Monday, January 6, 2014

Being Rude vs Being Wrong

Personal attacks and insults are pretty common in internet arguments. They're pretty common in all arguments, really, but they seem to show up faster on the internet. One of the results of this is shouts of "Ad hominem! Ad hominem!" any time somebody gets belittled or feels slighted. What people mean when they say "ad hominem" is "argumentum ad hominem", namely that the argument is invalid because it engages in personal attacks. It annoys me when people throw the term around as if it's some sort of universal disproof of any comment that includes insulting content. Argumentum ad hominem applies where the premise of argument relies on the character of the person, not generically to any situation where the character of a person is called into question.

If I disagree with someone about the fundamentals of their argument, dismissing something they hold dear as irrelevant to the discussion, this is not argumentum ad hominem. I am as prone as the next person to feel personally attacked when something I regard as important is dismissed out of hand, but just because I feel personally attacked doesn't mean I have been. While people may feel offended if their world view is disagreed with, or embarrassed to have a fundamental belief dismissed as irrelevant or wrong, being made to feel bad doesn't mean that there has been ad hominem reasoning.

If I argue someone is wrong because they are a putrescent sack of festering swamp water, then I am guilty of argumentum ad hominem. If I argue someone has all the charm of weaponised dysentery and also that they are wrong, then I am not. What I have done in this case is refuted their argument and then insulted them. Insults are literally ad hominem (they are directed at the person) but they do not render statements in which they appear automatically argumentum ad hominem. Rather, the person who dismisses the validity of a refutation solely because the person who delivered it was rude is guilty of ad hominem reasoning.

If someone was to claim that using puppies as footballs was humane, I might well first argue that they're wrong, and further that making such a claim reeks of the kind of vicious cruelty normally only found in rabid stoats. This is, ad hominem wise, all clear. The thing to note is that there are two separate lines of reasoning. The first is the refutation of the original argument (not presented, but assume I made one). The second is the line of reasoning which posits that holding a specific point of view is a negative personal trait. This second line of reasoning doesn't weaken the first, and isn't of itself ad hominem either. There are some points of view that suggest the person who holds said view is little more than a congealed lump of poisonous vitriol, shoved into clothes, and taught to make bilious expulsions of gas that can pass, in a good light, as human speech. Pointing this out to someone while dismantling their specious reasoning is, if not necessary, occasionally amusing.

While I'm on the topic, there is nothing inherently irrational or illogical about personal attacks. If someone puts forward a series of cogent arguments as to why I'm a feckless moron more suited to cleaning the undercarriages of incontinent hippos than engaging with civilised society, they have not indulged ad hominem reasoning. Character assassination can be as rigourously well-reasoned as any other type of argument. It's not polite, but that doesn't mean it's logically flawed. Sometimes pointing out using well reasoned logic that someone is a hypocrite, a bigot, or merely a general purpose idiot may be just the course of action required.

When somebody tries to dismantle logic using ad hominem reasoning, their argument should be promptly pointed out as erroneous, but just because someone is insulting, offensive, or incapable of basic human decency, it doesn't follow that they're guilty of argumentum ad hominem. There is of course a separate discussion to be had about the value of civility, but argumentum ad hominem is about correctness, and as such it should be used correctly.

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