I’ve heard a lot this year about ad hominem fallacies, negative campaigns, and personal attacks. The country really wants to hear about the issues and the candidates’ solutions (at least, that’s what we tell ourselves). And instead, the focus remains in the gutter.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with our displeasure towards the current status of political discourse in America. But, lest we become too intellectual for our own good, parsing every argument and fixating on ‘substance’ (not to mention using cool Latin terms) as though logic and policy are the only things that matter in an election, let me make something clear: character evaluation is not the same thing as an ad hominem attack.
An ad hominem fallacy (or ‘attack’ as we like to say in the context of a debate or campaign) is a ploy of misdirection under the guise of the moral high ground. When someone calls out the character or personality of an opponent in order to discredit that opponent’s statements, this is an ad hominem. The purpose is crucial, namely, discrediting someone’s opinion on the basis of his or her character. Rather than engaging someone’s ideas, the user of the ad hominem deflects and demonizes his or her opponent in an attempt to dismiss anything he or she says.
However, evaluating or criticizing (even judging – God forbid we use that term) someone’s character is something quite different. The purpose here is not to discredit or dismiss the opponent’s ideas, but to call attention to his or her character as a significant issue itself. In this way, the ideas and the person remain distinct and worthy of criticism on their own merits. Thus, just because someone isn’t an angel does not mean every idea he has is terrible. Likewise, just because someone has some bad ideas does not mean she’s a demon.
Is this splitting hairs? Possibly, but I don’t think so. Because, if we want to reserve the right to both object to immorality and have a serious ideological discussion, we must keep these things distinct. If every time someone’s character is criticized we call, “Foul,” then our genuine cries against injustice and for virtue will quickly fade into oblivion. However, if we remain silent about the stink of ad hominem attacks, then we will never have a real conversation about important issues.
One is a logical fallacy. One is a moral necessity. One is unacceptable, because it diminishes beautiful things. One is acceptable, because it exposes ugly things.
Ad hominem attacks are neither useful nor warranted in political discourse, but character evaluation is quite the opposite. Let’s be sure we’re not confusing the two.