Tag Archives: ad hominem abusive

James Brown’s hair

One reason we started this blog so many years ago was to create a repository of examples of bad arguments. There were, we thought, so many. There are, we still think, so many.

Since then, we’ve expanded our focus to theoretical questions about argumentation. One such question is whether there are actually any fallacious arguments at all. Part of this question concerns the usefulness of a meta-language of argument evaluation. Argument has a tendency to eat everything around it, which means evaluations of arguments will be included in the argument itself. To use a sports analogy, penalties are not separate from the game, they’re part of the strategy of the game. The use of fallacies, then, is just another layer of argument strategy and practice.

That’s not the usual argument, I think, against employing a meta-language of fallacy evaluation. Often rather the discussion hinges one whether such moves can be precisely identified, or whether it’s practically useful to point them out. These, like the first, are both excellent considerations.

On the other hand, there’s a heuristic usefulness to a set of meta-terms for argument evaluation. For one, it’s nice to have an organized mind about these things.  Second, people tend to make the same moves over and over. Consider this one from Bill O’Reilly last week:

In case you can’t watch, a brief summary (courtesy of CNN):

During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” O’Reilly reacted to a clip of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said of Waters. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

“If we have a picture of James Brown — it’s the same wig,” he added.

The classical version of the ad hominem goes like this: some speaker is disqualified on grounds not relevant to their competence, accuracy, etc. This seems like a pretty textbook example.

This brings me to another reason people have for skepticism about the usefulness of fallacy theory: fallacies, such as the one above, are so rare that it’s just not useful to spend time theorizing about them.

I don’t think so.


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.

ad effeminandos animos*

The above image was tweeted by Barackobama.com last week. I suppose the idea is that people should talk about health insurance while they do the usual non-alcoholic holiday things.

Sadly, this image has also forced some people to regress to adolescent bullying. Here’s the always regrettable Jonah Goldberg:

If you try to play out the life of Pajama Boy in your mind, he probably has a girlfriend. It’s just that she’s wearing the pants in the relationship, as they used to say. I picture her like Sarah Silverman in School of Rock or the girlfriend at the beginning of Office Space who everyone knows is cheating on Peter.


Pajama Boy is a Low-T liberal who wears a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt and flinches whenever his girlfriend makes a sudden movement…

So the argument goes like this: the sissy in the photograph, who has a girlfriend who physically dominates him, demonstrates that the Affordable Care Act does not address America’s health care needs.

*Caesar, de Bello Gallico I.1: “Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind”

At least be relevant for Chrissake

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass must have trouble reading.  Here's his analysis of a passage from a recent Obama speech:

"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," said Obama at a campaign speech in Ohio last week. "Michelle wasn't. But somebody gave us a chance — just like these fine folks up here are looking for a chance."

The spoon flashed as he stepped forward and tried to slip it somewhere between Romney's political ribs, the message unmistakable: Romney is the rich man, caring only for the rich, and I am the anti-Romney, born poor and guardian of the people.

Naturally, the class warrior didn't mention charging regular folks $1,000 for a handshake at a fundraiser, but class warfare is the theme of the Democrats in 2012. The Republican is of the equestrian class that rides over the poor, leaving hoof prints on their necks. And Obama is of the people, so please forget that presidential media guru David Axelrod just dropped $1.7 million on a gorgeous Chicago condo.

Even the selected passage makes it clear that Obama is talking about fairness and opportunity.  So the argument would be something like this: "I had a chance to improve myself, I want the same for others." 

But what's more hilarious is that Kass then goes classic fallacious ad hominem: attacking irrelevant things about the President's current economic situation regarding (1) the realities of Presidential fundraising and (2) the amount of money an extremely successful political advisor on his team paid for his condo.  These two facts have nothing to do with anything Obama has claimed about fairness.  And they don't make him a hypocrite.  Or a "class warrior."

In all seriousness, it cannot be that hard to criticize Obama.  You might argue, for instance, that our system is not unfair.  I'd disagree, but at least that rises to the level of relevance. 

UPDATE: here is piece from The Colbert Report which underscores the degree to which Kass's mind has been occupied by Fox and Friends.

Ad hominems and drawing conclusions about character

Ad hominem abusive fallacies are fallacies of relevance.  The basic scheme for the fallacy type is:

P1: S holds that p

P2: S has some vice, X

C1:  Therefore, p is false (or unacceptable).

With my informal logic classes, I have the regular joke: Just because Brenda is a heavy drinker, that doesn't mean that she doesn't know much about politics — She may be a heavy drinker because she knows politics!  That gets lots of laughs, believe me.  But now, consider an argument of a different form, but composed of similar propositions:

P3: p is demonstrably false (i.e., there is sufficient and easily accessible evidence that p is false)

P4: S holds that p, despite P3

C2: Therefore, S has some vice X (where X = vices from simple stupidity to willful ignorance to suffers from ideological thinking)

Importantly, the argument has very similar claims as the ad hominem abusive, but it is of a different form — we are reasoning to S's vice, not from it.  Now, it is clear that this second kind of argument can be made hastily (as there is a big difference between being wrong and being stupid — that's the Fallacy of No Reasonable Alternatives, a species of false dilemma), but it does seem right that P3 and P4 are relevant to C2.  This second form of argument is one either (a) addressed to some third party about S or (b) addressed directly to S in order to request that S reform how she performs in argument regarding p (and perhaps other issues).

With the theoretical apparatus assembled, let's look at Steve Chapman's column, "Why Birtherism is Here to Stay," over at TownHall.com. 

There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better.

What is Chapman's explanation for this phenomenon — people who believe things that they should know better to not?

A poll taken after the release of his birth certificate showed 18 percent of those who have seen it still aren't convinced.  Something about this president impels many people to accept anything that is said about him, as long as it's unfavorable. . . .   Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him. People of this bent don't proceed from facts to a conclusion. They prefer to reach a conclusion and then scrounge for any facts — or "facts" — that support it.  For them, being told Obama is a natural-born American is like being told he's a loving father and a loyal friend. They won't buy it because it doesn't confirm what they want to be true.

The logician and pragmatist C.S. Peirce called these sorts of patterns of thought 'pseudoreasoning,' and it looks very much like a form of rationalizing.  And the key to the effectiveness of these strategies of thought is that the people making errors with them are not exposed to the consequences of being wrong.  If you pseudoreason your way to believing that you can fly, you pay the consequences.  But if you pseudoreason your way to believing that the President of the United States is a Muslim Marxist AntiChrist, you make lots of friends (and if you stop believing them, you lose those friends).

This is surprising only if you think of political views as a matter of logical reasoning. For many people, they really aren't. They're a way of indulging emotional impulses without suffering painful consequences. . . . [I]f thinking Obama is a foreigner brings you closer to people you like, you come out ahead. Birthers would rather be wrong than be divided from their allies. So the fiction that Obama was born in Kenya will endure, and many Americans will hold fast to a ridiculous article of faith that has been conclusively refuted.

The thing is that this does amount to calling Birthers credulous, ideological, and cognitively blind.  Chapman forgot one thing more for his piece: directing readers to the comments for this piece!

How not to defend yourself (gnu atheist style!)

For those of you who don't know, Rob Talisse and I have been posting about atheism and argumentative civility over at 3QuarksDaily.  First, here; the follow up here.  Our book, Reasonable Atheism is on the shelves now, too.   In the blog posts, we've been trying to untangle the ugliness about the charge of 'accommodationism' among the atheists. Well, that angers the gnus, because they keep thinking that people are wagging their fingers at them about tone.  And angry atheists don't like to be told to be nicer.  (And, by the way, nothing about what we'd written was about tone, anyway. So…)

We criticized PZ Myers, of pharyngula fame, for making an error we see a lot: holding a person in contempt for believing something you think is false.  The point is that there's a difference between being wrong and being stupid, and Myers makes the error all too often.  He posted a comment on our first entry (Feb 7, 2011 10:36:49 PM) and said that there are 'irrational reasons'.   But only people are irrational.  Reasons are irrelevant, insufficient, poorly arranged, and so on.  A person may be irrational for holding those reasons, but that's the point.  He's making the error in spades there.  We made the distinction again in the follow-up and even provided some examples.  And then Myers defends himself with this:

Dear sweet goddess of academic loquaciousness, is the whole book written in that style? Is anyone going to be able to read it? Those three paragraphs nearly killed me with their preening opacity! And, near as I can tell, all they're doing is fussing over the conjunction of two words that they found incomprehensible.

Wow.  That we were hard to read is a defense?  Seriously?  I now know why Myers thinks that most sophisticated defenses of religious belief are totally stupid.  He doesn't understand them, because he has no interest in reading hard things.   A shame, really, that someone who stands for rational discourse and reason helping has no interest in responding to criticism with any.

Oh, and if we needed to make explicit the form of the fallacy, it's ad hominem abusive.  Classic, baby, classic.

Why is X right? Well, because I’m an X-ist.

When addressed with the question whether X or Y is better, any reasonable person answering the question should be capable of  two speech acts: (1) a  determination of X or Y, and (2) producing a reason why that choice is a good one.   Often we just allow folks to just to perform (1), and we let them keep their reasons for themselves.  But its in the reasons that we find all sorts of interesting things, and we may, ourselves, learn something about X or Y.  Importantly, those reasons should be about X or Y, what properties they have, maybe their history, what about X or Y appeals to you.

Here's a kind of reason  that fails that requirement: I'm the kind of person who always chooses X.  Or, I was brought up choosing X.  Or, if X was good enough for my parents, X is good enough for me.   Now, those reasons are pretty weak — they amount to the concession that X and Y aren't objectively any better than one another, but because of the contingencies of history, I've ended up an X-ist.  Since it's just trouble to end up changing, I'll stay one.  Again, that's a reason, but a very weak one.  And one that, again, concedes that there's not much relevant difference between the two.  Ad populum arguments and those from tradition need not be fallacious, but even in their non-fallacious forms, they still aren't very good.  They, really, aren't answers to the question.  The question was which was better, not which you choose.

Here's another type of answer that fails, too.  Say that those who like Y are repulsive in some way.  Perhaps they all talk funny, or are from the wrong side of the tracks.  Maybe they don't dress right, drink too much, and so on.  Again, these speech acts effectively concede that there's very little to distinguish X and Y objectively, but the determination comes down to the kind of person who chooses one over the other.  But that's no determination of what's better, just an expression of distaste for other people being transferred to the things they believe. Um, ad hominem abusive, anyone?

All of this is a setup for a review of the Smart Girl Summit (note, don't click that link unless you're ready to see a pink-ified Capitol Building), a  gathering of conservative women, to discuss women's issues.  John Hawkins, of Human Events, covered the Summit (he also was a speaker), and he approvingly quotes a number of the attendees responding the the question: Who better represents the feminist ideal: conservative women or liberal women—and why.

Here are some of the responses:

"All I want to know is why do feminists hate women?"

"I would say conservative women because we can take care of ourselves."

"I've always thought conservative women, maybe because I am one."

The first two fall into the ad hominem variety.  The first one seems like it's from Upsidedownsville.  Moreover, it doesn't answer the question: who's better at capturing the core of feminism?  The answer: feminists hate women.  Well, at least it makes finding the answer easier.

The second, being a comparative judgment of the people, again, is an ad hominem reason.  But it's ambiguous.  "Take care of ourselves" can mean one of two things: (i) get a job, balance a checkbook, and make decisions without being told what to do by a man, or (ii) look nice.  I have suspicions (especially given the comments below the article) that it's (ii) — liberal feminists are ugly, and their hideousness is a reductio of their views.   It's an old slander, and one that doesn't go away, unfortunately.

The last one is just, well, sad. Confusing reasons and causes happens, but this is a particularly eggregious case.  Again, if the only determining factor as to why the third respondent chooses conservative feminism over liberal is the simple fact that she antecedently identifies as a conservative, then her answer is no indicator as to the compared value of what she chooses.  She's not responding to what liberal or conservative feminisms are, but acting out her identity.  It's all a big show, amounting to nothing.

Stop calling us stupid bigots, you arrogant leftist elitists!

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.

The most irresponsible piece

The other day during our massive blog fail outage, I read this piece from Colbert I. King in the Post.  King argued that certain leading conservative spokespeople for traditional values–such as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh–are hypocrites, because they're serial adulterers or husbands.  Well, to be more precise, that's what it should have argued.  Instead, here's what it set to establish:

Family, marriage and the contribution of fathers come together as topics for reflection on Father's Day. So I'd like to know why Barack Obama, a husband and a father in a family structure that encompasses bonds deemed essential to our society, is constantly and savagely attacked by conservative leaders whose personal circumstances undermine the family values they espouse?

Had King been arguing that when it comes to family or traditional values, the likes of Gingrich and Limbaugh ought seriously to STFU.  His mistake, I think, is the overly general nature of his criticism–they ought to shut up in general.  And that's just silly–and such an obvious example of abusive ad hominem that I almost feel bad pointing that out. 

But, on come the letter writers.  It's weird how people react:

Colbert I. King's column on President Obama's critics was the most irresponsible piece of ad hominem commentary I have ever read. Mr. King went to ridiculous extremes to denigrate key conservative spokesmen Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. They have had some significant marital and family issues, to be sure, but what does that have to do with many (if not most) of the political stances they take in opposition to the president?

According to Mr. King, they have the audacity to "look down their noses at our president," as though his commendable family life makes him immune from other scrutiny. Mr. King seemed to be saying, "Obama has a solid marriage and two cute kids: How dare they criticize his health policy, his economic policies, his foreign policy?!" The writing is a masterpiece of non sequitur. If only Mr. King were trying to champion "family values" instead of just using them as a weapon.

To continue along the same vein, no one who thinks for a second that Limbaugh, Gingrich, or Palin has anything to add to our public discourse can accuse other people of "the most irresponsible piece of ad hominem ever."  Having said that, the letter writer has the right idea about this article, unfortunately.