“You’re just saying that because you’re a ___”
How many arguments have we heard poorly refuted with an ad hominem attack? The more touchy the subject, the more likely someone stoops to the ad hominem retort. And it seems like people are resorting to them more often. I’m beginning to thing this kind of thing is a legitimate argument in and of itself.
Whoever goes ad hominem loses the argument immediately, no matter how right he or she is. Personal attacks like this turn off the target and announce that one’s own arguments are so weak as to not even bother with. It doesn’t matter if it is a well-reasoned ad hominem attack attempting to educate or ‘raise consciousness’ or just a quick blurt of anger.
Lost. Done. Over.
This attack accuses the person of being a mindless slave to their own inherent characteristics. It also assumes that the retorter knows the inner workings of the mind of the target and judges there is nothing there but hardwired ridiculousness due to factors beyond the person’s control. It is dehumanization of the highest order.
There have been a couple of hot button arguments in the geekosphere where ad hominem attacks poisoned the whole thing. The latest is a heated controversy over the depiction of women in science fiction and fantasy, specifically in the SFWA Bulletin. I’ll say something about that in another post. Also, one of the Penny Arcade guys walked into a similar kind of shitstorm. In both cases, both sides went ad hominem and everyone lost.
(Otherwise intelligent people seem to forget the second-punch rule, which says that people who punch back after the first punch are the ones who are caught. Or in this case, ripped a new one on the internet.)
So the next time you get pissed about what someone else has said, assume, just for a moment, that the other person arrived at his/her arguments after a decent amount of reflection and thought. And think about how much more mileage you will get by going after the arguments and not them. Even if you don’t believe it.
You may have a chance not to cede the high ground to the jerk. And if you do it well enough, you may actually change his/her mind. Imagine that.