weak argument by throwing your opponent off balance with a personal attack. This is a common occurrence on talk shows where one guest opposes another.
If you find yourself in a debate on the merits of an issue, stick to the issue, don’t resort to ad hominem fallacies.