If you remember your basic Latin, you’ll know that ad hominem means “to the person.” For our purposes today, it reminds us to focus on the primary difference between an argument about the issue at hand and its subversion into slander of one’s opponent.
As the political process kicks into gear for the coming national election, one question leaps forward: Why can’t we adopt the happily truncated British system, which shortens the political process to weeks instead of years? Oh, what bliss that would be. Instead, we are subjected to the worst aspects of the electoral process, in which bloviating gas bags take rhetorical argument to the very peaks of provocation and prevarication. While these blokes are venting, it is imperative that our analysis of the process cuts through to the reality of the interactions.
The essence that we’re looking for is this: When Gas Bag A critiques Gas Bag B’s stance on immigration, that is fair political comment. If it’s about the issue at hand, it is worth the time and effort to process.
If, on the other hand, Gas Bag Donald Trump calls Gov. Chris Christie an idiot—no matter that the assessment might have merit on the face of it—that is a less than honorable comment because it is an ad hominem attack. It is three card Monte, employing slight-of-hand to switch your attention away from the issues and over to the person being attacked. When you damn the person instead of his or her position, the clear implication is that you don’t have a reasonable counterargument. It implies that you have a dearth of ideas.
A good example of this comes from the rants of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia toward fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy. Rather than challenge Kennedy’s positions from a pragmatic point of view, Scalia instead descends into petty mockery of his colleague, disrespect that is unseemly, undignified and repugnant. David Kravitz of the Washington Post calls Scalia’s outbursts “the judicial equivalent of pornography.” Ironically, Scalia is opposed to pornography.
It’s always important to separate the wheat from the chaff, the adroit argument from the horse hockey. The former can help you to a better place of understanding; the latter only stinks up the place.
Richard Paul Hinkle lives in Santa Rosa.
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