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 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.

5 thoughts on “Stop calling us stupid bigots, you arrogant leftist elitists!”

  1. Ad Hominem is the last resort in most arguments. It's the loser's final attempt to discredit their opponent.
    Like you correctly pointed out, there can be no useful dialogue until each side understands the other. If the left calls the right evil, and the right calls the left stupid, then there can't be any dialogue. If they're evil, they won't listen; if they're stupid, they won't get it.

  2. So many of these characterizations aren't even "last resort" kinds.  It seems like the first response is to allege the fallacy – maybe in this case we should call it the "stick man." 

  3. A point that seems to be missing here is that it is not an ad hominem if it is true and materially relevant.
    Certainly IF it is true, THEN it is materially relevant in this instance, as the hypothetical bigotry cuts straight at the true purpose and nature of the hand-wringing over the Park51 project.
    And there is pretty compelling evidence that the charge of bigotry is simply true. Newt Gingrich's ad Nazium blather; the near assault of an individual at a "rally" the other day because he looked "vaguely muslim;" the ongoing "Obama is a muslim!" meme, the latter charge being intended as the worst sort of pejorative. These behaviors are nothing but the most loathesome, rabidly vicious, knee-jerk sorts of bigotry imaginable.
    Failing to speak the truth about such viciousness is not only overt cowardice, it is every bit as loathesome as the bigotry itself because it has stooped to actively enabling that bigotry by caving in to the bigot's demands to frame all discussions in terms that they find favorable — which is to say, to agree to the lies the bigots demand we tell.

  4. That's right Gary.  I have read a bunch of criticism of the charge you make from liberals, most of them worried about the rhetorical effect of calling people bigots or ignoramuses.  Opposition to the Park51 project at its most charitable is offering indulgence to the ignorant or to the bigotted.  And I'm almost ashamed to say that that thought was Richard Cohen's.

  5. Hi Gary,  I"ll agree.  One of the most frustrating things about these cases is that some of the arguments may not actually be ad hominem fallacies, but conclusions of work on the current state of dialectical play on an issue.  And so, the following might capture the form of the inference to the best explanation:
    P1: S's hold that X on the issue of whether X. And S is either intellectually responsible or is a bigoted dogmatist.
    P2: The arguments S gives for X stink, and have been shown to S to stink.
    P3: S has no interest in changing his/her mind, and moreover, S continues to give the same arguments.
    C1: S isn't intellectually responsible.
    C2: S is a dogmatic bigot.

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