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Ad hominem est

Culture The ad hominem is an disputational tactic where the validity of an interlocutor’s point is challenged by linking it to a belief, or characteristic of the interlocutor. That is, someone’s height, weight, skin-colour, political affiliation, religion, gender or past-history is considered to make a statement on a particular topic less true than if it was delivered by someone else.

Determined or regular disputants generally either consider the ad hominem either always a valid form of argumentation or never a valid form of argumentation.

Neither of these positions is actually entirely correct.

Each use of ad hominem needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

For example, if a child talks about monsters under the bed (or in the closet or in the bath plughole or wherever), we may routinely dismiss the statement with an ad hominem. “She’s only a child.” – That’s a perfectly valid usage.

We might also be suspect of statements supporting a position from someone who directly benefits from that position. Patent reform proposals by highly-paid patent lawyers, proposed changes to banking regulation by the heads of banks, and so on.

The use of ad hominem in these cases is also quite a valid form of disputation, as the veracity of the points is indeed rendered questionable by the entity who makes the statements.

That’s not to say that the points might not actually be perfectly correct and valid. That’s just not the way to bet.

Conversely, you might for example, get dietary advice from an overweight dietician or told to stop smoking by a doctor who is herself a smoker. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the advice isn’t any good.

ad hominems do not themselves constitute logical fallacies, but you have to carefully consider each case and the potential validity or lack thereof of the statements being challenged.

The abusive ad hominem however, does constitute a logical fallacy.

The abusive ad hominem involves linking the validity of a person’s argument to potentially irrelevant characteristics, or even to the characteristics and opinions of others.

“Jane’s statements on law-reform are worthless, because she’s black.”

“You can’t trust Eli’s opinion on the IMF because he’s Jewish.”

“Do you know who else thought regularised public transport schedules were a good idea? Hitler!”

“Sally said something once that might have sounded a bit leftist, so she’s probably a communist and you shouldn’t trust anything she says.”

Many people won’t accept technical support or advice from a woman, but will cheerfully accept it if it is given to them by a man.

Such forms of argumentation are invalid, since the qualities that are linked to the statements have no real relevance. It’s just distracting noise in a dispute, and indicates that the person delivering the abusive ad hominem just isn’t thinking clearly.

What doesn’t help is that ad hominem (of all sorts) is frequently mistaken for verbal abuse (and vice versa).

According to verbalabuse.com, “Verbal abuse includes withholding, bullying, defaming, defining, trivializing, harassing, diverting, interrogating, accusing, blaming, blocking, countering, lying, berating, taunting, put downs, abuse disguised as a joke, discounting, threatening, name-calling, yelling and raging.”

While sometimes easy to confuse with other things, verbal abuse is never a valid form of argumentation (even though it isn’t actually a recognised logical fallacy) and should not be condoned.

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Categories: Culture, Opinion.

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