Diverting from the topic matter

Iowa Representative Steven King reminds us of an important characteristic of ad hominem arguments–viz., calling someone names is not a sufficient condition for an ad hominem.  The matter begins with the following remark concerning granting amnesty to illegal immigrants:

“Some of them are valedictorians — and their parents brought them in. It wasn’t their fault. It’s true in some cases, but they aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.

For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King tells Newsmax. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.” 

Naturally, people were quick to notice that this remark was “wrong” (to use the words of John Boehner, House Republican Majority Leader).  Yet, in an all too common response to criticism such as this, King attempted to turn the tables:

“You know when people attack you—in this business, when you’re in this business, you know that when people attack you, and they call you names, they’re diverting from the topic matter,” King told Breitbart. “You know they’ve lost the debate when they do that. We’ve talked about it for years. Tom Tancredo and I joked about it that that’s the pattern. When people start calling you names, that’s what confirms you’ve won the debate.”

No, that isn’t actually a rule.

This rule only works this way: Person A is wrong about policy X because Person A is an a-hole”.  But this isn’t how it went.  In the present case, we have Person A said something false so Person A is wrong.  It’s an inference to Person A’s character from Person A’s actions, deeds, or words.  This is very different.

5 thoughts on “Diverting from the topic matter”

  1. Hey John, this is a nice version of someone confusing the ad hominem fallacy with assessments of character. This is a worthwhile project! Let’s keep our eyes out for more of these!

  2. Good example. Meanwhile, the pattern I usually see goes something like this:

    Critic: Person A is wrong about X because of B, C, and D. And he’s also an a-hole (or laughable).
    Person A: You called me an a-hole (or mocked me), therefore your argument is wrong!

    Even if one grants the ad hominem charge in some instances, that doesn’t magically invalidate all the other arguments. Person A either sincerely believes it does, or (more likely) is hoping the audience falls for the distraction.

    I think of some of this in terms of a style choice. The Daily Show makes substantive points but also mocks its targets. Matt Taibbi and many bloggers make strong, sound cases and also throw in profanity. Some viewers/listeners/readers do buy Person A’s dismissal and clutch their pearls. There’s an argument to made that it’s unwise to give Person A any ammo. But the whole thing comes down to venue and knowing one’s audience. The example I often give is that profanity won’t play well on PBS’ NewsHour, and that’s fine. But it will play well elsewhere. And well-aimed mockery can be extremely effective. (That’s the key reason concern trolls attack it.) I mean, come on – cantaloupes?!?

  3. The problem with Steve King’s argument is that he presented no facts to support his claim. Drug mules outnumber valedvictorians 100-1? It sounds like an FSA number, (From Steve’s @ss).

  4. As for name calling, the classic defense to charges of Ad Hominem goes something like, “if no argument was intended no fallacy was committed.”

    This may be a “philosophically correct” position, but name calling doesn’t add anything to the debate. The fact that Steve King invented a bogus stat speaks for itself, calling him an a-hole doesn’t add anything to the discussion.

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