Tag Archives: internet anonymity

Ad Hominem

                    Commons Wikimedia

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.


Hiding in the Bushes

hashtagsFrom a communications point of view, concealing one’s identity is usually a breach of faith.  But now anonymous comments are consumed as a form of entertainment, as if the collective id of a society has broken free of its constraints.

Like many children in the 50s, I thought it was a great stunt to sneak up on a neighbor’s house, ring the doorbell, and then go hide in the nearby bushes.  Serious crime it wasn’t.  But it did inadvertently remind my younger self of the not-very-useful-lesson that sometimes we don’t have to take ownership of our actions.

It’s never good when we can abuse the trust of others without paying a price.  In our times we find the adult equivalent of hiding in the bushes every time we scan internet sites for the often dubious comments that follow.  Many regretfully permit anonymous comments: Slate.com, and the Washingtonpost.com, to name two.  To their credit, others such as Huffingtonpost.com and Facebook do not.  We invite trouble when a person is free to weigh in on almost any topic without claiming their own name as the marker of a basic social responsibility.  Hashtags representing various avatars allow us to escape the moral consequences of owning our comments, depriving the human recipients of our criticism the right to know who we are.  Is it any wonder that many reactions to online stories are ill-considered, inflated and mean-spirited?  Some swirl in virtual cesspools of rhetorical maliciousness.

Character assassination by proxy is never pretty, and can’t help but make us a coarser culture.

From a communications point of view, concealing one’s own identity used to be considered a fundamental breach of faith. This is the dark stuff that arises from whisper campaigns, witch-hunts, and those awful unattributed pamphlets alleging communist treason that ruined the careers of so many artists in the 40s and 50s. Character assassination by proxy is never pretty, and can’t help but make us a coarser culture.

I’ve written before about these writers who exist on the wrong side of the borders of civil discourse, most recently just after the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The complaints are still valid:

Typical are the monikers used by individuals who responded to a Slate.com story about the recent Boston bomb attacks. Slate was careful and responsible in its reporting. But as with most news sites, the individuals who signed on to make comments concealed their identities. Readers heard from “Celtic,” “ICU,” “ddool,” “roblimo,” “Dexterpoint,” “Lexm4,” and others. “Celtic,” for example, noted that the suspects were “Muslims,” expressing mock surprise that any of them would produce “terrorist actions.” “Dexterpoint” decried “lefties” who he imagined to be anxious to confirm that the terrorists were not Muslims.

At its worst, this is the territory of the unqualified conclusion and the fantasized conspiracy: often a stream-of-consciousness unburdening of personal demons unchecked by the kind of self-monitoring individuals usually apply in the presence of others. Turned outward, this reactive rhetoric is often a jumble of histrionics from persons who seem to want a stage and an audience, but lack the mettle to do more than offer taunts from behind the curtain.

Aristotle observed that an individual’s character is perhaps their most valuable asset. He subscribed to the conventional view that you reach others best when you offer an olive branch and the assurance of your good name. Instead, the oppositional language of denigration fills a simpler expressive need. What was once the art of public comment on national and community issues now seems more like an unintended registry of disempowerment. It’s easy to account for the attractions of screeds posted with abandon and without interest in preserving even the remnants of a civil self. But if there are pleasures in delivering anonymous and wounding responses, they make a mockery of the familiar cant that the “internet wants to be free.”

The functions of criticism and accusation come with the duty to be fully present. To engage in these forms without disclosing our identity amounts to a kind of moral crime.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu