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 yourselfthis 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. Top Next Issue
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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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Responding to Threats: II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often
are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to
avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- Discussion Distractions: I
- Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions
that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently
seen in meetings.
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: II
- To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not
sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more likely
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 24: The Stupidity Attribution Error
- In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities. Available here and by RSS on July 24.
- And on July 31: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
- When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my personal collection. Available here and by RSS on July 31.
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