Tag Archives: ad hominem attacks

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Regaining a Capacity for the Rigors of Dispute

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We seem increasingly comfortable shunning forums that allow advocates time to develop their contrasting views.

There is frequent talk about a sharp American divide, with polarized and partisan groups shouting at each other across a wide chasm.  MSNBC analysts fret about the “MAGA crowd” in Congress.  Citing “progressives,” Fox News returns the favor. Anger on both sides spills out on Twitter and comments to countless blogs, news sites and mega-media like the Washington Post.  Even legacy news organizations of all sorts condense ideas to present facsimiles of what the other side has said on issues related to abortion, the behavior of our former President, or what our grade-school kids are permitted to read. Our cultural map looks like an endless chain of Tetons: a landscape of sharp peaks that leave little room to sit astride a place that would allow a view of all sides.

Part of our current dilemma is our withering sense of how to engage in a civil society. Various media platforms have made it easy to carve out connections with mostly like-minded others, leaving us underprepared for the work of making coherent arguments to those with different views.  In place of the agora—an ancient place where the public met and interacted as one body—we now see others mostly at a distance, via the narrow shooting galleries of media opinion makers with platform-specific ideologies. In the process, we’ve lost all or most of our abilities to sustain a discussion made of fleshed-out arguments and counter-arguments.

As noted in these pages several years ago, an argument can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple,  containing at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it can be laid out like this:

Claim: American Elections are Mostly ‘Clean’

(Evidence:  Because. . .)

    I. There are few documented cases of modern election fraud.
   II. Nearly all recounts confirm the original result.
  III. Election officials from both parties rarely find fraud.

That’s it. In its most basic form, an argument is an assertion supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  By itself, the asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. For these, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.  Repeating the same claim does not make it true.

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For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was stolen.” If someone stops there–using a formal term of argument—it lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. And we have a knack for mistaking variation of the same assertion as “evidence.” But controversial assertions alone have no logic to bind the open-minded.  That can only come when someone cites relevant evidence–logically tested by the insertion of the word “because”–using a source that is worthy of belief. When the assertion and the evidence flow together as a coherent argument, we are beginning to build a reasonable case.

It’s not enough to take aim on the true believers via the shooting gallery that fires out disparaging names. This short and convenient solution of using ad hominem language (i.e., “The fools who have made a career out of claiming election fraud are motivated by money and fame”) lacks force.  Ad hominem comments attack an advocate rather than their ideas. While we get pleasure out of calling our ideological opponents clowns, the rewards are self-serving, substituting personal invective for ideas that should be able to stand up in a democracy’s ‘the marketplace of ideas.’

Ironically, we generally shun the obvious format that allows for adequate public testing of ideas.  Simple debates where opponents speak, and then are given enough time for follow-up and offer refutations, can help those who want to understand what the preponderance of evidence supports. A true debate does not need a newsperson gumming up the works by turning the process into a joint interview. True debates only require two or three advocates, a moderator to keep things on track, and a clock that controls for equal time.  Using this format, the debaters soon learn that they will have to add substance to their claims: they know they will need “good reasons” more than more repeated opinions.

Schoolkids easily learn and enjoy this format. They like to document their views with evidence. In past years, programs of straight debates used to run on PBS (The Advocates and Firing Line, to name two).  But now we mostly choose to live in echo chambers that let us hear variations of our own views.

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Ad Hominem

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An ever-growing list of ad-hominem attacks from Donald Trump is one of the more discouraging features of our current public life.

Before Donald Trump became president he got into a public fight with comedian Rosie O’Donnell.  The result was a series of ad hominem attacks noting that Rosie was “not smart,” “crude,” “disgusting,” “a slob,” and “an animal.”[i]   We could not have known then what we know now. It wasn’t long before we would hear Trump go after all of his political opponents and many of his own party members using the same crude language.  Just  one of his political opponents, Marco Rubio, was described by Trump to national television audiences as a “loser,” “a lightweight,” “a puppet,””a choker,” “a little boy,” and so on. [ii]   Add about 350 others who got the same treatment, and you begin to understand the  tsunami of invective that has swamped our public rhetoric.

Ad hominem occurs when statements worded as halfway arguments are actually directed against persons rather than their ideas. The language is personal and negative, often in an attempt to deflect attention from the merits of an idea and toward supposed defects of an individual or a group.  This formal reasoning fallacy is a clear ethical breach, which is why it is taught in virtually every argumentation course from middle school to university level in the United States. To the credit of our students, it almost never shows up in their work. If only we could say the same for  this President.

In private, former President Richard Nixon uttered what a former aide called an “undeniably ugly” range of attacks on his opponents. Nixon was, notes Leonard Garment, “a champion hater,”[iii] a fact that has been revealed in releases of  conversations Nixon taped in the Oval Office. Crude epithets were uttered about Supreme Court members, publishers, and his famous lists of White House enemies[iv]  Of course Trump has taken the process further by publicly calling out critics and members of the press with epitaphs most Americans thought they would never hear from a chief executive.  An ever-growing list of these attacks from Trump is one of the more discouraging features of our current public life, and testimony to the poverty of his rhetoric. Since the President is traditionally the first contact most children have with American politics, the fact of his endless verbal abuse must give parents pause.

 The language-challenged New Yorker has seeded a wholesale decline in the quality of our public discourse.

Thanks in part to Trump, we are now awash in reactive and mean-spirited “commentary” from the web to newspapers to prime-time cable talk shows.  The language-challenged New Yorker has seeded a wholesale decline in the quality of our public discourse.  The rest of us are beginning to talk in screeds about the “pinhead,” “narcissist” or “jerk.”  We naturally want to counterpunch to the blows inflicted on others by his words.

In many ways this kind of language is as old as politics, but there is now a crucial difference.  Because web “comments” are frequently posted by Americans anonymously, respondents to articles and other content can now say anything they want in the vast spaces of the internet.  There is no personal cost for being a rhetorical bully.

Ad hominem has thus been given an unfortunate new life as a refuge for individuals unwilling to expend the effort to argue the merits of ideas. A reliance on personal invective is sign of intellectual laziness and an indication of a person’s inability to find the higher ground of a common cause: a lethal defect in a President.  Of Course we can’t blame all of this collapse of civil discourse on Trump.  But he surely is “Exhibit A.”


[i] Jacques Steinberg, “Back to ‘Talking Smack’ with Rosie, Donald and Barbara,” New York Times, January 11, 2007.

[ii] See  Jasmine C. Lee And Kevin Quealy “The 305 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List,” New York Times, January 20, 2017

[iii] Leonard Garment, Crazy Rhythm (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 199.

[iv] Leonard Garment, “Richard Nixon, Unedited,” New York Times, October 19, 2001, p. A23.