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

Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks

by

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenoSVduzOctcmvVDnFner@ChacTqWSyZXufqEHdKBsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van GoghVirtual Conflict
Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
Damage to Purple Loosestrife due to feeding by the galerucella beetleLateral Micromanagement
Lateral micromanagement is the unwelcome intrusion by one co-worker into the responsibilities of another. Far more than run-of-the-mill bossiness, it's often a concerted attempt to gain organizational power and rank, and it is toxic to teams.
Caneel with a close friend (me)Why Others Do What They Do
If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
Young chickensToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
A blue peacock of IndiaThe Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate.

See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrengRGxxiAmuEdwQEmKner@ChacWthMMGOaaCPsVByEoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.