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:
- Divisive Debates and Virulent Victories
- When groups decide divisive issues, harmful effects can linger for weeks, months, or forever. Although
those who prevail might be ready to "move on," others might feel so alienated that they experience
even daily routine as fresh insult and disparagement. How a group handles divisive issues can determine
- Virtual 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.
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus
about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace,
but that trouble is often avoidable.
- Agenda Despots: I
- Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting chairs,
meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control,
they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
- So You Want the Bullying to End: I
- If you're the target of a workplace bully, you probably want the bullying to end. If you've ever been
the target of a workplace bully, you probably remember wanting it to end. But how it ends can be more
important than whether or when it ends.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.