Category Archives: Ad Hominem

TU to-the-evah-lovin’ QUOQUE!

We’ve had a number of discussions here at the NS about how ad hominem tu quoque can sometimes actually be a relevant form of argument. (See one of mine HERE, Colin on it HERE, John on it HERE, and my publication on it at IL HERE) In short: the argument form, when properly presented, can show in speaker inconsistency: incompetence, insincerity, or  evidence that a proposed practice is impractical.  I have one that seems a glaring case of insincerity.  Thomas Sowell’s syndicated piece (here at the American Spectator) is that because liberals control (most of) education, there’s no actual fact-checking from critics of conservatives. Instead, all liberals do, from his experience, is give counter-assertions, and that’s what’s supported by the educational institutions producing them.  Well, at least that’s what happened when Sowell read an email from a liberal critic.

It is good to check out the facts — especially if you check out the facts on both sides of an issue…. By contrast, another man simply denounced me because of what was said in that column. He did not ask for my sources but simply made contrary assertions, as if his assertions must be correct and therefore mine must be wrong.

He identified himself as a physician, and the claims that he made about guns were claims that had been made years ago in a medical journal — and thoroughly discredited since then. He might have learned that, if we had engaged in a back and forth discussion, but it was clear from his letter that his goal was not debate but denunciation. That is often the case these days.

OK.  So Sowell got an email from someone with outdated information.  From a medical journal, but outdated information.  Well, that’s not so bad, is it?  Apparently so, because Sowell takes this email to be representative of how liberals think:

If our educational institutions — from the schools to the universities— were as interested in a diversity of ideas as they are obsessed with racial diversity, students would at least gain experience in seeing the assumptions behind different visions and the role of logic and evidence in debating those differences.

Instead, a student can go all the way from elementary school to a Ph.D. without encountering any fundamentally different vision of the world from that of the prevailing political correctness.

Well, first, I smell weak manning here — thanks, Tomas Sowell, for picking a bad arguer for a liberal talking point and generalizing to all liberals.  Perhaps we could do the same for you and use Michele Bachman as the representative voice for conservatism?

At this point, Sowell then turns to the institutions that produce what he takes to be shoddy arguments, that is, universities.  And he’s got one case in point:

The student at Florida Atlantic University who recently declined to stomp on a paper with the word “Jesus” on it, as ordered by the professor, was scheduled for punishment by the university until the story became public and provoked an outcry from outside academia.

Ah, but then there’s the old fact-checking, getting the other side’s version of the story.  You know, like what a well-educated person would do.  The exercise did take place, but the student who refused wasn’t up for punishment for not stepping on ‘Jesus’, but for threatening the professor with violence.  And that’s where we know that Sowell’s not playing fair – when his side gets criticized, he wants his critics to be entirely up to date on all the details of the matter.  And when they aren’t, well, that’s evidence of how stupid, horribly educated, and disinterested in actual debate they are.  But when it’s his side, well, it’s just a matter of saying what his favored audience wants.

A final question, but now about the FAU case:  why would Christians care about stepping on the word ‘Jesus’? The name’s not holy. The letters aren’t either.  This strikes me as another case of hypocrisy — they’ve got their own graven images.  The name of god in their own language.  Christians who threaten Professor Poole with death over this don’t understand their own religion.

True tolerance

Chris Broussard at ESPN said that Jason Collins, the NBA player who’s come out as gay, isn’t a true Christian and is “in open rebellion to God.”  So what?  Well, he got some blowback from a variety of sources.  So what?  Well, he’s now got to clarify things, and when he does, he also needs to clarify a concept for all of us:

true tolerance and acceptance is being able to handle [differing lifestyle beliefs] as mature adults and not criticize each other and call each other names

I don’t think that’s true tolerance.  Tolerance means that even when you think someone else is wrong about something that matters, you don’t exclude them or prohibit them from doing the things that they do.  Tolerance isn’t tolerance if you like what they do.  It means putting up with things you hate.  That, by the way, was one of the reasons why the stoics thought of themselves as the ones who kept the old Republican virtues alive, by the way. But, notice, that doesn’t mean that you have to hold your tongue.  In fact, tolerance without care for criticism and correction isn’t much of anything — it’s more like ignoring each other.  Oh, and convenient that he’s NOW saying that tolerance is not criticizing others.  Again, sometimes inconsistency is evidence of a double standard.

RINOs are Hypocrites? Who knew?

Washington Post op-ed columnist Kathleen Parker recently made a case for a concerted effort from moderate Republicans to “take back the Republican Party.” (Here)  In fact, she calls for a “RINO rebellion.”  The trouble she sees is that taking over a party requires zeal, and RINOs are just sane people.  This yields a zinger:

First, sane people are too busy Being Normal to organize. No, “normal” is not a relative term. We all know what normal is, and it doesn’t involve carrying gigantic photos of aborted fetuses to political conventions.

That’s pretty funny.  (And, if I’m not mistaken, a step toward pro-choicing the Republicans?)  Regardless, this suggestion to draw the Republican party closer to the center has yielded some criticism.  Matt Purple over at the American Spectator is up to run the argument.  Purple’s main line of criticism is that all of Parker’s suggested changes are actually all standard conservative commitments.

Yes, if only there was a political movement calling for reasonable budgets, more privacy for the individual, upholding the rule of law, and concern for national security. She must imagine hordes of earthy Tea Partiers holding the Post in their gunpowder-stained fingers while recoiling and exclaiming, “Compassion for the disadvantaged?! This paper’s gone to the dogs!”   So Parker’s principles seem pretty similar to those of modern conservatives

Okay, that’s a nice point, I suppose.  Though there’s a difference between ‘reasonable budgets’ and ones that, say, slash the Department of Education or that eliminate the IRS.  It’s all what you’re counting as reasonable, I suppose.  But when Purple turns to candidates, things get weird.

To understand just how vacuous the moderate stance has become, consider their embrace of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. John Avlon praised the Garden State firebrand as a “Northeast Republican” with a “moderate record.” Joe Scarborough defended his accomplishments.… Conservatives can’t even support sequestration without drawing condemnation from the center-right. But Christie cuts funding for AIDS patients and he’s the moderate Moses leading the GOP out of the electoral desert. Again, it’s pure air.

First, to make this point, Purple had to look to other moderate Republicans to find Chris Christie as the candidate of choice. Now, you can’t make a hypocrisy charge stick when the inconsistency is that between different people.  That’s not hypocrisy of the RINOs, that’s just that they disagree.  Second, I’m unsure whether the moderate line was right with Christie in the first place — if he’s such a moderate, then why did Ann Coulter endorse him?  My thought was that hailing him as a moderate was strategic packaging, not accurate description.

Finally, even were all these charges right, I have no idea what kind of point this hypocrisy charge scores with the RINOs.  If it’s that the ‘moderate’ candidate they chose wasn’t all that moderate, then shouldn’t the RINOs just say back:  Well, that’s as moderate as we can get in this party. We’d actually prefer John Huntsman. 

Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!


If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

Sometimes ad hominem is warranted

Phil Plait’s got a serious take-down of the recent claim that there’s been a meteorite found that has diatom fossils in it (at Salon).  Plait’s case is along a few lines: (1) that the rock doesn’t look like it’s a meteorite and has no documentation of how it was found or recovered, (2) the diatoms in it seem to be from Earth, like from a riverbed.  But he opens by criticizing the source of the claim.  He says  N. C. Wickramasinghe, the author of the paper reporting the meteorite, “jumps on everything, with little or no evidence, and says it’s from outer space, so I think there’s a case to be made for a bias on his part.”

Plait then turns to forearm against a concern about the present line of argument:

Now, you might accuse me of using an ad hominem, an argument that cast aspersions on the person making the claim, and not attacking the claim itself. I’ll get to the claim in a moment, but sometimes an ad hominem is warranted!

He makes the case with an analogy:

If Jenny McCarthy claimed botox cures autism, again, you might be forgiven for doubting it based on her previous anti-vaccine and other false claims. You still need to examine the claims on their own merits, of course, but: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

But, now, this isn’t an ad hominem, per se, is it?  When the premises are that the person has a bad track record in the area they are reporting in (or in relevantly similar areas), that’s not ad hominem, but a case against their status as an authority.  I suppose that the basic thought is:  arguments against the person are appropriate when they are relevant to whether the conclusion is acceptable.  If we have reason to believe that S is unreliable, that’s a relevant consideration when we’re considering S’s reportage.

So a question to the NS readers:  should we save terms like ad hominem exclusively for the fallaciously irrelevant considerations of a speaker to impugn his/her claims, or can we allow the term to extend to relevant considerations?  I’ve argued that we should have that flexibility with plenty of other forms of argument, even with straw men and the tu quoque.  But ad hominem seems to have exclusively fallacious connotations for me.  Thoughts?

If the other guy were president

We’ve had a few discussions of subjunctive tu quoque here at the NS. (See Colin’s original post HERE). Well, here’s another version of it. Sean Paige at the National Review Online is concerned about a recent suggestion from two law professors that President Obama pursue environmental regulatory reform without including Congress. (NB, the title of his essay is “Under the Green Hammer,” a classic!) Here’s Paige’s reply:

But one can’t help wondering what they would say about the propriety and constitutionality of what they are urging if a conservative Republican were president. I’m guessing, at the risk of putting words into their mouths, that a Republican president who embarked on a concerted effort to ram an agenda through without even consulting Congress would stand accused by the two professors of having undemocratic, perhaps even dictatorial, tendencies.

Fair enough, but it’s worth wondering what Sean Paige would say, too.  I’m guessing that he’d be very proud of the Conservative President’s leadership in ignoring a Congress full of liberals. Hey, when we play the subjunctive tu quoque game, we get to stipulate counterfactuals so we all go down.

Annals of fact checking

The Associated Press ran a fact check piece on Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention.  In that piece, we find the following gem:

CLINTON: "Their campaign pollster said, 'We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.' Now that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."

THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were "legally accurate" but also allowed that he "misled people, including even my wife."

That is seriously one of the dumbest things I've read today.  A fact check piece, as far as I understand the genre, ought to confine itself to facts.  This one challenges Clinton's undeniably true assertion with the fallacious ad hominem tu quoque that he lied about having sex with Monica Lewinsky (which, well, he pretty much did).  Regardless, that's irrelevant to his charge.


Makers and takers

Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice.  As a consequence, there's been a good bit of attention paid to Ryan's much-touted appreciation of Ayn Rand.  One edge is to criticize Randian economic policy.  Another edge is to ask whether Ryan himself lives by the Randian rules.  Here's Joan Walsh taking the second option, over at Slate,  with her article, "Paul Ryan: Randian Poseur":

When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. . . . After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government. . . .Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.

It's been a regular question here at the NS whether some kinds of tu quoque arguments can be relevant.  Again, the best example is what we've been calling smoking dad, which has the father, in the midst of taking a drag from a cigarette, telling the son that he shouldn't smoke because smoking's addictive and bad for your health.  Of course, the father's a hypocrite, but he's right, and his hypocrisy actually is relevant, because it's evidence that the father, who thinks smoking's bad, can't stop.  So it is addictive.  OK, so what about Walsh's argument here?  It seems to be that: Paul Ryan is committed to Randian principles, but doesn't live by them.  So… what follows, and why?

Here's the argument with the strongest conclusion:  Ryan's failure to live by his principles shows that they aren't right, that they aren't practicable.  Randianism is all about individuals, doing things by themselves, and ensuring that others don't interfere.  But that's not how societies work. Instead, individual success arises out of large-scale cooperation, opportunities afforded, and others giving back. 

Now, I do think that the hypocrisy of those avowing ideology X can regularly be relevant to our estimation of X.  But not all hypocrisies are created equal.  Couldn't a defender of Ryan and Randianism say something like: sure, but all this is evidence of how things work now, not how they should.  Paul Ryan benefitted from this system, and it was in his interest to do so, but that doesn't mean that the system is just or appropriate.  It just means it benefits some people.  They should be free to criticize it, still.

I think that reply is just about right, but it does miss one thing, which I  think Walsh's column could make clearer: it's easy to forget, even when you're Paul Ryan, that individual successes are nevertheless social products.  And that social programs do help people, even Randians, pursue their self interest.

Consistently confusing criticism for censorship

Jeffrey Lord's post, "Gay Totalitarianism," over at The American Spectator is hampered by confusion.  Lord's main case is that liberals can't stand dissent, and want to shut down any opposing voice.  This has, in his view, been in bright highlight with the Chick-fil-a issue.  Here's his case in point:

Down in Southwest Florida liberal reporter Mark Krzos of the News Press was furious at seeing free speech exercised in his midst, whining on his Facebook page that "The level of hatred, unfounded fear and misinformed people was astoundingly sad. I can't even print some of the things people said."

So this means Mr. Krzos wants to shut down Occupy Wall Street? It gets better. Krzos went on:  "I have never felt so alien in my own country as I did today while covering the restaurant's supporters…. It was like broken records of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and a recitation of half-truths and outright lies…. Such a brave stand… eating a go**amn sandwich. "

So this guy feels "so alien" in his own country because he comes face to face with free speech? What country is Mr. Krzos living in? Cuba? North Korea?

I can't speak for Krzos, but on my interpretation, his alienation was at seeing speech he disagreed with, and that he felt he was powerless to address or argue against because of the way the beliefs of the speakers were formed.  It's not the freedom his lines were objecting to, but to (a) how the views stated were misinformed and hateful, and (b) that those speaking seemed to be only interested in those who speak for them, not the views of anyone else.  Krzos wasn't, by my lights, calling for the supporters of the chicken chain to be jailed or muzzled or anything like that.  He was criticizing them.  That's how you respond to speech when you recognize the freedoms — you use more speech to criticize it.  Ah, but Lord's on a roll, and can't resist the conservative argument-by-comparision-money-shot on speech issues:

As we have mentioned before, leftist intolerance for dissent and opposition is as old as the blood soaked guillotines of the French Revolution. Not to mention the Revolution's 20th century descendants from Communists to the Nazis (aka the National Socialists) to their more modern American cousins like all those progressives who hid for decades behind the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan or a few decades later appeared as Bill Ayers and his bomb-setting brethren in the Weathermen.

Whew!  When Lord makes historical comparisons, he doesn't hold back.  (Oh, love the "aka the National Socialists"… what's that even doing? Making a point about socialism?)   I said at the end of my previous post that there's a weird thing about many Burkean conservatives, that they see Robespierre behind every progressive.  This seems overkill, but maybe with the Robespierre line so abundant, you've really got to pile on to be sure that folks know you're using hot rhetoric.

Again, the point is that responding to dissent with criticism and responding to dissent with violence are different things, and Lord's case conflates them.  Responding to speech with more speech is a form of tolerance, actually — you face something you think is wrong, but you don't destroy it,  only criticize it.  But for the analogy to go through, you have to be responding with violence. 

Ad rockstarium

I think it's worthwhile to keep track of the ways the sides in a debate try to paint the character of the other.  Sometimes, it is simple observations about what kind of person would hold such and such a view, other times, it's about what kind of person would be blind to evidence of such and such degrees of obviousness.  Often, it's mere rhetorical window-dressing, and often enough, it's direct ad hominem.  I've been keen on the recent presidential character-painting.  Romney's a robot (a very funny meme) or vulture-capitalist, Obama's either a socialist-totalitarian or a decent but unqualified doofus.  These all seem fine to me, at least in the sense that they're at least capable of being put in the service of evaluating the character of the person who's to be the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief.  Who occupies the office matters, so character evaluation is relevant. 

One line of argument that I don't see the point of, though, is what I've come to call the ad rockstarium argument against Barack Obama.  Mark Steyn at National Review Online runs it in his recent "Our Celebrity President."  Here's the basics from Steyn:

Last week, the republic’s citizen-president passed among his fellow Americans. Where? Cleveland? Dubuque? Presque Isle, Maine? No, Beverly Hills. These days, it’s pretty much always Beverly Hills or Manhattan, because that’s where the money is. That’s the Green Zone, and you losers are outside it.

As I can gather, here's how the argument runs:

1) The President goes to fundraisers in California and New York, not Middle America.

2) You live in Middle America

So: The president isn't interest in you or your money. Well… maybe your money.  How much you got?

Steyn goes on:

It’s true that moneyed celebrities in, say, Pocatello or Tuscaloosa have not been able to tempt the president to hold a lavish fundraiser in Idaho or Alabama, but he does fly over them once in a while.

That's right!  He went to the 'fly-over' line.  OK, so if I'm right that some evaluations of character are relevant, does this one count as one?  I don't think so, as the issue isn't whether Obama is popular and adored but whether he's the kind of person who can be trusted with policy decisions.  I think the best that this line of evaluation can do is say that Obama is a rockstar, and rockstars do things differently from you…  I'll be trying to keep up with more of the rockstarium argument as the campaign goes on.  Any help on seeing how the line is relevant?  Is it a form of upside down ad populum: he's not like us, so he's wrong?