Avoiding Ad Hominem: Criticise the Idea Not the Person

While it’s convenient to avoid arguments over small things, there are times when the topic on the table is too important to cast aside. In theory, such conversations need not be emotionally charged. I tell you what I think, you tell me what you think, see where we agree, see where we disagree, explore why etc. But they rarely go like this. Hence, “don’t discuss politics or religion at work.” Why?

Because thinking is tiring. It literally consumes calories. Our brains are optimised to minimise energy usage rather than maximise performance. And it’s so much easier to turn the argument away from the logic of the idea, and towards the person. Another reason could be; important issues often come with very personal, emotional luggage. Emotions can take us off-balance, and in such charges states we convince ourselves ‘person with stupid idea equals stupid person.’

This issue seems particularly prevalent today where political polarisation is more extreme than ever.


Argumentum Ad Hominem

The Latin translates to “against the man.”

An ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy where the source of the claim is attacked rather than claim itself.

Many come in the form: “you’re wrong because you’re [something irrelevant].”

  • “You’re wrong in claiming that tomato is a fruit because you’ve never worked on a farm before.”
  • “Trump is an idiot. He talks like a 5 year old.”
  • “Bob says we should decrease healthcare funding. I disagree with this because Bob also denies climate change.”

Ad hominem arguments come in many flavours: abusive (attacks the character), circumstantial (opponent’s irrelevant circumstances come into play), tu quoque (opponent accused of being hypocrite). And while not all ad hominem arguments are strictly logically fallacious, the central point here is recognising it as one of the lowest forms of disagreement.

Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement

The Hierarchy of Disagreement

The higher you go up the pyramid, the more legitimate the argument is, and the rarer they occur too.

  1. Name-calling is the lowest form of argument, and unfortunately, also the most common.
    Example: “You’re an idiot.”
  2. Ad hominem arguments attack the individual rather than their claim/idea. Let’s explore this further.
    Example: “You’ve gotten the facts wrong about Chinese history because you’re Korean.”
  3. Responding to tone is when one attacks the way one has articulated their idea, rather than the idea itself.
    Example: “The content of that business book must be outdated because the author only uses male pronouns.”
  4. Contradictions simply state the opposite case, with little or no supporting evidence. Of all the types of arguments that actually address what was said (rather than who or how), it is the lowest form.
    Example: “How can you say that restaurant serves bad steak? They have the best steak in town.”
  5. Counterargument is a contradiction plus reasoning/evidence.
    The trick here is precision. Oftentimes, people are arguing about different things.
    “You say that acting on climate change is too expensive, but it is something we have to do regardless of the cost – here’s three reasons why…”
  6. Refutation requires one to specify (i.e. quote) the exact statement made by the other party, then explain why it’s mistaken. Oftentimes, however, refutation is on minor details such as correcting grammar or insignificant numerical mistakes.
    Example: “You say that the economic climate is bad and we’ll be in a recession soon. But the definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, and last quarter’s GDP growth was still positive.”
  7. Refuting the central point is a type of refutation where one specifies the underlying point, and explains why it is wrong.
    Example: “You said that since post-WWII, America has the military might to force any nation into submission. But this was not the case in Vietnam.”

So What?

  1. When you notice someone else making an ad hominem argument on you, they are probably feeling cornered. Chances are, you’ve won the argument but they don’t want to admit defeat. Don’t bask in the glory. Let it go. Rise above it. Be the better individual and let them save face.
  2. If you raise your voice louder than usual, chances are you’re off-balance and at higher risk of making an ad hominem argument yourself. Especially if the topic at discussion is very personal to you. Control your breathing. Correct your body posture. Think twice before speaking, and focus on the central point.
  3. Paraverbals. “It’s not what you said, but how you said it that made me upset.” This cuts both ways. If you disagree with someone in a gentle way, they are less likely to ‘respond to the tone.’ And, if someone makes you upset ask yourself: ‘is it the content of the message, or the way that the message was articulated/spoken/delivered that is making me upset?’ Focus on the central point.

So when was the last time you witnessed an ad hominem argument?
And when was the last time you made an ad hominem argument?


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