The term “ad hominem” argument is a fancy-sounding Latin phrase for something pretty simple: to attack a person, not their argument.
We see this at every level of political discourse, from presidential elections to online jousting on local newspaper sites.
The thinking goes like this: If I can make a fool of you in public, I can defeat you for good, rendering all of your future arguments moot, at least in the eyes of many. The ad hominem attack is a type of debate kill shot. It is terribly flawed logically, but extremely effective politically.
Here’s an example of such an attack: If I can make the public question your fidelity to your wife, true or not, then that is far more effective politically than winning a budget argument with you. It is an ad hominem attack, because it has nothing to do with the matter at hand — the budget.
So, our budgetary back and forth takes a back seat to my introduction of your potential character issue. Hence, I win. Because people are bored by the numbers fight and entirely focused on the juicy details of your potential foibles.
This is the world of politics. This is nothing new. Sadly, it has been and will always be this way, at least to some extent. People seek power and influence and they assert themselves in ugly ways to get it.
What is new is the mass and scale of ad hominem attacks in America. Consider the Internet and what it is. Now, ad hominem attacks can be launched toward every public face without an author revealing himself. The author is emboldened, too, by the fact that he is immune to the reverse ad hominem attack. We don’t know who he is, so we can’t specifically cut him to shreds as he seeks to do to his target.
But the anonymous online attacker faces an ad hominem counter attack in a different form. Anyone who reads an infuriating comment from another poster will assign the faceless writer to a category and affix stereotypes to his persona. He is a “socialist liberal.” He is a “right-wing nut job.” The person is then pictured on the other end with expected disagreeable traits. People have their ideas about what a “socialist” or a “right wing extremist” look like. The faceless blogger thus gets his face. His is the countenance of the common enemy.
This opens the door to unbridled hate. I have felt such hate myself. My gut responses are no better than anyone else. If I feel passionately about a particular topic, I feel great anger when I’m accosted by what seems an irrational and ludicrous counterview. In fact, the view may be both of those things, irrational and ludicrous. There are some terrible points of view out there. We all feel this. Not everybody is right.
But such inner-conflict is where each of us meet a personal crossroads. What do I do with that intense feeling of hate for others that flutters up in my heart like a pressure cooker? This is a matter of personal responsibility, isn’t it? My next action becomes a matter of my character, not anyone else’s.
My darker nature, my animal instinct is to do everything possible to establish the opponent as an utter fool. I want to run with the hate. I want to find others who agree with me and are gleeful and willing to hate with me. We can then attack and be attacked as a pack with our own power and shared wounds.
We will do everything we can to make that opponent hurt and to feel shame in his misguidedness. This means attacking him, not just his viewpoints. It is the ad hominem attack. It replaces debate. It is the art of character assassination. And we can do this to individuals as well as people groups. There is actually great sport in this. It is quite invigorating. It is actually a true form of American entertainment, isn’t it?
Of course, this route is accompanied by a type of inner death. If I run this path, I must kill off empathy. I must accept a certain spiritual, political and practical dead spot in myself toward many others. I must not confuse my heart with the details of individual experiences that might counter my own stereotypes about such “enemies.”
Of course, let’s be clear, I expect others to “respect my opinion,” because I have come to my way of thinking through my own experience. Nobody else has lived in my shoes. So who are they to talk, right?
Remarkably, I can think this while totally ignoring my own hypocrisy, my utter inability to respect the fact that opponents have walked in different shoes and have come to different conclusions through similarly genuine means.
Perhaps I muse too much. It’s Sunday. I’m thinking about life, about our world.
But we all want to be respected. Somehow, though, we feel we are entitled to totally disrespect others who disagree. We attack opponents as worthless. They return the favor. No one changes their mind. But bitterness grows.
It’s a circular problem, isn’t it? We throw ugly in the wind, it comes back ugly. But if we throw good out, don’t we have a better chance of receiving it in return?
Isn’t this true in every facet of life — politics too?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.