I get these personal attacks all the time, and fear not, I’ll share some juicy examples.
In philosophy, or debate, it’s known as the ad-hominem fallacy. You may have heard of it, and it’s very simple and easy to avoid in your own discussions and debates. It just means to attack the person rather than the argument. It’s a real, pardon my French, dick move, about on par with pitching your paddle at your opponent during a ping pong match.
Here’s a handy definition from Wikipedia:
Ad hominem, short for argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead 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.
I can put it more succinctly. If you are stating that the person you are debating is a piece of shit (we can say “belittling them” if you like) it’s a logical fallacy. There are much more subtle instances of ad-hominem, such as implying the intellectual inferiority of the opponent via means of attributing straw-man arguments to them, or characterizing their arguments conclusively without providing evidence of defeating them. I’ll give examples of all of these with quotes from recent attacks on yours truly.
An outstanding public example
There was an outstanding, and rather shocking, example in a recent Munk debate on the topic of political correctness, when Michael Eric Dyson launched into a lengthy ad-hominem attack on his opponent, Jordan Peterson. Please don’t get too hung up on who the contestants are, or what side of the political spectrum they are on. What we are looking at is an exemplary instance of the ad-hominem attack.
Dyson, at one point, decided to discredit his opponent [and a sure sign you are resorting to ad-hominem is that you are name-calling]:
“Why the rage, bruh? You’re doing well, but you’re a mean, mad, white man.”
Classic! First is Dyson’s accusation that Peterson is displaying “rage”. Here, Dyson has belittled his debate opposition by implying he is subsumed by base emotions, which are also unjustified. Note that there is nothing in Peterson’s actions, statements, or demeanor during the debate that resemble “rage” or anything close to it. Dyson’s parlay is that IF Peterson is “raging” THAN he obviously is not making good arguments, in which case Dyson clearly wins the debate. But if Peterson is not raging, than what?
Then we get to the even more obvious ad-hominem, which is to declare Peterson a “mean, mad, white man”. Dyson’s strategy, again, is to win the debate by declaring his rival a bad and morally inferior person. We have the triple characterization of rage + mean + mad used to dismiss Peterson as raving.
Then comes the coup d’etat, which is to define Peterson by his biology, as a “white man”. Dyson is essentially arguing that Peterson is wrong because of WHAT he is: an angry white male. Even if you happen to agree with this, for whatever reason, this is attacking Peterson’s character and other attributes, and thus is a textbook example of the ad-hominem fallacy.
If Peterson were overcome with rage, it was not at all evident, because he didn’t lose his composure, even after the personal attack. In his apparently calm response, he stated:
You don’t know anything about my background or where I came from, but it doesn’t matter to you because fundamentally I’m a mean, white, man. That’s a hell of a thing to say in a debate.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out how it would have looked had Peterson characterized Dyson in a reciprocal fashion. When challenged on his ad-hominem attack, Dyson doubled-down:
“The ‘mean, mad, white’ comment was not predicated on my historical excavation of your past, it’s based upon the evident vitriol with which you speak, and the denial of a sense of equanimity among combatants in an argument. So, I’m saying again, you’re a mean, mad, white man, and the viciousness is evident.”
To use my former metaphor, this is a bit like pitching the paddle at your table tennis opponent while accusing him of losing his temper. I watched this whole debate, and the most outstanding instance of vitriol, lack of equanimity, loss of temper, and evident viciousness was precisely this utterance by Dyson himself.
See for yourself:
It may be that Dyson’s viewpoint on the topic of privilege is correct, but he was unable to make persuasive arguments, and resorted to mere assertions without evidence, and the worst of the logical fallacies, the personal attack. Even if he were correct, he lost the debate on these grounds, just as the better ping pong player will lose the match if he verbally abuses his opponent and hurls his paddle at him.
Dyson was not addressing Peterson’s arguments, but rather his person. You can’t win a formal debate by essentially arguing, “You are wrong because you are a piece of shit”. What shocked me about Dyson’s tactics was that he apparently didn’t know better. How could he not know to avoid the worst possible logical fallacy?!
Even if Peterson were a mean, mad variety of white man, that is irrelevant. One needs to rationally defeat his arguments. A mean, mad, white male could be correct, for example, if in a debate about vaccinations, he produced the most persuasive arguments for the effectiveness of vaccines.
The topic of the debate was political correctness. Stating that Jordan Peterson is a a mean, mad, white, man doesn’t address the topic.
People lose their cool in debates, and it’s also quite easy to think that someone who holds the opposite opinion to you on an important matter must have a moral failing or otherwise possess some sort of critical shortcoming. In frustration, one might be tempted to point out what we believe to be a character flaw that renders whatever argument the person makes automatically suspect.
Another example comes to mind. I was reading the comments to an article in Hyperallergic, and the moderator responded to someone’s comment with, “You post on Breitbart”. Any affiliation with Breitbart, being a notoriously conservative publication, which was at one time edited by Milo Yiannopoulos (also a notorious conservative and Trump pundit), is supposed to be all that needs to be said to discredit someone’s argument. But it’s a cop-out. If the person’s arguments are terrible because they participate in Breitbart’s comments section, than the moderator should be able to easily dispatch the inferior arguments. Guilt by association is not an argument.
The easiest way to avoid unconsciously slipping into delivering an ad-hominem fallacy is to NOT talk about the other person(s), but stick to dismantling their arguments.
Recent Ad-Hominem Attacks on Yours Truly
These are all from the art_theory sub-reddit on reddit, and are in response to my Abominable Ideas In Art series. These are not, by far, the worst personal attacks I’ve shouldered, but just the most recent, and thus the easiest to dredge up. Some are from people I’d previously blocked for being abusive, and so they are repeat offenders. Note that I thought if I blocked someone they couldn’t see what I posted, but it doesn’t work that way: I simply can’t see their content, including their personal attacks on anything I post in the future. I eventually discovered this when an article I recently shared had 5 comments, none of which I could see. I tested my theory that the comments were from individuals I’d blocked, but they could still comment, by going to the page using another browser, where I wasn’t logged in as myself. Voila, there were prize examples of ad-hominem fallacies, which I will presently share (most of it I haven’t read yet, but I did glean a couple choice insults and the general aggressive tenor).
[If you’re wondering why I bother engaging at all with people on reddit, I generally don’t, but I have to share my articles somewhere if I want anyone to see them, and I get a lot of traffic from reddit.]
The whole essay is astounding for combining a profound ignorance of all of the subjects involved with the deep arrogance of a 14 year old assuming they’ve conclusively solved some age-old questions after a good afternoon’s googling.
My “essay” must be wrong because of my profound ignorance which is limited to a few hours research on Google. I could simply counter that his stance is, “Spectacularly ridiculous and showcases a stubborn refusal to countenance any idea outside of his foregone conclusions, and an astonishing lack of familiarity with the most rudimentary relevant concepts.” These are mere defamatory conclusions peppered with extreme adjectives and culminating in a stinging insult intended to destroy someone’s reputation. If he had the superior arguments, he could let those stand and leave it to the reader to determine for her or his self that I am a complete ignoramus. Further, I would happily engage his arguments if I hadn’t already blocked him for being abusive, and if he hadn’t resorted to the same low blows again. It’s difficult to talk to someone who is spitting on you.
Further, engaging his arguments wouldn’t have amounted to much more than me pointing out which logical fallacies they were. There was no substantive challenge that I could unearth, and that’s if I could make sense out of his criticisms at all. Behold:
Aside from the author’s total inability to remove “language and communication” to the domain of linguistics, thus liberating art to truly be itself (whatever that is), even in their own goddamn sentence–Clement Greenberg called–he wants formalism back, if you are going to misunderstand it.
The argument above, as far as I can tell, is unintelligible. Even if I wanted to respond to it, I’d have to correct the grammar myself first, and I can’t really do that if I don’t know what he really intended to say. Am I supposed to be wrong for a) confining language and communication to linguistics, or b) not confining it to linguistics? Who is “their”? Is this just referring to me as an undetermined gender, or is he referring to some group of people? What did Clement Greenberg call? Who wants formalism back? Misunderstand what?
Since I am not in the least about formalism, and I argue that visual communication is its own language outside of linguistics, this looks a lot like a garbled straw-man argument (attributing a crappy argument to someone, defeating that, and then congratulating oneself for defeating their actual arguments). It looks like he’s saying I am wrong because I don’t understand that not all communication is not confined to linguistics, and I am narrow-minded in restricting art to formal qualities, as did Clement Greenberg. It appears that he’s not only arguing against positions that I don’t hold, but which I myself vehemently oppose. And then it’s all topped with the insult that I suffer some “total inability” to fathom something his grammar prevents him from even articulating. How does one even respond to this intelligently?
This person knows I’ve blocked him and can’t see his comments (unless I view not logged in), so presumes to attack anyway. Here’s another of his ad-hominems from yesterday:
Dude, you aren’t as smart as you think you are… You keep taking your shallow insights for mind-blowing revelations, and writing C- level essays and expecting people to explode from awe. I graded 30+ papers on art that were worse than yours, and 150 papers better than yours just last Sunday.
You aren’t special. You aren’t even interesting.
It would be far more accurate to say, — since I am dismantling abominable ideas in art — that I humbly use simple logic, experience, and layman’s terms to pick apart “mind-blowing revelations” which he is in “awe” of. Am I pretentious for questioning someone who exhibits a crumpled piece of paper as high art, or is the artist in question?
Notice the amount of aggression and combativeness in this comment, and that the poster is far more interested in attacking me than anything I have to say. I’m skeptical that he’s a teacher grading 180 people’s essays on art topics, though if he is, I can only imagine what kind of comments he puts on his student’s papers.
Frustrated that he wasn’t able to triumph over me in confrontational comments, he resorts to down-voting and reporting my articles as “spam” in the hopes of getting them censored by like-minded people on his ideological end of the spectrum, who can’t countenance articulate challenges to their favored narrative. This, apparently, is “progressive”.
Here’s another person commenting on one of my articles:
Ugh, I tried. The essay is all over the board, so I finally gave up trying to follow any one thread.
She added in another comment:
…wobbly, unclear, topic jumping, lack of depth, building upon unfounded suppositions and premises. If you don’t see that, read it again carefully and ask these sorts of questions.
When I asked for an example as evidence, none was forthcoming. This is a somewhat more subtle variety of ad-hominem fallacy in that it implies I can’t write, am unclear, lack depth, and so on, and thus am wrong, but without bothering to address the substance of a single thing I argued. It attacks my arguments directly, but only through characterization, and only attacks me indirectly, though very aggressively. Her whole comment is inadmissible as any kind of argument because it is mere assertion on par with saying, “Darwin’s theory of evolution is an incomprehensible hodge-podge of half-baked guesses, ludicrous fantasies, meaningless gobbledygook, and religious dogma!” This is a case of declaring oneself the victor in a boxing match, and strutting around with the prize belt, without having first fought the opponent.
And yet another person made this accusation regarding one of my articles:
This is lazy and reductive, and you seem aggrieved enough in the rest of your posts that I doubt it will get through to you that there is no conspiracy against less experimental forms of art.
Here I am wrong because I am:
4) can’t be gotten through to
5) believe in conspiracy
6) limited to appreciating less experimental forms of art.
If any of this were true, and it isn’t even remotely, than a superior debater would be able to make that evident without having to state it. Here we have the statement without the evidence.
When I challenged him on branding me with being “aggrieved” this was his argument:
I call you aggrieved primarily because you’re the type of person who thinks that when I’ve used the terms “lazy” and “reductive,” they apply to you, and not the ‘research’ that I was calling out.
Here he justifies calling me aggrieved because I confuse his characterizing something I said as lazy and reductive as applying to me and not the research. However, this is impossible, because he called me aggrieved in the same sentence he accused me of being lazy and reductive, and before I had a chance to respond to it, in which case I couldn’t be aggrieved because of a response I hadn’t yet made. On top of it, he made a new ad-hominem in stating, “you’re the type of person”.
7) I am a “type of person” with inferior character traits.
When I countered that in fact I was not opposed to experimental art, and loved to experiment artistically myself, this was his rejoinder:
I said experimental as shorthand mostly because you seem generally to be advocating for representational visual art (but that’s at a glance). I would also assume your use of ‘experimental’ with respect to your own work is primarily formal rather than conceptual.
If you are familiar with contemporary art discourse, this is a blanket condemnation.
8) I advocate presumably antiquated representational visual art.
9) I am limited to formal innovations.
Incidentally, a problem with this line of reasoning (aside from that I hadn’t commented on styles of art or advocated anything in the article in question) is that it presupposes that representational visual art, which includes virtually all western art prior to Duchamp, is limited to formal experimentation: technique and not content. Was Bosch only about formal concerns?
He’d formerly argued:
“But, as it stands, when someone says art is political, it’s an opinion held by an individual about what they think is important in art. So who cares? They’re not stopping you from creating something different.”
That’s spectacularly not my lived experience. Au contraire, in grad school I was only really permitted to make conceptual political art, and in my case it was recommended that I “deconstruct my white male privilege”. That’s a rather limited scope of art, and not at all what I was interested in doing. In reality, the notion that “all art is political” destroyed my art career. But to counter him, I gave a less personal example:
I give an example in another article about how I was a TA for a Photography class, and all the students were instructed to have an “issue”, and then we spent the duration of the term refining their “message” using the medium of photography.
His response was yet another personal attack:
Got it: ressentiment against your MFA program because they found you exhausting.
10) I am resentful.
11) my MFA program found me exhausting.
I gave evidence how students were only allowed to make art around a political issue, and his counter-argument is that this if false because he’s established that I am resentful and my peers found me exhausting. I am wrong because, I am supposed to be a piece of shit. This is after I’d already asked him to stop with the personal attacks. #11 adds an element of accruing authority to himself by presuming to speak for other people, and to represent a justified majority condemnation of me. But he wasn’t finished. His concluding sentiment was:
,,,get over yourself.
12) I need to get over myself.
Apparently, whatever I argue in my articles is wrong because the real issue is some personal, psychological hangup, and I am just lashing out in resentment. Another belittling statement, which also serves as a damning self-condemnation.
As with the other fellow, his counter-arguments didn’t address what I’d actually argued. One of his gotcha’s was:
Art can be political and all sorts of other things at once – it’s pretty good at that.
This specifically refutes the notion that art which is political in only political and nothing else, which I absolutely disagree with. It’s a textbook straw-man argument. Whoever argued that any art which addresses politics has no aesthetic element, and no psychological, emotional, transcendent, comic, or other qualities? That person obviously never read Shakespeare. By attributing the argument to me, and pointing out how shallow it is, he congratulates himself for dispatching my actual position.
What I stated is that while all art can be seen through a political lens (just as it can be seen through a Freudian, feminist, communist, or libertarian lens), or politicized, that does not mean it is inherently political. I’d written:
A lot of art is AWOL, a conscientious objector, a celebration of pure beauty, about nature, religion, spirituality, exploring the imagination, or even dreaming in an opium trance…
The counter should be an argument explaining how all art is indeed inherently political, and perhaps, as Toni Morrison argued, “an artist is a politician”. It’s no surprise that someone who attacked me instead of my arguments wasn’t even clear on what I’d plainly stated.
For the record, I did not make any ad-hominems myself — though I surely could — but repeatedly asked him to cease doing so.
As I said with Dyson, his perspective could be correct, but we’ll never know because he was too busy taking pot shots at me to make cogent arguments. I am not wrong because I am, from the 12 bogus accusations against me, an inferior or tragically flawed person.
if my esteemed interlocutors could have resisted the temptation to gloat in victory without having won anything, and to go after my person with aggression and insults, than we might have been able to clearly discuss actual ideas and arguments. As it stands I ended up blocking all of them because while I am interested in discussing the art topics, I am not interested in wasting my time defending myself against a myriad of petty personal attacks against an imagined foe.
What I take away from this
Mostly I’m surprised and disappointed that so many people don’t know better than to resort to personal attack in a discussion or debate. I’m not entirely above it myself, but at least I know better in principle and can admit when I’ve crossed the line (this will generally be at an art critic who disparages one of my favorite artists, ex. Jerry Salz on Francis Bacon). We all can be a little emotional at times, perceive someone with the opposite opinion as an enemy, react before really thinking something through, and so on. But there appears to be a new school of debate strategy that considers the ad-hominem fallacy fair game. I gather Dyson somehow justifies it.
I’ve been wondering why the most assaultive comments I receive are from the art-theory people. Part of this is quite simply that in general we are not in agreement, in which case they will inevitably take an oppositional stance. For example, most of them will believe that “all art is political”, “the purpose of art is to ask questions”, and will consider Duchamp’s Fountain a greater artistic achievement than anything or everything Francis Bacon (or painter of choice) ever did. Of course they are going to take umbrage when I undermine narratives they subscribe to. The question is how to they handle it. The answer is with a bevvy of insults, logical fallacies, unintelligible prose, and knee-jerk down-votes (see the evidence above).
One could explore the topics with equanimity, and one might assume that people who were very interested in “art theory” would also be rather intellectually inclined, and thus be familiar with what passes for civilized discourse, and also avoid the worst offenses. Nope!
I have a postmodern, radical left, conceptual art, progressive political upper-education myself (including acing my art theory class at UCLA), so I am quite familiar with the training people who believe this new paradigm get, and it doesn’t, in my experience, include the pursuit of rigorous rational thought. Quite the contrary, at its worst, it holds reason and logic as the pernicious invention of a white, male, racist, colonialist, imperialist, patriarchy, and thus seeks alternative ways of knowing, including intuition, and particularly the observations of marginalized groups. [My counter to this is that white men don’t deserve all the credit for reason and logic, that it is not inherently pernicious, but rather is the best tool we have for setting aside subjective bias and personal interest in order to come to disinterested compromise and best working conclusions. Marginalized people can and should use that tool to their advantage.]
In my recent encounters with the commenters in the art_theory reddit, I noticed that they created the appearance of argument, used the vocabulary (most eloquently in undeserved final condemnations), but lacked the underlying foundational structure to support their conclusion. It’s like if you gave a group of people all the pieces of an airplane, and tasked them to reconstruct it (and you can include me in this group because I know nothing of engineering). Finally, myself and dozens of other individuals, with considerable effort and years to accomplish the task, manage to arrange the parts so they resemble a plane. It might even look passable on the runway. But it can’t fly. All the words are there, the grammar is usually passable, there’s elaborate cognition, but the foundation is missing, and the conclusions ungrounded.
That’s how it appears, anyway. Those individuals may be able to make more solid arguments if they were invested in doing so, not so caught up in defeating the enemy, or had a bit of training. But, one isn’t going to really get the fundamentals down if one rejects them as heinous. It takes some effort. You aren’t going to learn trigonometry if you don’t put in the time, which I haven’t, and is why my math ends at geometry [and I spent most my Geometry class studying the Escher reproductions in the textbook]..
Another way to put it is that if you don’t value reason, logic, and constructive debate to begin with, you aren’t going to practice it, and that’s not going to be a problem for you.
[Also, while I currently get more grief from the radical left, I’ve certainly had my skirmishes with the far right, and they similarly went to name-calling and employing an arsenal of logical fallacies. In both cases, come to think of it, there’s an attempt to humiliate.]
I find that in a lot of contemporary discourse it’s more important who is right than what is right. When Dyson labeled Peterson a mean, mad, white male he was establishing WHO was wrong, and sidestepping what was right or wrong. When someone implores that we should listen to what a woman of color has to say on a topic, again, it’s a matter of who is right, not what is (though there’s an assumption that she would know what is right). Formerly, what is right rendered who is right irrelevant, but presently, there has been almost an about-face, so that Jordan Peterson is wrong because he is a white man (and white men are presumed to be prone to unjustifiable anger), and that is an acceptable argument.
This preference for who is right is why, for example, we might be enjoined to listen to a person of color on a given topic rather than an expert on the subject regardless or race, gender, and so on. If someone says, “You should listen to a woman of color”, there are two meanings to “listen” here. One is that we should give her an opportunity to speak (and implicitly pay attention with an open-mind and the benefit of the doubt). I agree. Two, is that we should automatically defer to her opinion and believe her. This is nonsense. We judge the debater by her arguments, and not the other way around. Dyson takes this second idea and flips it, which works grammatically, but not logically. IF there are some people we should defer to because of their biology, there are others who we should not believe because of their biology. This is why he thought labeling Jordan Peterson was a knock out punch, when it should have him disqualified for a repeated low blow.
Those postmodern, contemporary inclinations might have something to do with it, or it could just be that the people who rely on personal attack are not very good at rational argument, even if they are otherwise clever.
I’m also starting to wonder about these people’s motivation to go after me personally, with accusations that are meant to hurt, at all. Perhaps they are jockeying for respect in their internet communities, and want to be perceived as smart, or experts. Maybe they want more “karma” points next to their name. This would explain why they always comment in their forums rather than on my blog. They are not interested in a dialogue with me, but rather seek to own me, and in so doing elevate themselves (one of the classic signs of social media addiction).
Do they expect that I will actually take their insults to heart? I consider them about the same as someone making a racist remark: it reflects right back on their own shortcomings, not the target of their attack. I lose respect for their intellects, and am honestly not even curious about what they have to say, except, at this point, as examples of logical fallacies, or evidence to be studied to come to an understanding of certain kinds of internet behaviors.
Consider I wouldn’t share their comments about me on my own blog if I thought they succeeded in proving or pointing to any actual weakness or shortcoming in my person.
The last thing I can take away from this is just to be on-guard to not succumb to doing this this sort of crap myself.
2 replies on “Runaway Rant: A Personal Attack is Not an Argument”
SO… I guess this means I should stop saying that “POTUS” stands for “piece of totally useless s**t”?
I think it’s OK when making a joke about the uber powerful.
Come to think of it, presidential debates are going to be rife with ad-hominems. Trump spews them incessantly, like the thing about Jeb Bush being “low energy”. And so did Hillary with her “basket of deplorables”…