I often have to correct commenters on Ethics Alarms who accuse me of engaging in the argument fallacy of ad hominem after I pronounced them jerks, fools, or idiots based on their comments. (I shouldn’t do that, but sometimes I can’t help myself, and if it stops me from going crazy from all the stuff I have to read every day to decide what gets published, we all benefit. well, I do, at least.) No, I explain, with more or less patience, that’s not ad hominem. It would be ad hominem if I wrote, “Your argument can be safely ignored because you are an idiot.” Then I would be using an author’s presumed character, intelligence or acumen to discredit his or her opinion. That’s unfair and illogical. An argument derives its value and persuasiveness from its contents, not its messenger. It would also be an ad hominem attack if I responded to a comment with a stream of vile insults.
If, however, I read a comment, determine it to be based on bad facts, bias, poor reasoning and faulty logic, I may justly conclude that only a dolt would express such an opinion in public, and say so, as in, “You are a dolt.” That is a diagnosis—an insulting one, to be sure, but still just a diagnosis.
Now, thanks to actress Ashley Judd’s performance today at the Washington, D.C. version of “The Women’s March,” I can use her as an illustration of what an ad hominem attack is, and why it should be avoided.
Judd read a poem by an angry 19-year-old, that contained the lines..
“I am a nasty women.’I’m not as nasty as a man who looks like he bathes in Cheeto dust…I’m not as nasty as your own daughter being your favorite sex symbol, your wet dreams infused with your own genes…”
Stay classy, Ashley.
You see, mocking someone’s appearance—it is a cardinal sin if it is a woman’s appearance that is being mocked, of course, adding hypocrisy to the mix—is pure, unadulterated ad hominem. It is also gratuitous meanness that has no communication value other than to say, “I hate you.” “I hate you” is not an argument. In fact, “I hate you” is a statement of bias. I can’t trust the assessment of an individual regarding what another individual says or believes if the critical individual hates him.
Additionally, the denigration is pure tit for tat, Rationalization 7. That’s Donald Trump’s favorite rationalization. Stooping to Trump’s favorite method of debate, name-calling, isn’t persuasive or helpful. I’m sure it feels good, though. I guess that’s enough for Ashley and all the protesting women who clapped and cheered.
See, now that isn’t ad hominem, because by behaving like this, Judd undermines the whole protest. And that’s just plain stupid.
Is Judd speaking in public about the President of the United States while saying “your wet dreams [are] infused with your own genes” more or less uncivil than Trump speaking in private about grabbing women by the pussy? No contest. None. At the moment of vocalization, Judd’s words are far, far more uncivil. Trump would not ever say what he said to Billy Bush, not knowing that he was being recorded, to a rally of 250,000. (I think.) Even he has more couth than that. Judd does not. Because they cheered her, the women on the mall do not.
Fine. That tells me all I need to know. Trump and Judd, and her fans all deserve each other, and neither has the moral or ethical high ground. One large group of angry ideologues seeking to lash back at a President for his uncivil statements by being as unethical as he is isn’t worth my time or respect. I don’t care about their protest. Nobody should. Arguably lowering the level of discourse further was Madonna, who talked of wanting to blow up the White House. When all a demonstration does is engage in primal scream therapy, and wrap itself in anger, insults and rhetorical excess, it isn’t a respectable or ethical protest. It is grandstanding.
For the benefit of Ashley Judd and others, I am finally adding the Ethics Alarms 12 Question Protest Ethics Check List to the permanent resources in the far left margin. It is right under “The Apology Scale.”
12 Question Protest Ethics Check List
Protesters, no matter what they are protesting, have an ethical duty to ask themselves these ten questions before they stop traffic, jam networks, take over buildings or otherwise make life miserable for people who have little or nothing to do with what is being protested
1. Is this protest just and necessary?
2. Is the primary motive for the protest personal, selfish, or narrow?
3. Is the means of protest appropriate to the objective?
4. Is there a significant chance that it will achieve an ethical objective or contribute to doing so?
5. What will this protest cost, and who will have to pay the bill?
6. Will the individuals or organizations that are the targets of the protest also be the ones who will most powerfully feel its effects?
7. Will innocent people be adversely affected by this action? (If so, how many?)
8. Is there a significant possibility that anyone will be hurt or harmed? (if so, how seriously? How many people?)
9. Are you and your group prepared to take full responsibility for the consequences of the protest?
10. Would an objective person feel that the protest is fair, reasonable, and proportional to its goal?
11. What is the likelihood that the protest will be remembered as important, coherent, useful, effective and influential?
12. Could the same resources, energy and time be more productively used toward achieving the same goals, or better ones?
I have posted various versions of the Checklist before, on the way to the final iteration above. The most frequent objection has been that almost no protests or demonstrations meet the standards articulated.
That is correct. Almost no protests do, because almost all protests are unethical, and do more harm than good.