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.”

Godwin’s Law

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.

Also try Bill O’Reily’s approach to ridicule: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7Z12gBP5fU