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Debating shouldn’t be a personal attack

By in Opinions

The Carillon (University of Regina)

REGINA (CUP) —  Intellectual debates are something to be cherished. They should be engaged in actively, especially in a university setting.

Of course, there are certain rules of etiquette concerning argumentation. This etiquette is mostly just avoiding “fallacies” or things that weaken an argument.

One of the most abused fallacies is “ad hominem,” where rather than dealing with what someone is saying or the merits of their argument, the personality or character of the opponent is attacked.

In my last three years at university, I’ve noticed this sort of fallacy is increasing. Ad hominem attacks have been around since people could speak. But it’s no matter if it’s increasing or it’s always been around, it’s important to qualify something.

The debates where ad hominem attacks usually occur are on comment sections of websites or Facebook because most people aren’t brave enough to insult someone to their face.

So hardened in their wide-eyed beliefs they usually don’t actually tackle the merit of the argument. They usually try to dismiss it by attacking someone’s character, saying that they know nothing or that because of their background, their argument is invalid. Even if the other argument has no merit, it would make more sense to dismantle the argument rather than the person saying it. Otherwise, an attempt at ad hominem is just a distraction method — smoke and mirrors.

Of course, it’s not everybody using this tactic — that would be a generalization, which is also a fallacy. But ad hominem is found amongst all kinds of debaters.

One example I recently saw: “You can’t understand because you’re a man and you can’t talk about it,” or “They’re just a bunch of white guys.”

These are two that come to mind quickly that I’ve heard recently. You’re X, so you can’t talk about Y. Once, after asking persistent gadfly-like questions to someone starting a petition, I was told, “This is why you don’t have a girlfriend.” It’s baseless, and it’s meant to distract and sidetrack the debate from real issues.

These sorts of characterizations do not serve their cause: they alienate people and they’re a sign of weak argumentation. If someone is right then they shouldn’t have to resort to this tactic.

If the opponent is wrong, then one can attack the merits of their arguments. It doesn’t matter who’s saying it, the strength of an argument shouldn’t hinge on the “who,” but rather the “what.”

Also, if someone is so sure that someone’s opponent is wrong because of their character, then it should be easy to tear their argument apart without resorting to insults — right?

Don’t ever let someone try to attack your character in an argument. If you’re so wrong because of who you are, then your opponent should be smart enough to see it in your argument. Otherwise, chances are they can’t defend their point adequately and are trying to discredit you to save themselves the embarrassment.

If you do resort to ad hominem, please stop. You’re doing no service to anybody and should take more pride in your convictions. Nothing will be gained from attacking someone’s personality, and listening to other people’s points of view may help you to strengthen your own, or even change them. If your arguments are so correct, then you have nothing to worry about.

Plus, beating someone on point of fact is much more satisfying than dragging the debate, and everyone in it, through the mud.

  • Basil

    I appreciate this article. It is written with a good spirit. Too many times have I seen personal slander lathered all over a simple disagreement. Internet debates of topics in science and politics can arouse frighteningly dehumanizing treatment of others on either side. It is my hope that debaters don’t get lost in a passionate frenzy of attack and forget to acknowledge the good arguments presented to them. I like to see opponents who are also be respectful partners, willing to accept intellectual challenges from each other.

  • angry foodie

    ad hominem attacks find their way into arguments in sneaky ways.

    Sometimes, it is done as simply as describing an opponent’s premise in a condescending way. By calling premises “childish” or “stupid”, your attack is really on the person who posits the premise. A proper debater might call the premise “incorrect” and demonstrate why it is incorrect.

    I find it interesting the examples the writer used. I know as a matter of fact that radfems (who sadly pollute academia much more pervasively than they do regular society) routinely make such arguments. They will often use the inability of men to “get it” as a premise in their arguments.

    • yup

      Ah yes, those people. The conversation usually goes like this:
      “I thought *insert media popular among feminists* was kind of boring.”
      And that’s not even an attempt to challenge their beliefs. The same thing happens for pretty much every group on the internet, though. Not a fan of a specific rock song? You must be an idiotic Justin Bieber fan!

  • Jamie Presley

    I love this article but it will only speak to those who agree and share its wisdom. I know several people who dont give a fuck and will do anything to win or make the other person give up.

    Our society has unfortunately fallen into a giant “Who can be the bigger asshole” contest and people are doing it very well.

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