Now THAT’S An Ad Hominem Attack

"How do I rebut your argument? Here's how, you, brain-damaged Hell-spawn!"

“How do I rebut your argument? Here’s how, you, brain-damaged Hell-spawn!”

David Plouffe at least has done something useful, if not ethical.

We get a lot of accusations here—aimed at me and also between warring commenters—of using ad hominem attacks. Ad hominem attacks are indeed unethical, not because of the negative descriptions of the target they involve, which may well be accurate and fair, but because they are a dishonest and unfair debate tactic. The motive behind a true ad hominem attack is to avoid dealing with the substance of what an adversary claims, argues or asserts by attacking the person, character or background of the adversary.  The intention is to avoid the implications of a fact or illuminating opinion by asserting: “This person is bad, so don’t listen to what he has to say.”  It is a logical fallacy, of course. Whether an individual is bad or not doesn’t change the facts; a bad person may have performed a brilliant analysis, uncovered the wisdom of the ages, or uncovered the key perception that solves enduring mysteries. It is unethical for one seeking to rebut the argument to attack the arguer as if it’s the same thing. When successful, ad hominem attacks deflect the real debate and turn it into a debate about something else, focusing on the original speaker, now feeling the need to defend his honor rather than his position.

Insulting someone while fairly rebutting his argument may be uncivil, which is unethical too, but it is a lesser ethics offense: it is not intended to deceive. “Your argument is based on lies and rationalizations, as I explain below, and you are a fat, smelly turd” is uncivil, but the argument is being rebutted on its own terms. It is not ad hominem. “Your argument is infantile and fails to take into consideration material facts that I list below, you sneaky bastard!” is also uncivil, as the insult is gratuitous, but at least the vulgarity is related to the described offense, making it diagnostic, and thus better than the mere name-calling in the first example. It is also not an ad hominem attack. The argument isn’t being discounted because of the arguer; the arguer is being discounted because of the argument.  I plead guilty to this debatable ethical breach on occasion. I just responded today to an indignant reader response to such a reply: one of my posts was called “disrespectful” because I recorded a subject’s oddly-spelled name incorrectly.  I had written back that the misspelling was obviously inadvertent, and that using an innocent mistake to infer a malicious intent to harm was the act of a jerk—which it is.

For an example of a pure, unquestionable, lazy, and indefensible ad hominem attack, we are fortunate to have this recent tweet from David Plouffe, former official advisor to President Obama, paid consultant to the White House, current unofficial advisor, and as recently as this Sunday, anointed mouthpiece of same. Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Ca), the Eric Holder nemesis leading the charge on investigating various scandals, described White House press secretary Jay Carney as “a paid liar.”  Plouffe’s rebuttal on Twitter:

“Strong words from Mr Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today.”

Pure ad hominem. Plouffe is reaching back to an old charge against Issa before he was in Congress that was dropped by the prosecutor, and a disputed insurance claim, resolved in a private settlement, over a fire that destroyed Issa’s business property long ago. Even if the topic was Issa’s trustworthiness, these would be unfair accusations, but Issa’s character isn’t the issue. The issue is that Jay Carney hasn’t been candid, honest or reliable on multiple occasions, and he is the spokesperson for the White House. Issa’s decades old legal controversies are irrelevant, and nothing Plouffe wrote addresses Issa’s statement about Carney. He can’t ethically defend Carney by attacking Issa.

For such a White House insider to stoop to an ad hominem attack on a prominent critic is one more sign that this White House is a) desperate, b) without scruples and c) probably hiding something really bad.

Or, perhaps, just really, really inept.

Incidentally, Issa is correct: Jay Carney is a paid liar. All Presidential press secretaries are, though few have lied more frequently or more obviously than Carney.

And so is David Plouffe. I will await his tweet about my baldness, my reckless driving ticket  in 2008 and that tax dispute in 2002.


Facts: Huffington Post

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

3 thoughts on “Now THAT’S An Ad Hominem Attack

  1. Jack, I am shocked—shocked!—to find that there are skeletons in your closet of such magnitude! OK, I’ll give you a walk on the baldness—Rogaine and it’s relatives are hardly 100%. But, a reckless driving charge—a scarce 7 years old (and based on…?)—AND a tax dispute a scarce 13 years old? (Good heavens, man, don’t you believe in paying your fair share?) What is the matter with people like you? Get your act together, sir. I’m letting it go this time. but…..

  2. All I can say is, “WOW!”

    A paid spokesperson for a presidential administration was comfortable “twittering” that talking point he’d been provided by his client? Awful. Was this talking point developed through ordered research or is there an enemies list? And The Huffington Post reported the incident ahead of a collection of other purportedly similar attacks (undoubtedly by Republicans) in an attempt to water Plouffe’s attack down? Also awful.

  3. There are very good reasons why very fine people don’t go into politics and you’ve just outlined one of the major ones.

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