We’re all familiar with the argumentum ad hominem. Out of all the logical fallacies, it might be the most common on the internet. A person commits an ad hominem when he cites a character defect as a way to defeat an argument. “That guy is an asshole. Don’t listen to anything he says.”
Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time driving and consequently, a lot of time listening to talk radio. In the process, I re-discovered what I used to call a “stealth attack ad hominem.” It’s a very clever way of attacking someone’s credibility or reliability without ever having to directly attack them. Here’s an example:
Host: Well, Caller, what do you think needs to be done at airports to cut down on the inconvenience for everybody? You don’t want to stop doing searches, right? Of course you don’t want to compromise security and allow the terrorists to commit another attack, do you? (Never mind the loaded questions for now. — HD)
Caller: No, of course not. But there are ways to do screening more intelligently. I was at the airport last weekend and they had a little old lady, maybe seventy years old, and they were holding everybody up to figure out what was on her that was setting off the metal detector. And she wasn’t, you know, a likely terrorist. Just a nice lady trying to get to her family for Thanksgiving. We don’t have to do that. It just takes some common sense and…
Host: (Cuts off caller) Well now, I think I’ve got to stop you right there, Caller. The thing is, you’re talking about profiling, and that’s just not something we need to be doing in America. Maybe you think that’s ok, but I don’t…
I hear this kind of argument all the time, and it’s usually very successful. As a culture, we’ve got some buzzwords that are powerful enough to end a discussion by themselves. Sexism, profiling, objectification, liberal, socialism, tax increase, elitist… These are all words that are charged with negative emotional connotations. When someone uses one of them, two subconscious and tenacious assumptions are invoked:
- I’m talking to one of those kinds of people.
- What he’s talking about is wrong.
Chalk it up to Rupert Murdoch if you like. Or Rush. Or W. It doesn’t matter who we blame. The results are the same. In order for someone to win the day once their opponent has tossed out one of these stealth attack words, he’s got two deeply ingrained assumptions to overcome. First, he’s got to convince everyone that he’s not one of those kinds of people — the kind who advocates profiling, or raising taxes, or objectification. But this task isn’t as easy as it seems because he might have been victimized by a loophole in the ad hominem. It’s not always a fallacy! Sometimes a person’s “character flaw” can be an integral part of the reason their argument is right! So they’re caught in a loop. The ad hominem reduces the chance people will listen to the argument, which is valid in connection with the point being made. Let me illustrate.
Caller: Profiling can be a very useful tool in defeating terrorism and reducing both stress and delays for travelers.
Host: Well, I’m not ok with singling someone out because of, you know, their race or ethnicity. That just goes against everything America was founded on. Equality for all, you know?
At this point, the caller is behind the 8-ball. Before he can even begin to convince his audience that he’s right, he’s got to convince them that he’s not a racist. But that’s going to be awfully difficult when the very point he’s trying to make is that profiling — which includes selection by race — is a good thing. He can’t argue either way. If he says, “I’m not a racist,” the host will point out that he just advocated racism. If he says profiling is good, he will be accused of being a racist. End of discussion.
Except that his point is true. Targeting potential terrorists involves estimating the likelihood that someone is a terrorist. Caucasian Grandma, Aunt, and eight year old Nephew carrying souvenir cups from Gatlinburg? Not likely terrorists. Middle Eastern man with one briefcase travelling alone on a ticket booked ten minutes earlier? Much more likely. Frazzled looking college girl travelling alone with one bag on a ticket booked ten minutes earlier, passionately kissing her boyfriend goodbye? Not so likely. If screeners employed profiling tactics while people were still waiting in line, they could hurry a lot of people through with minimum delay and focus their attention on real security risks.
But you have to be willing to accept a certain amount of “racism” to even consider the option. So the host is correct — the caller can be rightly accused of a kind of racism. But pointing that out doesn’t add to the discussion. It makes the caller look bad and reduces the chance that anyone will listen to what he has to say.
I’ve seen this technique used by extremists on both sides of the philosophical aisle. On the far right, accusations of liberalism or socialism are the death knell for any civilized exchange. On the other side, I’ve seen radical feminists spend pages of diatribe attacking someone’s position as “sexist” or “sex-negative.” In both cases, the implied ad hominem says that anyone who would advocate any position involving one of these buzzwords must be “that kind of person,” which means we shouldn’t listen to them. And this has the almost magical effect of making the audience forget to even question whether there’s merit to the argument. It doesn’t matter. Only bad people would make such an argument.
Clever stuff. Don’t fall for it.