Avoid the Ad Hominem Attack
The psychology of civil disagreement.
Posted March 10, 2017
In case you haven’t noticed, people are arguing with each other all over the place these days. Current political events seem to have led to record-setting argumentation. My Facebook feed used to be about 1/3 kittens, 1/3 beer jokes, and 1/3 “Look how great my kid is!” It’s now 99 percent political — and barbed.
Clearly there are reasons for the current climate — and I have become extremely politically active myself. I hold a leadership position in Move Forward New York, a political action group designed to, in our minds, “reclaim our nation.” In that position, I oversee a blog and a newsletter about advancing a particular political agenda. So I’ve got my own opinions — and as a First Amendment advocate, I have no problem voicing them.
This said, during these difficult times, it’s critical to make sure that disagreement is done with civility and respect. And yes, given how passionate people are about the many issues at hand, this is not easy to do. As someone who is connected to all kinds of people with all kinds of views, I’m constantly working to make sure to tease apart the people from the ideologies that they support. With this all in mind, here is some guidance on keeping arguments about issues and not about other human beings.
Avoid the Ad Hominem Attack
Being in an academic environment, I get to work with all kinds of amazing and smart people. I’m lucky. A few months ago, I had a conversation with Dr. Pat Sullivan, the Director of the Honors Program at SUNY New Paltz, where I work. She and I are on the campus’ Free Speech Task Force — and I find her contributions to conversations and initiatives to be consistently thoughtful and on-point.
In one conversation, she said, “It’s important that people avoid ad hominem attacks.”
I had to confess, this sounded really smart to me, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant. Well, Pat is a teacher, and she explained it to me clearly: “Ad Hominem” is Latin for “at a human.” Thus, an ad hominem attack is one in which someone attacks the person rather than the stance that he or she espouses.Suppose that you are fully in support of strong gun control laws. And you are arguing with Joe, whose views on the issue are diametrically opposed to your own. You might call Joe a numbskull. You might call Joe heartless. You might tell Joe where he can put his gun. And so forth. And Joe may well come back with similar attacks on you.
Do people engage in ad hominem attacks? Yes, all the time. Look at your Facebook feed!
Avoiding ad hominem attacks is, in fact, a foundational element of civil discourse. Having this concept clearly explained helped me see such fallacious argumentation for what it is — and thus, I feel better prepared to avoid it, although I know I’m not perfect.
Why Do We Make the Ad Hominem Attack Fallacy?
In reality, people who disagree on issues often have much more common ground than it appears. People who argue passionately about political issues with one another usually share, for instance, concern about the welfare of their society and the future of the nation.
We know that we should be able to argue about politics without getting mad at one another.
One reason for the ad hominem attack fallacy is rooted in our dispositionist biases (see Ross & Nisbett, 1990). In social perception, we tend to see others’ behaviors as indicative of underlying traits that they possess. This standard social psychological process leads us to see underlying dispositions as causes for all kinds of behaviors. And this fact is particularly interesting when we consider the fact that much work in the field of social psychology actually shows that underlying traits are often very poorly predictive of actual behaviors. Nevertheless, when we see behavior, we see (whether warranted or not) underlying traits.
Dispositionist bias, then, stands as the psychological foundation of the ad hominem attack.
We can do better. While we are all fully entitled to our political opinions - and are, similarly, entitled to express these opinions in a variety of ways, we live in a world with plenty of disagreement and with lots of viewpoints on all kinds of issues. We have a strong tendency to see others who disagree with our political viewpoints in all kinds of negative ways. When we hear someone disagree with our political stance, our dispositionist biases have us fully poised to make an ad hominem attack.
During these times, we need to remember that at the end of the day, we’re all people — and we’re all in this together. And for the most part, as hard as it may seem, most people, regardless of where they stand politically, share the same goals of making this world a better place. In a climate beleaguered with disagreement, let’s remember that all discourse should be respectful and civil. Avoiding the ad hominem attack is a basic aspect of best practices in political discourse.
Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.