Ad Hominem Attacks in a Modern World

To the average, modern American the words “ad hominem” bring vivid images of politicians verbally abusing one another, of media simultaneously using this tactic while condemning it, and even name calling in everyday arguments. Those in the modern world are surrounded by this fallacy, so how should we deal with it?

The ad hominem attack, which is Latin for “to man”, (www.dictionary.defintion.com) is one of the most persuasive logical fallacies commonly used almost everywhere today. In light of the prevalence of this attack, three topics must be addressed: specifically, why this is such a dangerous tactic; specific examples throughout history from Cicero to Donald Trump; but most important, how should Christians react?

A basic understanding of how the ad hominem works leads to a direct correlation that it is inherently dangerous. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it this way, “The ad hominem fallacy involves bringing negative aspects of an arguer, or their situation, to bear on the view they are advancing.” (www.plato.stanford.edu) The reason that this tactic is so swaying is because audiences love credibility, Aristotle lists ethos (credibility) as one of his three pillars of rhetoric for that very reason: credibility influences how much audiences will listen to and tolerate. The ad hominem is often easy to confuse with a reasonable argument.

For example, during the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were coming down to the final weeks of the debates Trump struck a new vein of argument. That Clinton was not suited health-wise for the position of President. The difficulty comes when finding the ad hominem, for physical exertion is definitely an important element of electing a President. While it was a valid argument, Trump used it to not respond to Hilary’s main philosophies. (www.cnn.com) Little reported is that all politicians will use this, not just Trump, or Republican. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the specific policies and mannerisms of our new President, it is important to understand the fallacy that all and any politicians will use. This is where the fallacy begins: using it as an escape to avoid refuting the main contentions of opponents.

While this is an awful and completely illogical method of responding, it has prevailed over audiences for centuries. Specifically when speaking about Cicero’s addresses to Mark Antony. Here, there are two sides to each argument, leaving the lines of ad hominem blurred. Namely, Cicero spends much of his time bringing the hammer of rhetoric down upon Antony’s head, the difficulty in condemning this attack is Antony’s first attack which was upon Cicero’s person. Cicero duly defends himself, while placing the whole of the fallacy upon the head of Antony.

This tactic still remains in modern times, and perhaps even more often. In fact, one of the main campaign strategies of Donald Trump was ad hominem attacks. For the sake of time, this is the main example presented. Chess expert Gary Kasaprov who often compares chess to politics, said this in 1989 “Chess is the most violent of all sports. There’s no sport as competitive — as rough — as chess. The only goal in chess is to prove your superiority over the other guy, and the most important superiority, the most total one, is the superiority of the mind.” In an interview on Trump and his campaign he touched on how chess tactics compare with political ones. He says “One lesson is to not to play desperately if your position is worse but still reasonable. Lashing out wildly in an inferior position usually only hastens defeat. Meanwhile, solid, stubborn defense can demoralize the attacker, make him lose confidence.” (www.vox.com) In this article he was specifically referring to how to defeat Trump’s ideals, but it goes the other way as well. Constant attack against the opponent’s person makes his position appear weak.

Often, people become so blinded that they confuse responding to an argument with refuting one. Christians, and even just civilized human beings, should step back and look at the whole picture. The blurry lines between ad hominem and reasonable arguments is this: when it is soley used as a response without further refutation. And while, indeed, many people can value reason and logic, the Christian position is the only one that makes sense. The post-modernist world view and subjectivity of truth leaves to the conclusion that there is no such thing as logic, therefore there can be no violation of it in the form of a fallacy. When our leaders resort to a position of attacking their opponent’s person it should reveal a stance weakness not of authority.

In his short story titled “The Blue Cross” in a series about a detective priest named Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton illustrates the crux of the position. A thief had been posing as a clergy, travelling with Father Brown, attempting to steal a precious jewel. While they were travelling they fell into a discussion about reason, the fake clergy advocated that it had no place in theology. Eventually, the priest outwitted him, and in the end, explains the final fact that persuaded him that his companion was not a clergy. He says simply “you attacked reason.” (Chesterton, 31) When responding and guarding against ad hominem, civilization must also keep this in mind as a basis of reasoning and the ultimate pillar of credibility.

(This was a school paper I just completed and thought you guys might like to read)

Citations
“Ad Hominem.” Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/ad-hominem.
“Fallacies.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. May, 2014. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fallacies/.
Klundt, Tom. “Trump Targets Clinton’s Health in New Ad.” CNN. October, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/11/politics/donald-trump-ad-hillary-clinton-health/.
Bisely, Alexander. “A top Putin critic on how to oppose Trump: “making him look like a loser is crucial””. VOX. February, 2017. http://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/2/11/14577834/garry-kasparov-putin-trump.
Chesterton, G.K. The Innocence of Father Brown: The Blue Cross. The Curtis Publishing Company, 1910, pp. 31.
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