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? rbrenaRunsyvZuwUepDZNner@ChacOojSYkroALNCxHNGoCanyon.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:

U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Rabin and Arafat shake handsCommunication Templates: I
Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
The portrait of Alexander Hamilton that appears on the U.S. 10-dollar noteCommunication Templates: II
Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication templates.
The Gatun Locks of the Panama CanalThe Power of Situational Momentum
For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
An iphone 7Compulsive Talkers at Work: Peers II
Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now concludes, with Part II of a set of suggestions for what to do when peers who talk compulsively interfere with your work.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An informal meeting geometryComing November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
A beefsteak, with some amount of fatAnd on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenFmtoaMLJahawXWisner@ChacIYUxeFMJMbIyDzCjoCanyon.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.