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. Continue reading