Argumentum ad hominem

| January 14, 2019

As an owner of a B2B business, Facebook isn’t my first choice in social media application, instead I use LinkedIn and Twitter for my business. However, over the summer holidays I started looking at Facebook which I use primarily to stay in-touch with my family and friends, many of which are in New Zealand.

There was an article posted on Facebook about the forthcoming visitor levy for tourists visiting New Zealand.  Most comments were of the vein “slug the tourists, and if they don’t want to pay then we don’t want them”.  I politely commented that placing a levy was not going to resolve the problem as tourist numbers grew 30% in that last four years to 3.8 million tourists in a country of 4.5 million citizens (which 1 million live overseas).

The lack of planning for the growth has caused the problem.  Anyway, you may or may not agree with my argument, but what annoyed me, and yes, I’ll admit it, actually upset me, were the personal attacks about me, my occupation, my fishing interests, and then the one that really irked me – my business.  The ad hominem arguments really had me riled.

Argumentum ad hominem is Latin for ‘argument to the person’ and is an argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. (Wikipedia).

Now it’s not just on Facebook that ad hominem arguments occur, and I usually think I’ll play the bigger person and let the comments wash by or walk away.  The problem was on Facebook every person on Facebook – the millions – can participate in the ad hominem comments.

Jürgen Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism.  He has some theories on communication modes that provide some reasons why people make ad hominem arguments in the first place.

  • The teleological mode whereby the person making an ad hominem argument believe that an argument is like a competition whereby winning or dominating is the goal.
  • The normative reasoning mode whereby the arguer believes the correct position is already known, to them.There is no true argument to make, only stubborn people who refuse to acknowledge the known truth.
  • The dramaturgical mode whereby the arguer believes that the argument is entirely about social positioning and the only meaningful outcome concerns which person looks best in the eyes of the third parties.

What I prefer to think as the proper purpose of an argument is as a communication process whose goal is the growth of both personal and mutual understanding.  So, what can you do when being confronted with an ad hominem attack?

One approach is to say a variation of this from Ted Wrigley:

That was a personal attack, so you automatically lose the argument. Sorry. If you’d like to re-offer your last comment without the personal comments then you may still convince me, but otherwise… Thanks for the discussion, and I’ll take my win and go home.

I don’t like confrontation much, so this is no usually my preferred strategy, and I’m more likely just to walk away which is what I did on the visitor levy debate.  It does, however, accomplish three things

  • It gives you the possibility of winning which is important in the teleological mode and lets the arguer that made the ad hominem arguments know they are using a losing strategy.
  • It makes the normative reasoning arguer do something active.They cannot be absolutely correct and also lose the argument, so they have to make an argument or walk away.
  • With the dramaturgical arguer it undercuts their personal integrity by pointing out the personal attack and shows them how to restore their integrity by removing it.

The point is to refocus the argument on ‘convincing others,’ by pointing out that others can still convince you if they argue correctly (and not otherwise).  This strategy doesn’t always work though.  The effort is to get the other person into the mode of trying to communicate and convince you of something.

A lot of arguments will end without any obvious result: other people walking away angry and frustrated, their side of the conversation deteriorating into mere nastiness, or them silently disappearing (like me).  Some will think we are being infuriatingly reasonable (on purpose, to annoy them, who me).  But we have to keep in mind that the goal is not winning, or being right, or looking good; the goal is creating the right atmosphere for communication, from which everything else will follow.

So, my goal for 2019, is to keep argumentum ad hominem in mind and to call others out for personal attacks.  This is part of my larger goal of being kinder this year.  I challenge you to as well.

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Stephen Barnes

Stephen Barnes is the principal of management consultancy Byronvale Advisors and the author of ‘Run Your Business Better’. He has spent over 20 years advising clients from start-ups to publicly listed companies and prides himself on understanding their issues and producing pragmatic solutions.