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Why you need to know what ad hominem means

In the last few years, it has occurred to me that if I could eliminate one thing from this earth it might just be ad hominem arguments—perhaps the most common form of logical fallacy. So I’m going to take a step back from marketing and talk about them. Why?

The use of ad hominems strains relationships, stifles debate, and often results in poor decisions. And although marketing copywriters aren’t thought of as being the guardians of truth (I’m not being cynical here; just stating that this is not technically our role), understanding how these tactics work is a crucial defense against them.

What’s an ad hominem? An ad hominem (Latin for “to the person”) argument is an attempt to discredit an argument by labeling or attacking the person making it. Deliberately or otherwise, people resort to them when they don’t want to do the hard work of challenging an idea on its merits.

For instance, many on the left and the right have become increasingly fond of calling one another “angry” or “unhappy.” Thus by implying that the “other side” is simply unreasonable, they spare themselves the effort of honest debate.

It’s true that anger often distorts people’s judgment. But it’s also an appropriate reaction to injustice. As a form of argumentation, it would make just as much sense to try to attack a position because the person making it was happy. Contentedness is an inappropriate response to wrongdoing just like ineffectual, directionless outrage. The question is whether the position is valid, independent of the emotional state of the speaker.

Ad hominem arguments aren’t wrong because they’re mean (this isn’t always the case actually), but because they’re a cop out. People who resort to ad hominem arguments are lazy, spiteful, and therefore always wrong (get it?).

In cahoots: Russell conjugations

Russell conjugations, named for philosopher Bertrand Russel, are often subliminal accomplices to ad hominem arguments. They’re fascinating and maddening. Eric Weinstein, Managing Director of Peter Thiel’s investment firm, explains that the Russel conjugation works because “most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary description, but rather two distinct attributes: I) The factual content of the word or phrase. II) The emotional content of the construction.”

For instance, the words “conservative” and “right-wing” are basically synonymous as conventional thinking goes. Yet while conservative has a neutral connotation (subject to your own political viewpoint), “right-wing” has a more negative connotation.

Here are some other examples of Russell conjugations:

  • center-left → “left-of-center”
  • defiant → “stubborn”
  • whistleblower → “snitch” or “traitor”
  • humble → “indecisive”
  • indignant → “furious”
  • expert → “elitist”

Of course, none of these words is “wrong” all the time, and sometimes they can honestly go both ways; for instance, “contrarian” and “skeptic.” But like ad hominems, they tend to be abusive.

Unsavory bedfellows

Here are a few examples of ad hominem arguments coupled with Russell conjugations:

  • So-and-so has argued for reopening schools in spite of the pandemic, but you can’t trust him because he works for a right-wing think tank.
  • She says we should wear masks, but you can’t trust her because she’s a leftist academic.

Sound familiar? Damn right.

The whims of a person making an argument aren’t always irrelevant—especially when there’s conjecture or hearsay involved. Still, we should evaluate positions on their merits. You shouldn’t take stock in something a known liar says, but that doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong by virtue of his saying it.

The fact that ad hominem arguments frustrate me has little bearing on whether they’re right or wrong. Their effect is the same regardless of how you feel about them: They promote ignorance, contentiousness and social censorship.

We wouldn’t tolerate them in an elementary school cafeteria. We shouldn’t tolerate them in our leaders.