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.

3 thoughts on “Another problem with ad hominem argument”

  1. What’s your view of arguments that attempt (or purport) to make a legitimate point based on appearance, such as the one floating around a few months ago showing a particularly unflattering photo of Steve Bannon side-by-side with one of Idris Elba, accompanied by text to the effect that Bannon, as a white supremacist, believes his genes to be superior to Elba’s?

  2. Hey John, a nice question. I guess the point is that with the Bannon-Elba case, appearance is arguably relevant. But it is worth a question of whether the contrast seals the argument — surely, it’s occurred to white supremacists that their claim on genetic and cultural superiority is harmed by what they see in the mirror.

    I also think that there’s still the element of contempt-expression with the Bannon-Elba contrast that’s untoward. But, hey, outrageous things get said, we should be outraged.

  3. It’s interesting — Goldstone looks like and, at least in some of the videos and pictures he’s made available, acts like a person who got where he is in life principally by being born to the right family — but his bio suggests that he worked very hard to get where he is, and that his flamboyance and eccentricity seems likely to be a cultivated part of his image.

    For example, when a guy who looks like Goldstone enters a room while dressed in an eccentric manner, he likely draws every eye in the room — and if you don’t know who he is, you just may ask the person you’re with. (cf. Roger Stone.) And while you may raise an eyebrow (or two) when you see the video he shared of himself performing a theme song from a children’s TV show, but you’re unlikely to forget it (or him) afterward.
    ( )

    Meanwhile, this scandal includes some people who don’t inspire similar criticism, because although they may inspire other jokes about their appearance they dress expensively and don’t clown around in public, but by all evidence would probably be flipping burgers or equivalent but for being born to wealthy families.

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