Fallacious Argument of the Month: argumentum ad hominem

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the ad hominemWelcome to December’s installment of my ongoing series, Fallacious Argument of the Month.

Driving in my car on my way to a meeting on Friday, I happened to catch a popular NPR news analysis program, On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook was talking with political commentator and Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter on his newly published book, Judaism: A Way of Being.

Gelernter, a proponent of Zionism, provoked strong responses from some callers who disputed his conclusions and offered spirited counterarguments. Toward the end of the program, one Jewish caller criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, pointing to her experiences traveling in Israel and the gulf she perceived there between biblical values and practice. Instead of responding to the issues she raised, Gelernter dismissed her with the epithet invoked all too often in debates over Israel. He condemned her as a self-loathing Jew, sneering that “the most vicious haters of the Jewish community are Jews themselves”.

In this on-air interview Gelernter committed perhaps one of the most common of fallacies: the argumentum ad hominem, which is an attack on the speaker, rather than on the substance of the speaker’s statements, for the purpose of discrediting the speaker and undermining the speaker’s arguments. The ad hominem takes many forms; in this case Gelernter used the technique known as “poisoning the well“. To poison the well, you present negative information about your opponent to damage his credibility in the eyes of your audience. (Incidentally, earning Fallacious Argument bonus points, Gelernter also utilized the false analogy, comparing the caller’s criticisms of Israel to blood libel and Nazism.)

Highly explosive, the ad hominem inflames passions and prejudices. When it detonates, it leaves a scarred chasm that cannot be bridged, making speakers and audience members into bitter partisans, with discourse and civility collateral damage. When the shouting at last dies down, all that’s left to smolder in the rubble is ill will.

4 responses to “Fallacious Argument of the Month: argumentum ad hominem

  1. I do not want to judge whether in this particular example, the radio commentator was justified or not in labeling the caller as a self-hating Jew. I think, however, that a lot of defenders of Israel get pretty tired of hearing liberal Jews constantly criticize Israel for its settlement policy or its military actions, but never raise a word of criticism when Arabs deliberately target civilians, or when most of the Arab community still refuses even to recognize the basic right of Israel to exist. I also think that it is not always effective to respond to these people with rational argument, because rational argument will simply lead you into endless circles of charges and counter-charges.

    In general I agree that ad hominem arguments are inappropriate and even unfair in any kind of rational debate. But some debates do not proceed from rational impulses. Sometimes you have to explore the inner psychology of the person that is making the argument, and point out to them that they may simply be working out some kind of inner conflict, rather than objectively commenting on a situation.

  2. Joe, thanks for your comment. I would point out that the purpose of this column was not to assess the arguments regarding Israel and the Palestinians. It was to provide a real-world example of an ad hominem in action. I do think that many debates, particularly those that provoke strong feelings on all sides, evoke such powerful emotional response that the ability to remain rational becomes compromised. However, for me at least, my professional training leaves me ill-equipped to assess anyone’s psychological motives. I do know that speculating out loud that someone’s views may be based on self-hatred (or be the product of some other unresolved psychological issue) is a sure-fire way to end – and lose – an argument. In my experience, people are rarely grateful for the insight.

    I have no reason to assume that the woman on the call is one of those who, as you said, “never raises a word of criticism when Arabs deliberately target civilians”. (Using the word “never” is risky and seldom accurate, but let’s put that aside for now.) But let’s say for the sake of argument that she was one of those who never does. Why does that make her objections or concerns any less legitimate or less worthy of our hearing? Hypocrite she might be, if in fact she is (and again, there’s no evidence to suggest that’s the case), but it does nothing to assail the strength of her argument. Only relevant facts will do that.

    I deliberately chose this controversial example because it tends to provoke strong emotional responses from all sides of the issue. It’s hard not to feel those buttons getting pushed. Here’s to less heat and much more light.

  3. I wasn’t intending to resolve the merits of the Israeli-Palestinian controversy either. My point is that the author on the radio program probably reacted in an emotional way because he is tired of hearing the kinds of arguments that the caller was making, and he probably felt that any rational response to those arguments was a waste of time. The caller may also be the kind of person who is immune to logic also. As I said, I don’t want to judge the situation because I didn’t hear the program, and you are probably right that a rational response is best even if the person you are arguing with is not particularly rational. On the other hand, sometimes you have to probe into the feelings of the people making the arguments before you can resolve a dispute with them.

    Let’s take some other examples. If someone wants to debate with me the inherent inferiority of black people, I could take the time to get into the biology and anthropology and history of that issue, etc., etc., but it might be more productive to find out the roots of that person’s racism. If somebody wants to debate the theory of evolution, we could have a rational discussion of the science, but I would understand much better where they are coming from if I asked them some questions about their religious beliefs.

    In other words, trying to have a rational argument with some people can only take you so far, and sometimes it is a complete waste of time. Again, I’m not saying that is true with the particular caller you heard, but it is still true that a lot of people are beyond the reach of logic.

  4. A picture’s worth a thousand words. Thanks for the good example, Joe. I see your point. Asking questions to understand why someone holds the views that they do is often instructive – even for the person to whom the question is directed.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence – there are plenty of people out there beyond the reach of logic. And arguing with irrational people can be a waste of time. It’s a sad fact of modern life that despite the wealth of information available, people are deaf to reason and reject fact in favor of fiction. It’s one reason why I support media literacy movements – I’m sure you and I would both agree that the world would be a better place if people were better trained in the fine art of argument. (You might in fact be interested in a post I wrote on media literacy and Judaism, which discusses the writings of Douglas Rushkoff.)

    I can appreciate the frustration that anyone can feel when confronted again and again by viewpoints they see as insupportable. I remember a very surreal conversation I had following last year’s presidential election with an elderly lady who works at one of the businesses in my neighborhood. In a hoarse whisper, with one eye over her shoulder, she confided in me that Obama was planning on rounding up white Americans and placing them in Soviet-style gulags. “Be careful,” she warned me. The answers she gave to the questions I posed her made it clear that she was immune to persuasion – or to facts. Further conversation would have been futile. However, Larry Susskind has suggestions for dealing with the irrational, using the health care debate to explain how you can talk with those who reject reason.

    In Gelernter’s case the caller was rational and articulate. It’s too bad he didn’t respond to her argument with facts instead of a personal attack. He came across as cranky, not convincing. He would have been better served by deploying reason.

    Joe, thanks again. I’ve enjoyed swapping words and ideas here. Very stimulating!