Over the past few years, I have noticed a tactic being used in national debate that destroys legitimate conversation while bringing us no closer to truth. Unfortunately, there is no name for this new tactic, so I will christen it the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem. (Okay, I'm mixing German and Latin, but let's go with it for now.)
The Abusive Ad Hominem
The Über-Abusive Ad Hominem extends the usage of the ancient fallacy of the ad hominem, i.e., arguing toward the man instead of the argument. Anyone who has spent any significant time on Internet message boards is undoubtedly familiar with this tactic: when someone can't respond to the merits of the argument they choose instead to attack the messenger. The Nizkor Project gives a very good and tight definition of the argumentum ad hominem:
An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of "argument" has the following form:
Premise 1: Person A makes claim X.
Premise 2: Person B makes an attack on person A.
Conclusion: Therefore A's claim is false.
The abusive ad hominem (which is largely the type of ad hominem described in the Nizkor quote) is a specific form of the ad hominem which is the most common use of the fallacy. In Logic by Robert Baum, Professor Baum defines the abusive ad hominem (in the second edition) in this way:
A disputant is unlikely to change his opinion because his opponent has dubbed him an "unrealistic fool." But it takes considerable independence of thought on the part of the listeners to support him in spite of such a label. Thus, an abusive argument leveled against one's opponents can have the effect of discrediting any statements they make - something former Vice-President Spriro Agnew recognized in his campaign against journalists and newscasters who criticized the Nixon administration. By calling them "an impudent corps of effete snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativism," he tried to diminish their influence on the American public.
Agnew understood the game: beat down your opponent(s) by painting his/their beliefs as biased. Does the accusation establish anything? Certainly not in a logical sense. It is mere rhetoric designed to avoid actually answering the arguments being presented in opposition to one's views. As Nizkor notes,
The reason why an Ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).
The Über-Abusive Ad Hominem Described
The Über-Abusive Ad Hominem is essentially an abusive ad hominem, but whereas the abusive ad hominem makes a personal attack, the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem pushes the boundaries both in terms of the nastiness of the accusation and the pretended outrage caused by the arguments making further conversation impossible. It is the effort to not only smear one's opponent, but to smear the opponent in such a manner that that she is afraid to speak out due to fear of condemnation. It is an extremist rhetorical tactic in that it accuses one's opponent the person not simply of being stupid or bad, but of having committed one of the sins that is not tolerable in the 21st Century. The point is to paint their viewpoint so negatively that for the other person to even suggest the viewpoint has merit warrents societal derision and scorn.
What type of charges would cause some to hide when a mere accusation flies? Generally, they are charges that in days past would make the old charges that were once considered slanderous per se seem tame. (Charges that were deemed slanderous per se consisted of charges of criminal conduct, allegations that would cause injury to another in their trade, business, or profession, imputations of loathsome disease or unchastity in a woman. All of these claims were enough to be considered actionable at common law based upon their mere recitation.) The claims that are now being made to shame one's opponent are most commonly charges of bigotry, racism, Nazism, imposers of religion or sexual criminality.
Keep in mind that the most common abusive ad hominem discounts the source of the information for some irrelevant reason. It might be, "He doesn't know what he's talking about -- he can't even spell" (when, in fact, the poor spelling may be the result of dyslexia which has nothing whatsoever to do with the strength of the argument). It might be similar to an attack on a statement from former President George W. Bush on the subject of free trade with China by saying, "We all know Bush was a liar, so why should we believe anything he says?"
Calling someone a racist used to be rare -- and rightfully so. Such a charge is so heinous in our present day multi-cultural society that most would righfully shy away when such an accusation is made. Note that I said, "Used to be rare." Not anymore.
An Example from Politics: Border Security and the Border Fence
There are plenty of examples of the growing use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem. Over the last few years it has been the primary weapon used to beat down those who favor stronger border security. To say that we needed to control the southern border of the United States wasn't just a policy discussion, it was "racist." For example, in this article from the L.A. Times, Congressman Tom Tancredo is labeled a "racist" for arguing in favor of the construction of the border fence.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, one of the architects of the border wall project between Mexico and Texas, drew boos from residents in Brownsville, Texas, at a public meeting on the subject this week.
Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada called the Congressman a bigot, and said that the border wall project was a "racist thing."
Never mind the arguments by those favoring stronger controls that the influx of low skilled workers were overwhelming the U.S. social safety net. It had to be the case that the desire to control the influx of illegal aliens to the United States was fueled by racism and bigotry. Moreover, the mere claim is enough to have sent many people scurrying to safety for fear of being labelled bigots, racists or other similar things. In addition, it serves as a means to limit converts to the position because it becomes the common knowledge that people who do such a thing are racist or whatever negative word category is used to describe them.
In saying the foregoing, I am not advocating for any particular position on the border fence. The fence may be a good idea or it may be a bad idea -- I am not supporting either side. The problem is the rhetoric being used. Calling people who support the border fence racists is designed to end the conversation. In fact, it necessarily ends the conversation because the person who makes the charge can't negotiate with the accused -- that would then be working with a racist or negotiating on a racist policy.
An Example from Academia: Intelligent Design
The same tactic is consistently used in the intelligent design debate against the proponents of ID. A person cannot raise questions about the Darwinian (or Neo-Darwinian) evolutionary scheme without being accused of seeking to impose a theocracy. For example, here's a quote from Dean Philip A. Pizzo, Dean of the Stanford Medical School, using the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem against supporters of intelligent design:
We need to move forward in our human evolution and not regress to the flawed passions of the crusades, the suppression of science by religion, or the intolerance of theocracy over freedom of the human spirit.
Yes, according to Dean Pizzo, those of us who support the honest inquiry into origins are anti-science and in favor of both a theocracy and the crusades. Few wouldn't cower from such claims. After all, no one wants to be categorized with crazies who want to impose religious law or suppress science. No one wants to be put in bed with the crimes of the crusades, do they? But is this realistic? Does anyone supporting academic freedom which would allow the teaching of intelligent design really want to suppress science or create a theocracy? Is their ultimage goal to return to the crusades? Of course not.
This is merely another example of the typical and growing use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem which is being played out over and over on the Internet and elsewhere.
The Charge of Bigotry in GLBT Discussions
The latest and equally egregious use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem comes from the pro-gay community. This community has created a sound-byte that is being echoed in newspapers all over America and the use of which has been growing since the passing of the now infamous Proposition 8 in California: if a person is opposed to homosexual marriage they are hateful, narrow-minded bigots.
Following the passage of Proposition 8, I saw several articles on the editorial page of my local newspaper where it was simply asserted that supporters of the proposition were bigots. These sentiments were merely echoes of the claims that are often made on pro-gay websites. For example, Blogcritics Magazine published an article aptly and simply named Proposition 8: The New Bigotry by Tommy Mack which includes the following:
While the California Supreme Court is considering whether Proposition 8 violates the State Constitution, it is the effort to invalidate 18,000 gay marriages that changed my mind on writing about the issue to expose it as the sheer, unadulterated bigotry it is — our new bigotry.
* * *
What I am writing about is bigotry as an ideology. The obvious form is racism characterized by hostility, a belief in inferiority and an assumption that one race is superior to another. Today that is considered a human rights violation. Another form is sexism, characterized by judgments based upon gender rather than upon individualism and an assumption that one sex is superior to another. Other forms include fascism, nationalism, ageism, classism, and pretty much anywhere narrow mindedness and stereotypes overcome logical thinking.
The rhetorical tactic is nothing more than an Über-Abusive Ad Hominem in it's rawest form. Never mind that there are legitimate issues to be raised questionsing whether such "marriages" are good for society or the marriage members. (See, e.g., the American College of Pediatrics report on various studies entitled Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time For Change?) These concerns, of course, are unanswered. After all, when the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem is used, it doesn't matter what are the facts or what are the real motivations of those opposing gay marriage. The opposition to gay marriage must be fueled by hatred of homosexuals -- or so it is reasoned.
But what is missing? Where is the response to the concerns? They are not forthcoming. When the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem is unleashed, no effort can be made to reason between the parties. The conversation has devolved to mere name-calling -- but not simply calling someone a "fool" or "idiot" for believing the study. Rather, the person is called a bigot -- the only thing intolerable in today's ultra-tolerant society.
Whether the gay rights proponent wants to believe it or not, very few in the Christian community dislike people who are homosexuals. I know of no one in my church who hates gays. Not one. Most Christians understand that God has called on us to love all of our neighbors. Among most, there is no animus towards gays as gays. Rather, there is a heartfelt love coupled with deep sorrow over the fact that these people are living lives that are (no other word, so here goes...) sinful. Yes, they are living a life that is not in accord with the idea and design that God gave. I certainly don't hate gays, but neither do I want it taught in society that a gay marriage is morally equivalent to non-gay marriage. And I am also very concerned about the effect of gay marriage both on our society as a whole and on the individuals who would become involved in such troublesome relationships.
Oh, and for those of you who want to post that I am a bigot in the comments: just be aware that such statements without a further substantive response is only proving the point of this post.
With all due respect, I reject the Über-Abusive Ad Hominemfallacy. The tactic of squashing the opposition by use of the Über-Abusive Ad Hominem needs to be eliminated from civil conversation.