Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 46;   November 14, 2012:

Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this class of errors.
Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago

Richard Posner is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. The author of nearly 40 books, he is an influential thought leader in the law and economics. According to the Journal of Legal Studies he is the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century. In the September 13, 2012, issue of The New Republic, he reviewed Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, a book by Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner. Antonin Scalia is a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Bryan Garner is an attorney, lexicographer, and editor-in-chief of all current editions of Black's Law Dictionary. In his review of their book, Judge Posner dissects the opinions of Justice Scalia, presenting a careful critique of the Justice's approach to judging. The response to this review from Justice Scalia's allies and admirers has been voluminous. In particular, it has included numerous charges that Judge Posner has engaged in "gratuitous ad hominem attacks."

These charges are unfounded. For example, although Judge Posner's critique of the book does include examples of inconsistencies in the opinions of Justice Scalia, these examples aren't instances of ad hominem tu quoque. In effect, according to Judge Posner, Justice Scalia is illustrating through his own inconsistencies the poverty of his own position. Such claims are not ad hominem attacks. Rather, they are illustrations of the failure of Justice Scalia's argument that he is an authority on textualism.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

In debate, an attack is ad hominem if it's intended to refute the opponent's position by discrediting the opponent personally, independent of the issue at hand, rather than by refuting the opponent's argument. For example, "Your ideas about how to finish this project on time are worthless, because you can't even submit your status reports on time." Because ad hominem attacks can mislead, groups that don't recognize them when they happen can make unwise decisions.

All personal attacks need not be ad hominem attacks. The more run-of-the-mill personal attacks include situations in which the attacker is engaged in bullying, or the attacker harbors a long-held personal grudge. Personal attacks are ad hominem attacks if they are attempts to refute arguments based on faulty reasoning. In an ad hominem attack, the attacker, as a means of debate, discredits the attacked person.

To reduce the incidence of ad hominem attacks, and to enable your group or team to recognize them when they occur, train the group in advance as part of the group formation process. Here are some concepts that can be part of a strong foundation.

Know the various forms of ad hominem attacks
ad hominem attacks come in endless variety. An attack on a female based on feminine attributes or stereotypes is an ad feminam attack. (As far as I know, there is no name for the analogous attack on a male based on male stereotypes.) An attack based on the biases of an advocate is an ad hominem circumstantial. An attack based on hypocrisy is an ad hominem tu quoque. An attack based on the similarity between the advocate's views and the views of some widely discredited individual is called guilt by association.
Understand the risks of identifying ad hominem attacks
Dismissing an argument as an ad hominem attack risks being seen as engaging in an ad hominem attack yourself. To limit this risk, demonstrate that the attacker is attempting to refute the attacked person's argument. Then demonstrate that the attacker is employing a personal attack to do it. This isn't easy to do in the context of an ad hominem, because many people don't really understand what an ad hominem attack is, and many don't know what's wrong with ad hominem attacks.
Understand cloaked harassment
There is a gray area. It's possible that a bully, or someone harboring a personal grudge, might use faulty reasoning intentionally as a way of harassing a target. Superficially, this might look like an ad hominem attack, but it is actually bullying or harassment. I draw Dismissing an argument as an
ad hominem attack risks
being seen as engaging
in an ad hominem
attack yourself
this distinction because dealing with bullying or harassment requires approaches that differ from those we use for ad hominem attacks.

Identifying ad hominem attacks can be tricky. For example, when the basis of an advocate's argument is personal authority, questioning the validity of that authority isn't an ad hominem attack, even though it might look like one. Be very careful. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Facilitation Suggestions from Meeting Participants  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more on ad hominem attacks, see "Mudfights," Point Lookout for April 14, 2004.

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