Category Archives: Ad Hominem

Another problem with ad hominem argument

I’ve posted a few times here at NS about how to think of various functions of ad hominem abusive argument, how to see them as in the service of airing greivances, expressing exasperation, or even sometimes as being relevant.   And then there are non-argumentative versions of abuse — that it’s just there for the sake of making the exchange unpleasant. (And thereby, upping the costs for critical dialogue, and consequently, providing motivation to avoid argument in the future.)

President Trump has been the target for a number of abuses for his  purportedly small hands and his hair.

And there are the Mitch McConnell is a turtle memes.

Oh! And Ann Coulter is ugly memes, too.

It’s a little fun, for sure.  But then there are the Hillary is ugly/shrill/horrible line of thought, which (given my political bent) seems objectionable.

As John noted, sometimes, our communicative-argumentative exchanges are less in the service of inquiry, but for the sake of airing of the grievances.   But they can have a chilling effect on speech, and I think that taking too much pleasure in them (and spending a great deal of time thinking about them and making them) is bad for us.  It’s like spending too much time fantasizing about giving people you hate some comeuppance, or focusing on what a terrible person someone is.  It’s natural, but impedes solving the problem or getting on with the rest of your life.

Now there is the focus on the appearance of Rob Goldstone, the Trump contact and publicist who made the introduction between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya. He’s a heafy guy.  Huffington Post’s hook for the story is titled, “From Russia with Schlub.”  They lead with the fact that Goldstone declared himself “in a serious relationship with bread.”  NYT’s story is that Goldstone “Likes silly hats and Facebook.”

The difference between the political cases and Goldstone is that with the latter, his appearance and his name on an email is all we seem to know about him.  And, again, isn’t focusing on his appearance a misuse of our time and an encouragement of our worst inclinations? John and I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the drawbacks of the adversariality of argument — seeing those you argue with as enemies or opponents.  For sure, that’s a good way to see disagreements, especially if you, by hypothesis, think someone’s wrong.  But this adversariality can start to get in the way of good argument, conviviality, and even minimal civility for just living together.  And so, in the same way that we cringe at the Festivus airing of greivances, we should cringe when we see others give in to the temptation of making fun of or taking pleasure in the opposition’s imperfect appearance.  Contempt breeds contempt.

Two scoops of weak man

Time magazine ran a bit about how President Trump got two scoops of ice cream for desert after a dinner interview, while everyone else got just one.  CNN then ran a few stories about it.

So far, not fake news.  Ah, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is how Breitbart and Hannity are responding to the story.  Here’s Hannity’s tweet:

The implication is that the story isn’t newsworthy, so CNN (and Time) are undercut as news organizations for running with it.

The first thing is a version of the weak man point.  Judging a news organization on the basis of its weakest story is uncharitable, especially if it’s a slower news day.   Puff pieces happen when you’ve got a 24-hour news channel.  One nut-picked puff piece does not a case against a network make.  So long as it’s not made up, poorly sourced, or misleading, how exactly is this bad journalism?

The second thing is that I’m not sure what the argument against the story is beyond the implication that it comes off a little petty.  But here’s the thing: the character of the President of the United States is a matter of significant import. (I’d posted something on this point about ad hominem a little while back.)  And what we seem to keep getting is a picture of a very selfish person.  Sure, it’s not a scoop on whether there are “tapes” of the conversation Trump had with Comey, and it’s not a discovery of evidence of collusion with Russia.  But it is yet one more story confirming what we’d had a pretty good idea of to begin with, and that the office has had no change on the character of the man inhabiting it.


Scumbag Teacher Meme

The scumbag teacher meme is one of the classic tu quoque memes on the internet.  It’s regularly: won’t accept late work, but takes forever to return papers; berates students for wasting time, but chats with students about stuff through class; has a Ph.D., but uses ‘irregardless’.  There are other non-tu quoque versions, too, like requires that you learn cursive, cancels class just 5 minutes before or with a note on the door, requires an expensive but never used textbook.  Most of the instances are misunderstandings about how education works and why teachers need more support (and more pay), but they are stand-ins for some frustration folks have with the current educational climate.

In a new instance of the scumbag teacher meme move, Jim Geraghty at NRO has an objection to how the Day without a Woman Protest is affecting schools.  You see, because so many women are teachers in the Alexandria schools, they ‘ve had to cancel school for a ‘teacher work day’.  Geraghty then identifies the troubles facing the schools:

Alexandria’s public schools underperform the statewide average in subject after subject. In the 2015–16 school year, 80 percent of Virginia students passed English proficiency exams; 73 percent of students in Alexandria did. In math, 80 percent statewide passed; 68 percent of Alexandria students did. Statewide, 77 percent of students passed a test of writing proficiency; 69 percent of Alexandria students did. In history, 86 percent of students passed statewide; 77 percent of Alexandria students did. In science, 83 percent of students statewide passed; 69 percent of Alexandria students did.. . .
[T]he ills that plague Alexandria schools and, indeed, schools around the country… [are] unlikely to be solved by “A Day Without a Woman.”

Here it is in a meme:

Here’s Geragthy’s final analysis:

Apparently, they’ve decided that standing up to the sexist menace across the river in Washington and nationwide is more important to them than doing their actual jobs. It’s a shame they aren’t more concerned with the tangible problems those jobs present every day.
But the trouble is that people can walk and chew gum at the same time.  Teachers can be worried about X and it can be at the top of their priority list, but they can also be worried about Y and Z, too.  And that means that they can even make some room to do Y and Z, too.  John had a nice observation about this a few weeks back with the ‘think of the children‘ trope.  In  this case, however, it’s a case of a red herring of assessing the importance of X with the greater importance of Y.
Another way to see this would be as an instance of a perfectionist’s false dilemma, or as John termed it a few years back, argumentum ad imperfectionem.  That it would be preferable for teachers to be in class for every day of scheduled school is correct, but this is not a perfect world.  And teachers are at liberty to use their personal days as they see fit.  That they all use them on the same day for a political purpose, well, is in an important way, exactly the point they were trying to make.

Tu Quoqu…erm

Arguments from hypocrisy can legitimately target a number of features of a speaker’s case.  They may show that a proposal is really impractical, or they may show that things are more complicated than the speaker’s pronouncements make it seem.  Or they, in ad hominem fashion, may show that the speaker lacks the ethotic standing (has a moral right) to lecture us about X, Y, or Z.  But they usually are irrelevant — that’s why they have a name for the fallacy, the tu quoque.

One, I think uncontroversial, constraint on these (even fallacious) versions of arguments from inconsistency/hypocrisy is that the two events must be actually inconsistent.  Otherwise, no hypocrisy.  Surely, an argument from hypocrisy needs for there to be hypocrisy, first.

Enter Jerome Hudson over at Breitbart with his clearly newsworthy report on Matt Damon’s apparent hypocrisy:

 “Great Wall” Star: “I’m not a fan of walls”

So, how is this news? Moreover, I don’t see the hypocrisy.  The Matt Damon movie is about a wall keeping out lizard monsters and what look like sword-wielding dragons.  The Trump wall isn’t designed for that purpose, no matter how racist you are.

Tu Quoque, Mr. President

I’ve been wondering for a while about what exactly gets shown with tu quoque arguments.  Is it that the premise is false, or no longer justified?  Since it’s an ad hominem form of the argument, perhaps it is more just a case against the people speaking, perhaps that they don’t understand their own case or aren’t sincere.  Or is it that they have a double standard. I think that, depending on the setup, these are all on the table.  Though the last one, the attack on the ethos of the speaker on the other side using a double standard is the most likely and most argumentatively plausible.

Here’s why.  When we charge tu quoque, it’s often a culmination of a series of argumentative exchanges.  Sometimes over years.  What we’ve got then is a lot of evidence about the person’s argumentative and intellectual character.  The tu quoque is a kind of caught-red-handed moment you serve up to show that the person’s not an honest arbiter of critical standards.  That they play fast and loose, and always to their own advantage, with evidence, degrees of scrutiny, and what’s outrageous or not.

Amanda Terkel at Huffpost, with “Trump Administration Absolutely Outraged Someone would try to Delegitimize a President” has an interesting tu quoque with the Republicans about the recent accusations that the current President isn’t legitimate.  Take, for example, John Lewis saying, in response to the challenge that The Russians had interfered with the election:

I do not see Trump as a Legitimate President.

The result was that the Republicans responded pretty harshly (including Trump’s tweet).  But then they complained about the negativity in the media about the Presidency, and Reince Priebus (ex-RNC Chair, now Trump’s Chief of Staff) complained that

There’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen. . . .You didn’t have Republicans questioning whether or not Obama legitimately beat John McCain in 2008

But wait, Amanda Terkel points out.  Trump very famously was a birther.  And so had been on a years-long de-legitimating campaign.

So what follows?  A regular phenomenon with tu quoque arguments is that pointing out the hypocrisy is the end of the game.  No conclusions are offered, and so it goes with the Terkel piece.

Again, my thoughts have been that a conclusion about the target proposition very rarely can be supported by the tu quoque, but some cases are relevant to the issue.  Again, if the challenge is to the sincerity or the intellectual honesty of a speaker, especially with double-standards, there are conclusions we can draw.  But does the fact that it’s politics make it worse or better?

A weary ad hominem

It’s an old trope to cast feminists as ugly.  The following inference seems to be either a direct ad hominem or a kind of debunking strategy on their claims.  The direct ad hominem runs as follows:

S is ugly

Therefore, the things S says aren’t worth our time

Notice that the direct argument has application to anyone, regardless of gender or politics.  The debunking argument works as a kind of explanation for the things S says — essentially, that they don’t track truths, but are mere expressions of resentment. The debunking argument, importantly, is uniquely targeting women who are feminists.

S is an ugly woman

Ugly woman have little chance with men

This causes them to be resentful

Out of resentment, they emote using terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘misogyny’.

Therefore, the things S says amount to mere emoting

The first form is a pretty clear error in relevance, the second is actually an instance of exactly the kind of sexist attitudes S’s feminism was criticizing.   But, hey, so it goes for those who rely on the ad hominem for their argumentative strategies — they hardly recognize when their use of it exemplifies precisely what the problem challenged is.   It seems to be in higher relief, though, with these cases applied to feminists.

Enter James Delingpole, over at Breitbart.  In some ways, I expect he’s just trolling (it’s a modified version of Poe’s Law — with right wing pigeons, you can’t tell whether they are serious, someone else lampooning them, or them embracing their worst sides just to get a rise out of you).  But, if the Poe point is right, who knows? In response to the Women’s Marches this last Sunday, he tweets:

Sheesh.  That’s just silly. Not just because folks were coming from well beyond DC. But here’s where things get bad, because Delingpole follows up the tweet with his article, and he puts a little edge on the issue.  Ad hominem edge, that is.

But this is self-evidently impossible. Very few of these shrieking munters – save the token celebrities – will ever find themselves in a position where they are able to fetch a man’s beer from his fridge because first they would have to find a man willing to share the same space with them.

Yep.  That’s what he wrote.  And the lesson he takes from it is that these folks are representative of what a Clinton Presidency would have looked like.

I think we owe those women who took to the streets across the world in their various pod groups a massive favour. They have reminded us what a Hillary presidency would have looked like every single day for at least four years.

Again, what’s it look like?

… the usual ragbag of leftist suspects, far too many of them blue hair, their whale-like physiques and terrifying camel-toes the size of the Grand Canyon.

Holy crap.  Let me take a breath here.  Does Breitbart have an editor over there?

The point I want to highlight how the use of one version of the ad hominem on feminists is a perfect picture of exactly the problem that feminists are out to address.  I think the only way someone could make this error so consistently is unless either (a) the person is trollling and is doing it intentionally for the sake of irritating a political opponent, (b) the person really doesn’t hear the critique as a critique, but, per the argument, just as empty emoting.  Either way, it’s an argumentative failure.  But, perhaps more importantly, a moral one, too.

Judged by your fans

Pope Francis I has criticized corporate greed and capitalism’s systematic failure to ensure that people are not exploited.  Despite the fact that the communists have a longstanding critical attitude toward the Catholic Church, Mark Gruenberg at The People’s World, has applauded the new pope’s statements. (More on the pope’s views regarding the church’s “worldliness” here.)

When communists agree with the Pope, it’s time for conservatives to get antsy.  Especially conservative Catholics.  Cue Paul Kegnor at AmSpec.  Kegnor is careful to note first that:

The article quoted the pontiff several times. To be sure, few of us would disagree with any of the quotes.

So not it’s that the communists agree with what the Pope says that’s the problem.  It’s that communists agree with pope says.  That’s the problem.

Communists, of all people, finally believe they have a pope who agrees with them, that they like, that they can embrace, that they can encourage. I knew that Francis’ controversial interview on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage had thrilled liberals, liberal Catholics, dissident Catholics, secular progressives, agnostics, atheists, and socialists. You can read their websites. They love this guy. But communists?

Oh, yeah, I hear you.  When I find out that I endorse views held by a group I hold in contempt, I never take that as evidence that I may not have an accurate representation of that group.  I always take it that their agreement with me (or with the things said by another person that I agree with) is either strategic or based on their misunderstandings.  Never ever should, say, a Catholic think that Luke’s social justice doctrines have any resonance with concerns about capitalism.  Kegnor’s clear about it:

It seems to me that this is not the kind of praise that the pope should want.

Of course, the problem is that if Kegnor thinks that few people would disagree with what Pope Francis said, then aren’t there many, many others who’d be trouble, too?  For sure, politics makes strange bedfellows.  But why is one’s credibility in question when there are many who take you as credible?


Ad tyrannem


OK, the old Godwin’s Law observation with Ad Hitlerem is standard.  And we’ve here noted the Ad Stalinem.  But Glenn Beck just used, in his NYT interview, an analogy with Mao Tse-Tung with similar effect.

 I think these guys (progressives) are the biggest danger in the world. It’s the people like Mao, people that believe that big government is the answer, it always leads to millions dead — always.

For sure, Hitler analogies deserve their own name, but they are of a specific class of arguments by analogy roughly captured as the argument by analogy with some tyrant, so I’ve proposed Ad Tyrannem as the general class.

Oh, another irony is that not but a paragraph up from the implication that progressives will be putting people to death, Beck wishes that the American people could just get along.

Tu quo… um, what?

Here’s the setup for a meta-tu quoqueStage 1: A makes crazy claim.  Stage 2: B criticizes A for crazy claim.  Stage 3: A defends A’s claim by noting B’s criticism is based on a double-standard. Stage 4: B notes that A, in charging a double-standard, employs a double standard. I’ve noted elsewhere here at the NS that some forms of double-standard arguments are relevant and argumentatively appropriate.  (And John, Colin, and I also published a paper on it a year ago.)

OK, so here’s application.  Stage 1:  Brian Kilmeade of Fox News said he wouldn’t support the Syrian opposition groups, because they say “Allahu Akbar” when they score military successes.  Stage 2: John McCain criticizes Kilmeade for Islamophobia.  (Here’s the Huffpo review of the exchange.)  Stage 3: George Neumayr at AmSpec defends Kilmeade noting that McCain’s criticism deploys a double standard:

When Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said on Tuesday that he didn’t want to back Syrian rebels who scream “Allahu Akbar!” after bombing buildings, McCain, revealing the Islamophilia behind America’s Arab-Spring foreign policy, replied that those chants don’t bother him. “They are moderates,” he said, dismissing the chants as no more “offensive” than a Christian who says “thank God.” Too bad Kilmeade didn’t ask McCain to give examples of Christians yelling “thank God” after slitting someone’s throat.

The first trouble is that Kilmeade is taking the speech act performed after a horrible deed to be identify the perpetrator as representative of the group that speech act indicates.  So because a Muslim terrorist says “Allahu Akbar” after a terrorist incident, those who say “Allahu Akbar” are dangerous radicals.  McCain’s reply is by way of counter-examples – Christians say “Thank God” all the time… that’s what the phrase is analogous to.  Neumayr’s case is that McCain’s double standard is not to take extreme behavior as representative.

Here’s stage 4: Religious man murders his friend after his friend tells him he’s an atheist.  We don’t take that as representative, do we?

That’s not hypocrisy

Actor Matt Damon is an advocate for public schools. He also is currently sending his kids to a private school.  When asked why his kids aren’t going to public schools, his answer was that they were not progressive enough.  The conservative media went crazy.  Sean Hannity in this VIDEO says:

If you love public schools so much, why don’t you send your own kids there, Matty?

The piece is, of course, titled “Hollywood Hypocrite?”.  First, there’s the obvious problem with the tu quoque fallacy – hypocrisy is rarely relevant to the acceptability of the conclusion, and is more a matter of turning our attention to the person speaking and less to the matter at hand.  Hence we call it a specie of ad hominem.

But I don’t see Damon’s case as hypocrisy.  Being a public school advocate means that you want the public schools to be better and teachers to be treated with dignity.  If you live in a place where those ends aren’t being met, it’s not hypocrisy for you to send your kids to private schools.  You may not be buying in by sending your kids in, but you still pay your property taxes and can still look out for teachers.  That’s not hypocrisy, because there’s no inconsistency there.  It’s like saying: We should fix the refrigerator, but move the food to your portable cooler in the meantime.