Ad hominem

The older you get, the more you realize that your parents knew what they were talking about.  I’ve spent an entire education ignoring the existence of rhetoric, and specifically, “rhetoric” as in this definition from Merriam-Webster:

:  the art of speaking or writing effectively: such as

   a :  the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times

I mean, I knew that there were all of these fancy names for rhetorical moves–but, who could be bothered to memorize them, and why bother?  Then I started studying for the C1 DALF exam, and realized that understanding discourse markers could be damn useful.  From there, it’s a short step to thinking in a more principled way about how to put an argument together, and from there…well, rhetoric and its “rhetorical figures” are just right around the corner.

There’s a point to studying rhetoric.  You can see it in Wikipedia’s definition of the term:

Rhetoric is the art of discourse, wherein a writer or speaker strives to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.

'Don't worry too much about math, science, or history -- just make sure you get good marks in rhetoric.'
Picture source:

The key words: inform, persuade or motivate.  At this, Trump is, unfortunately, a master: he persuades the hell out of people.  (We’ll get back to which people in a bit.)  Did he soak up a bunch of rhetoric courses at whatever college he did his draft-dodging in?  I don’t know–but, you can see lots of fancy–and some not-so-fancy–rhetorical techniques in his communication.  For example: the ad hominem argument.  As Wikipedia defines it:

Ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”[1]), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.[2]Wikipedia

For example:

Does Trump respond to the content of what Sen. McCain said?  No–not at all.  What he does: he attacks the person who communicated the content.

Does this work?  Well: he’s the president of the United States of America.  Did he get the most votes?  No–but, he’s still the president.

A different question: on who does this kind of crap argument work?  And it is a crap argument: an example of a fallacy.  You could argue that it works on people who are too stupid to catch the move.  In this particular case, I’m guessing that you would be correct.  Back to the definition of rhetoric again: discourse that is used to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.  You could take the position that the “particular audience” at whom he aims this crap is mostly made up of people who either (a) don’t begin to understand the implications of what the guy is pushing, or (b) do, but are deluded enough to think that burning the world down would be a cool way to start over.  You could take the position that the “specific situation” is a shared delusion, a sort of mass hysteria.  But, that clearly isn’t the only time when ad hominem arguments get taken seriously: there is a version of this that is common on the left, as well.  (Just to be clear: I am on the left.)  In that version, you don’t even bother to claim that the content is flawed because the person is flawed: you argue that the content shouldn’t be listened to, because the person is flawed–irrespective of whether or not it’s relevant in any way, shape, or form, to anything about the person whatsoever.  Again, to be clear: just because people on my side of the aisle do it doesn’t make it right.  Doesn’t make it valid.  Doesn’t make Trump any less of an asshole, and doesn’t make the majority of the people who voted for him any less deluded.

I’ll close with an observation about France versus the US: as far as I can tell, ad hominem arguments work a hell of a lot less well in France than they do in my country of origin.  Is it because the French are (as far as I can tell) generally less into emotion and more into logic than Americans are, and vice versa?  Is it because French students are required to take philosophy in college, and we’re not?  I don’t know.  I do know that in France, your art will not be boycotted if you happen to be, say, a recidivist thief (Jean Genet), a rapist (Roman Polanski), or a horribly vicious Nazi collaborator (Louis-Ferdinand Céline).  (This isn’t an absolute.  On the 50th anniversary of his death, Céline was to be included in the list of people included in the Célébrations nationales.  Mitterand nixed his inclusion.  As Le Figaro put it: Une vive polémique s’est ensuivie.)  In contrast: in America, if you’re an asshole, your art will, in fact, probably be boycotted.  The point of all this: as far as I can tell, the French are not nearly as susceptible to the ad hominem argument as the Americans.  Yes, I’m generalizing, and no, nobody fits their stereotypes, and no, I am an expert neither on America, nor on France.  Nonetheless…  You can certainly give counter-examples, and plenty of them–but, as a general rule, this holds.

French notes

la rhétorique: rhetoric.



8 thoughts on “Ad hominem”

  1. I found this absolutely fascinating … I had no idea this particular tactic, that of attacking without answering the question, has a name. I know it is something I actively discouraged in my children when they were no-it-all, invented-it-all, teens (teens are just enormous toddlers and argue about EVERYTHING … rather like Mr T) and they seem able to debate effectively as adults without resorting to a barrage of personal abuse. I have to say that the last argument I had with a French person (sorry, debate) was a relentless barrage of shouting ‘facts’ which left me with my less than perfect French hugely frustrated and absolutely determined to improve to the extent that I can counter rather than being two steps behind with my responses. It’s working 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To learn old Greek we translated a lot of rhetoricians because their texts were simpler : Demosthenes, Lysias, Isocrates, the inventors of rhetoric . The Romans gave us roads, some technology and imperialism, the Greeks gave us our western mind . Don’t ask which I love and which I loathe .
    The UK was the continuator of Rome and unfortunately for humanity the absolute power of our time’s mindset has been framed by them . I remember an American documentary showing how GW Bush’s advisors set a complete strategy to do what they had wanted to do for a long time, invade Irak . This trick needed the complicity of mainstream medias of course but hurrah ! their owners were the same as the military-industrial trusts .
    They used 9/11, although Saddam’s secular regime had no links and no sympathy at all for Ben Laden . The advisors wrote a serie of speeches for Bush in which he never said that Saddam was behind the 9/11 : not need for that, the frightening “mental” of the average Joe just required the degree zero of rhetoric . Bush’s speeches were fulminating against Al Qaeda and between each paragraph there was a mention about Saddam . There was no logical link ( why bother with US emotional herd ?) but in every speech there was an alternation of Al Qaeda and Saddam . It looked like hypnotic suggestion in the way US ads work (I was stunned when I discovered US TV ads in 79, wondering how this “technics” could work with adults) . So we were not even here in front of “ad hominem”, we were watching “rhetoric for toddlers” . It did work, too bad for us .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have the students in my writing class read in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The name of the class is The Rhetoric of Science. We have talked a lot about the elections this semester and a central theme I try to drive home to them is the obstacles that scientists face in making their message as rhetorically compelling as the ones of their detractors.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. …and whether that happens deliberately (’cause of wanting to make something sound more sensational than it is) or just from lack of competence/training in interpreting research results (let’s face it, we spend our entire doctoral studies doing that), who knows…. Probably some of each….

        Liked by 1 person

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