Ah, nothing warms my heart like someone pointing out fallacies. But pointing out ad hominem abusive is, really, just a little too easy. And people, especially because they often take criticism of their views to also be criticism of them personally, over-report instances of this fallacy. (Easy way to see this: imagine someone's just told you, in the midst of an argument, "think about it" — what's the implication but that you've not thought about it yet?)
The Professional Right has been put off by how often what they've seen as the ad hominem abusive gets used against them. Ann Coulter, if you'll remember, had a whole book cataloging all the names conservatives have been called. Carol Platt Liebau (over at TownHall.com) has weighed in on the issue, and she's against being called a stupid bigot. And so with the (ahem) Ground Zero Mosque debate:
The recent debate about an imam’s plans to locate a large mosque at Ground Zero has highlighted, as never before, the liberal elite’s utter contempt for the sensibilities of regular Americans. From the President on down, those in favor of the mosque’s construction at Ground Zero have characterized the opponents as ruled only by emotion – especially animus toward all Muslims.
And on the recent California gay marriage case:
Recently, an unelected federal judge struck down a state constitutional amendment passed by a solid majority of Californians – and supported by a majority of Americans generally – that defined marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. He did so by concluding that there was no rational basis for the measure he had overturned; its only conceivable purpose, according to the judge, was to “enshrine in the California Constitution” an assertion that “opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.” In other words, Judge Vaughn Walker characterized every single American who has reservations about changing the age-old institution of marriage as irrational bigots.
She sees these liberal types as taking the argumentative situation as one with utter dopes and fools:
Given that the President, Vaughn Walker, and much of the commentariat in favor of the Ground Zero mosque are part of the supposed intellectual and cultural “elite” in this country, the arrogance – and paucity of their moral imagination – is breathtaking. In their formulation, stupidity, ignorance and bigotry are the only conceivable reasons for opposition to anything they deem moral or just.
I am very much sympathetic to Liebau's point — it's best to have as one's defaults that one's argumentative opponents are reasonable, moral humans. That not only prevents escalation, but it also will likely make it so that both sides will actually work together on finding an acceptable solution to the disagreement. (I've actually got some research with Robert Talisse in the works on what we call the "no reasonable alternatives" mindset that all too often takes over when one enters into clear argumentative contexts — more later on that.) One of the ways to keep from feeding argumentative escalation is to keep the ad hominem temptation down — just because they're wrong about some matter of moral significance needn't mean that they are benighted, stupid, or evil. It just means they're wrong. And so now Liebau is going to show us how to do disagreement respectfully? Right? … Right?
Their intellectual and personal disrespect for those who disagree with them is breathtaking – and it is unleavened by even the slightest dash of humility. . . . The irony, of course, is that in its eagerness to denounce the intolerance and shortsightedness of the masses, the liberal elite reveals itself to be shortsighted and intolerant. . . . Increasingly, that kind of contempt emanates from those who consider themselves the meritocracy’s crowning glory. To put it in terms they can understand, it’s hypocritical to claim solidarity with “the common man” while despising everything he holds dear.
Oh well. Glad to see that someone's good at least good at recognizing abusive language in others. It's a start. Of sorts.