“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”, said Eleanor Roosevelt. And she was not wrong. When it lacks intellectual height we fall into personal mud.
Unfortunately, the tendency to disqualify others, when they do not have solid arguments, is increasingly common in all spheres of our social life. A tendency that endangers our ability to reach an understanding because it destroys bridges on its path. That tendency is known as the ad hominem fallacy.
What is the ad hominem fallacy?
We witness practically every day the ad hominem fallacy. We can see it in the media or social networks, when there are two parties that defend contrary arguments and one of them tries to discredit the other by resorting to irrelevant arguments for the issue such as the personal appearance, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, cultura, religión or political choice.
The ad hominem fallacy is the tendency to attack the interlocutor, instead of refuting his ideas. Whoever uses it, disqualifies the arguments of the other through personal attacks aimed at undermining their authority or reliability.
We can resort to personal insults, public humiliation, or even bring up mistakes that person made in the past. It is also common to attack the interlocutor’s personal characteristics which, apparently, are in contradiction with the position defended. And there are also those who resort to lies or exaggerate supposed defects of the other to devalue his ideas.
The main objective of this fallacy is to discredit the person who defends an idea by switching the focus of attention to an irrelevant aspect that has nothing or little to do with the question.
Many examples of ad hominem fallacies have occurred and continue to occur throughout history. Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, was a misogynist, but that doesn’t mean that many of his philosophical ideas weren’t extremely interesting. Ayn Rand was a staunch defender of capitalism, but that doesn’t imply that we can’t find value in her objectivism.
As the politician García Damborenea pointed out: “It is understandable that the idea may displease, but if Hitler affirmed that two plus two equals four, we should give him reason.” After all, even a stopped clock tells the truth twice a day. If we do not accept that reality, we simply close ourselves to the diversity and complexity that exists in the world. And we will probably miss out on the opportunity to grow, getting caught up in the ideas of those who think like us and share our value system.
Personal disqualifications say more about the attacker than the attacked
The ad hominem fallacy is often the result of lack of argument and frustration. Using this strategy is like when a footballer fails to reach the ball and trips his opponent to fall. It is not a fair game. And, without a doubt, it says much more about the person who attacks than about who is attacked.
When we don’t have solid ideas, we resort to disqualification and humiliation. These attacks can be extremely virulent and personal as they aim to make the other person feel ashamed and remain silent or lose his credibility with the others.
However, personal attacks also disqualify the attacker, since they show his irrationality and his argumentative poverty. Whoever cannot fight on the plane of ideas, but wants to win at all costs, will drag his interlocutor to the personal plane.
We are very vulnerable to ad hominem arguments
The main problem is that while we like to think of ourselves as highly rational and sensible people, we are actually vulnerable to the ad hominem fallacy, as found by Montana State University researchers.
These researchers asked a number of people to read scientific statements and indicate their attitudes towards them. In some statements was added a direct attack on the empirical basis of the scientific claim, in others was inserted an ad hominem attack on the scientist who made the claim.
The researchers found that ad hominem attacks have the same impact on our opinions as attacks based on logical and scientific arguments. That means we are not objective evaluating the arguments.
In part, this tendency is due to the fact that the credibility and shared values of the issuer are characteristics that we consider positive and determine the influence that a message will have on us. If someone attacks the source of the information on his credibility or judges his values , it will sow the seeds of doubt and it is likely that we will give less importance and credibility to his ideas and opinions.
When is provoked an attitude of rejection towards the opponent, we also develop a certain rejection towards his words. It is a psychological phenomenon of transfert that is exacerbated by our tendency to view discussions or debates as competitions in which there must be a winner. And in our society, for winning is not always necessary to be right, but to prevail, even with disqualifications.
How to escape the ad hominem fallacy?
If we are ever in the middle of a debate and we are tempted to attack our interlocutor personally, it’s better we stop for a second to think about what emotion is pushing us to do so. It’s likely anger or frustration. Instead, we must think that a constructive debate is not one in which are declared winners and losers, but one in which both grow.
Being a victim of these types of attacks can also be very frustrating. Therefore, the first thing is to contain the impulse to fight back and take the conflict to the personal level. Jorge Luis Borges told an anecdote in “History of eternity” in which a man was thrown a glass of wine in his face in the middle of an argument. The victim, however, did not flinch. He simply said to the offender: “This, sir, is a digression; I still await your argument”.
We must also protect ourselves from this type of deceptive “argument” that is intended to manipulate the opinion of the masses so that they do not listen to valuable ideas. Therefore, it is a question of keeping an open mind and be alert to any personal attack, because it probably implies that behind there is a solid opinion or idea that is difficult to dismantle.
Barnes, R. M. et. Al. (2018) The effect of ad hominem attacks on the evaluation of claims promoted by scientists. PLoS One; 13(1): e0192025.
Dahlman, C. et. Al. (2011) Fallacies in Ad Hominem Arguments. Cogency; 3(2): 105-124.
García Damborenea, R. (2005) Falacia ad hominem, o falacia ad personam. Diccionario de Falacias; 46-52.