An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
Mark Twain famously said, “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”
Hi, you’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, and today we’re talking about an issue that probably just needs to be said out loud more often: some people’s opinions are not worth a damn. We do ourselves no services by taking them seriously, we do not gain anything by entertaining them in the public space. Sometimes, in some places, the Ad Hominem attack is a valid choice.
I just made a bunch of people mad. Let me try to explain. I should start my explanation with the statement that this is my own personal opinion and you should feel free to disagree with it. Then we can talk about what an Ad Hominem attack is, and how it can be applied.
The Ad Hominem attack is a famous logical fallacy. Broadly speaking, you commit this logical fallacy if you make a statement like “Why would I listen to Brad’s proposal, Brad is an idiot.” The fallacy here is that we’re not interested in Brad’s argument, we’re just interested in trashing poor Brad, and Brad might very well have something useful, constructive, or interesting to say if we just gave him the chance; calling him an idiot doesn’t actually refute any of his arguments, it’s just an attack on his character. It’s not fair to Brad to dismiss him outright, and it’s not logically sound to do so.
Now, there’s a problem with applying this fallacy to the real world (which, by the way, you normally should). There’s an exception case. The exception comes up when you take into account that the premise of this logical fallacy is that Brad is making an argument in good faith.
If Brad has no interest in actually debating with you (which, in my own personal opinion, is the case with the majority of political debates, just for example), but is instead just using the debate as a platform to push his own opinion, absent of the logical or scientific process… then you shouldn’t debate Brad, and you shouldn’t allow Brad to use the idea of having a debate as an excuse to promote his ideas.
It’s not that Brad is an idiot in this example — he’s not, he’s actually using a fairly effective tactic — it’s that Brad isn’t trying to actually arrive at any type of consensus or truth by engaging with you. This isn’t an attack on his character as being unable to arrive at truth, it’s an attack on his character because Brad has demonstrated that he doesn’t care about truth. Brad is just trying to take advantage of the concept of “debate” to gain an audience. In such situations, I think you actually can say with some justification that no one should listen to Brad because Brad is a liar and a manipulator, and therefore listening to Brad won’t result in any valid information.
I’m sure no one can think of a single modern example of a politician or social figure who falls into this type of category. Not one. Nope.
So what’s the problem with this idea? Well, the short version is that, logically speaking, even a broken clock is right twice a day. That’s a short way of saying that just because someone holds views we might disagree with in general, particular ideas might still be relevant, useful, and correct. And therefore, if we disregard such people by reflex, we are missing out on the ideas that they might have which are in fact valid.
Ok. That’s a lovely idea. I like that idea. But, as we enter this post-truth world in which we find our modern cultural dialogue, I think a more important idea is that people who are actively engaged in destroying the truth are too malevolent to be allowed near reasonable discourse.
Is that a dangerous idea? Of course it is. We have to be really confident in our convictions about those types of people in order to (a) recognize them for what they are and (b) determine that they are in fact enough of a problem that we shouldn’t give them any kind of platform whatsoever. However, I would say that, again in my opinion, this is simply something we have to do as adults. Part of life is taking sides, it’s one of our jobs as citizens. We should, again in my opinion, take sides against people who cannot engage in rational discussion, and we should be disinclined to allow them platforms on which to propagate ideas. That just seems like a good, healthy idea for a society to hold to me.¹
That being said, I think it might be useful to have a general rule set to identify people who we should simply disregard as a matter of course, otherwise we’re just going to disregard everyone with whom we disagree. Again, this is dangerous, because rules can be misinterpreted or badly interpreted, but… here we go anyway. The following people can be safely disregarded in the public square because they are who they are:
- Serial Liars: If a person has a known, authenticated history of lying through their teeth at every opportunity, you should not have to engage them based on the fact² that they lie all the time. The boy who cried wolf got what he deserved.
- Known Manipulators: If a person has a known, authenticated history of twisting truth and facts to meet their own agenda (for example, by routinely cherry picking information or deliberately taking things out of context), you should not have to engage with them based on the fact that they cannot be trusted with the truth.
- Gaslighters: If a person has a known, authenticated history of attempting to convince their audience that up is down and left is right, you should not have to engage with them based on the fact that they cannot be trusted to relate an accurate picture of facts.
- Malevolent Narcissists: If a person has a known, authenticated history of using every fact and person around them strictly to their own advantage, you should not have to engage with them based on the fact that anything they say will only benefit themselves, and therefore cannot be trusted to apply to any broader scope.
- Conspiracy Theorists: If a person has a known, authenticated history of believing obvious falsehoods and giving credence to blatantly unscientific theories while also assigning blame to shadowy opponents (especially “the Jews,” because so many conspiracy theories can be identified by anti-Semitic bias), you should not have to engage with them based on the fact that they cannot be trusted to know what “truth” is.
- Zealots: If a person has a known, authenticated history of making claims of a religious or ideological nature, with absolutely no room for debate or rational discussion in their own dealings with the public, you should not have to engage with them based on the fact that they are not interested in truth.
This is not an exclusive list, these are just the kinds of people who immediately pop into my head when I think about this topic, and who I personally believe to be deserving of the Ad Hominem attack. It almost doesn’t matter what these kinds of people say, because even if their opinions are correct, they’re almost certainly correct by accident or for the wrong reasons. Their ideas don’t matter, even if they’re right; even if they are correct in some small thing, you should use someone else’s justification, because someone else will have definitely come up with a better defense of the idea.
Note also that there is a caveat to each of these cases: you have to be able to demonstrate a pattern of bad action in order to logically justify an Ad Hominem attack. “Demonstrate,” in this sense, means “prove with facts and references.” If you’re meeting someone for the first time and know nothing about them, you cannot logically use an Ad Hominem attack; you have no information on which to base an objection to their character which might allow you to generally disregard their statements. This also means you need to know what is true, which is where things get really scary. Epistemology is a subject fraught with peril.
Finally, take care to recognize a key point here, which is that this type of Ad Hominem attack isn’t actually a debate at all. It’s a refutation of debate. It’s the statement that I don’t even trust you to engage in discourse in any sense. This is not how you should normally run a civil society; it is dangerous, it makes enemies, and I would say it is normally a prelude to conflict. You should make every effort to be respectful of someone else’s ideas until they demonstrate that they will not or cannot extend the same courtesy to you.
A broken clock is accurate twice a day; that doesn’t mean the clock is functioning correctly, it just means there’s been two accidental moments where its incorrect statements happened to match up with reality. The clock is still broken and should be distrusted as a matter of course.
¹Is this “cancel culture?” Maybe. But I would argue that “cancel culture” is a thought-terminating cliché, and you shouldn’t make decisions based on that label. It’s certainly a form of censorship, and we should be very careful employing it.
There are some other arguments for and against Ad Hominem attacks in the following book, if this topic interests you: Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric. Douglas Walton. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
²Let’s talk facts for a moment. A “fact” is a thing that can be proven to be true, ideally scientifically, but certainly with evidence. Anything that lacks scientific backing and/or evidence is not a fact, it is an opinion.