We live in an age when feelings trump facts. Said in another way: my personal truth trumps reality. John Adams, the second president of the United States, made a bolder claim. Ronald Reagan used to quote him, “Facts are stubborn things.” Adams quote gets more specific, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Some have suggested that Adams had quoted two French writers, but that is less significant than the reason he made the statement. Before the American Revolution, an incident occurred known as the Boston Massacre when British soldiers sought to put down a riot and some of the rioters were killed. Passions against the British were running high and eventually broke out into the Revolutionary War.
Beyond Emotion and Bias
Before the revolution took place, John Adams took on the task of defending the soldiers despite the fever pitch of emotion against the British. He demonstrated that they had acted appropriately according to the laws at that time, and he produced witnesses to bolster his case. Essentially, he brought the facts of what occurred to bear on the case. He won, or should we say the facts won?
Even today, depending on our own feelings, prejudices, and preferences we often prefer trying people in the court of public opinion. However strong our inclinations to see justice done or our side win, facts still matter, not simply our inclinations, feelings, and passions.
Only Informed Opinions
Good writing demands good thinking, and good thinking demands an examination of facts. Let’s not get sidetracked into thinking that often we can’t get to the facts of certain things. True in some cases, but we often say that out of laziness and uncontrolled passion for a particular point of view. Should we be accused of a crime or criticized for holding a contrary opinion, we hope that clearer heads will at least hear the ideas we bring to court or to an argument. Lazy arguments refuse to even consider something contrary.
As writers and speakers, we must always be in the business of presenting good evidence for our ideas: finding facts that support our assertions. Truth can be known, and facts can be ascertained. The cost of finding either is nothing less than our honesty and our concerted effort to admit the truth wherever we find it, even at the expense of cherished ideas.
If you’ve ever been in an argument that ended with name-calling or character assassination, then you have experienced the “ad hominem” attack, a particular fallacy used to end and allegedly win an argument. From my childhood, I knew people who, in jest, often finished a argument they couldn’t win by saying, “Yeah, well, you’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny.” However, everyone knew it was ridicule with a funny edge and was never intended to win the argument.
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary describes the tactic as “an attack on an opponent’s character rather than by an answer to the contentions made.” In other words when an assertion is made that an opponent can’t answer, the opponent defames and seeks to undermine the character of the one making the argument. The American Heritage Dictionary provides more insight by saying it is “a tried-and-true strategy for people who have a case that is weak.”
In 1990 Mike Godwin proposed what has become known as Godwin’s Law. A Wikipedia search uncovered this definition: “as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler becomes more likely.” I once heard an English professor in class throw the Nazi epithet at a politician that he didn’t like (I never heard a reason for the label).
The tactic is still with us in various forms. Think of any name thrown at opponents ending in “-ophobe,” and you’ll see the ad hominem at work in full regalia. People use such emotionally charged labels when an argument ceases to have any reasonable content and often react with anger or mockery. Such an attack wreaks of defamation and intimidation but mostly reflect someone bereft of providing answers to an open discussion.
An ad hominem attacker thinks you are like the criminal who testifies only to get a lighter sentence and thus have an ulterior, self-seeking motive. Therefore, your testimony can’t be valid. His attacks are meant only to destroy credibility. Not only should you not take the insults to heart, but you must realize that such a person has probably been indoctrinated into an ideology that will allow no dissent, especially if the dissent makes more sense.
What To Do
Try this when any discussion reverts to Godwin’s Law or some form of the ad hominem fallacy. Ask “Beside what you think of me, what reasons do you have for disagreeing with the issue?” In other words, ignore the insult and bring the discussion back to the topic. It won’t work if such a person has no desire to answer legitimate objections, but it puts your name-caller on defense and exposes his shoddy thinking. You might even engage in a little sarcasm by doing what I heard someone do several years ago. When accused of being an “-ophobe,” he simply answered, “So what’s your point?”
Unfortunately, the ad hominem fallacy has become all too popular, especially in discussions of political and social topics. Do everything you can to stop it in its tracks.
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Bob Weber2015-12-09T00:25:57+00:00December 9, 2015|
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