The Age of the Ad Hominem

October 2, 2020 Updated: October 5, 2020


Judge Amy Coney Barrett is wrong in her legal opinions because she prays with a charismatic Catholic group, we are told.

“She’s a [expletive] nut,” as Bill Maher opined on television.

J.K. Rowling’s children’s books should be banned, innumerable Tweets have demanded, because their author has resisted the current politics of transsexualism.

The Harper’s magazine public letter on free speech and open debate is wrong, we were hectored in July, because the signers are privileged elites and the letter was praised by people with the wrong politics.

There’s enough illogic in these arguments to make an army battalion weep. Public discourse these days does little but sadden hordes of logic teachers—banging their heads against their blackboards and moaning, “How long, O Lord? How long?”

What’s interesting about the arguments we hear, however, isn’t their general grottiness. It’s that they tend to a particular kind of illogic, a specific fallacy. Over and over, they take the form of arguing that some defect in the speaker makes false the thing the speaker says.

We have a name for this kind of bad argument. Well, logicians have a name for it, as they have a name for almost everything. In Latin, more often than not. It’s called the “ad hominem,” “against the man.”

And the fallacy involves identifying what gets said with who said it.

Thinking Clearly

Facts about the speaker aren’t necessarily uninformative. If someone unqualified to give an opinion in a technical field—if I, for example, were to assure you that genetic analogues to frogs live long and productive lives on the planet Venus—you could make a reasonable riposte that my complete lack of knowledge of exobiology and planetary dynamics leaves me an unreliable oracle about Venusian frog people.

It wouldn’t prove me wrong, though. And that’s where identifying the ad hominem fallacy helps clarify logic. Here’s a notion: “The common good before the individual good.” Maybe it’s a good thought, maybe it’s a bad one—but neither is proved by the fact that an evil man, Adolf Hitler, said it.

“Often correct and good things have first been regarded … as poisonous weeds,” seems quite possibly true, even though it was the monstrous Mao Zedong who offered it.

“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose,” Shakespeare warned, but it doesn’t cease to be scripture just because, you know, the devil quotes it.

The fallacy also holds in the other direction, of course. Take this line: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” That’s one of the most powerful indictments of abortion ever spoken, but it’s not proved just by the fact that Mother Teresa said it.

Nothing is made necessarily true or necessarily false by some characteristic of the speaker. We just think it does, when we’re thinking unclearly.

The Fallacy of the Time

Don’t get me wrong: Unclear thinking has always been part of the human condition. There never was a golden age of reason. Whenever they live, people fall into fallacies and fantasies. In every era, we muddle on through misjudgments and mistakes.

But though every age is plagued by illogic, the specific fallacy to which people are prone varies in different times and different places.

If there was a fallacy endemic to bad thinking in the Middle Ages, it was circular reasoning: “petitio principii” (in Latin, naturally), or begging the question.

If there was a fallacy into which the early modern thinkers tended to fall, in their rush to make scientific breakthroughs, it would be the fallacy known as hasty generalization.

And us? We live in the age of the ad hominem, with the truth and falsity of propositions apparently measured by the moral purity of those who speak them. And something profound about the culture—its neuroses and its fantasies—is revealed by the tendency toward that particular fallacy.

It happens on the right, often enough. President Donald Trump loves a good ad hominem when it comes to hand. I once mentioned to a conservative audience that Cass Sunstein had an interesting study on group dynamics, and I thought I was going to be shouted out of the room, because, well, you know, Sunstein worked for the Democrats.

I have the sense, however, that the age of the ad hominem is more deeply rooted on the left, with its purity tests, its escalating cancel culture, and its strong sense that people are either for them or against them. The fall of Rowling—returning a Kennedy family human-rights award because they denounced her for transphobia—is a clear instance: Wrong in one thing, they think, she must be wrong in all.

Identifying Tribes

I could be mistaken, of course. I am no more an expert on leftist rhetorical strategies than I am on the fauna of Venus. But look, for an easy example, at the reaction to Bari Weiss’s resignation from The New York Times in July, citing the toxic Twitter culture that had overtaken the newspaper.

“If Ben Shapiro and Ted Cruz are upset about Bari Weiss leaving the NYT, then that person must be a real piece of [expletive], so no loss,” one tweeter wrote—a kind of doubly-distant guilt by association, which is one the informal fallacies in the line of ad hominem: A speaker’s statements are praised by bad people, therefore the speaker is bad, and (by implication) the speaker’s statements are false. Praise for her resignation by conservatives “is all that really needs to be said about who Bari Weiss is and what she stands for,” added another.

“The white privilege of the white”—that’s poisoning the well, a form of ad hominem in which some aspect of speakers forever bars them from speaking on a topic. Meanwhile, we get straightforward abusive ad hominem: “You poor naïve fool,” one Tweet opines about a claim from Malcolm Gladwell.

The form of ad hominem known as “tu quoque” is another internet favorite, in which speakers are declared wrong about something being bad because they do the same bad thing themselves—despite the fact that even hypocrites can speak the truth.

What is it these days that makes us susceptible to this particular form of illogic? It has something to do with the need to identify tribes by the political positions they hold and the words that they utter. It has something to do with the dangerous escalation of purity tests in the thrill of potential canceling. It even has something to do with the loose spirituality of our times, desperate to build the new community of saints.

But whatever the cause, every era is defined by its prevalent fallacies—and we live now in the age of the ad hominem.

Joseph Bottum, Ph.D., is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is “The Decline of the Novel.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.