The logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem occurs when a personal, irrelevant attack is involved in an argument. Loosely translated, ad hominem means “against the man,” a pointer to the deviation that occurs when the focus is shifted from the point of discourse to the opponent’s personality. During an argument, those who employ ad hominem tactics aim to refute a point by discrediting the proponent of the said point.
Ad hominem is a bit like red herring in the sense that it distracts the audience from what’s being discussed. If the opponent in question bites the bait, the discussion might as well swerve in an entirely new direction. There are some variations to argumentum ad hominem, the common ones being poisoning the well, tu quoque, abusive ad hominem, ad feminam, guilt by association, circumstantial ad hominem, etc.
Poisoning the well is a smear tactic involving the use of preemptive personal attacks on an opponent. The audience is provided with what seems to be adverse information about an opponent before they could state their side of an argument, so as to make their position seem less credible. E.g., “Now that I have bared all the truths, keep your ears peeled for the sneaky lies that left-leaning hogwash of a being would tell to convince you otherwise.”
Tu Quoque, which translates to “you too,” is a logical fallacy that presupposes that because an opponent has dabbled into a vice before, then they have no right to hold a moral position when such vice is the point of discourse. E.g., “Who are you to talk about youths and their fraudulent engagements? You were once a fraudster yourself!”
Abusive ad hominem fallacy occurs when an opponent’s physical appeal or appearance is directly attacked in the course of an argument. E.g., “Look at me. Look at him. Who would you rather have as the face of your mayor, eh?”
Guilt by association is a tricky fallacy that tends to loop an individual with someone (or something) that is viewed negatively, thus creating scenarios where the individual’s opinions are also considered negatively. E.g. “Such things as we have heard from my opponent today can be likened to the basis upon which Jonestown was founded, I hope we see it for all the evil it is at this point.”
Circumstantial ad hominem is a fallacy that occurs when an individual’s personal circumstance is pointed out as a blemish or a motivation for their argument; therefore, their argument is false. E.g., “Oh, please, drop all that crappy analogies of yours. We know you are only are fighting for free tuition for kids is because you can’t afford to send all four of your kids to school anymore.”
It is important to note that not all attacks on a person during an argument are considered ad hominem fallacies. Hence, there are “valid” ad hominem arguments, which are not considered fallacies. For example, reminding an audience that an individual arguing for some points in Physics theories has no educational background in Physics is a valid argumentum ad hominem.
On the assumption that your mind is already traveling far and wide trying to pinpoint occasions where you might have come across ad hominem logical fallacies in everyday life, politics, the media, or television, let’s review a real-life event that has a few sprinkles of ad hominem fallacy.
Media review: Donald Trump under fire for mocking disabled reporter
There are lots of glaring examples of ad hominem attacks in the political sphere. It has become a not-so-subtle political tool for deviating from the main points of an argument. While ad hominem attacks mostly come as direct insults, name-calling, or stereotypical retorts, as we have pointed out in the examples above, let’s consider ad hominem in another form – mimicry.
The focus here is not the article but the media excerpt embedded therein; the culprit being Donald Trump (a presidential hopeful at the time in question).
Along the lines of his political rally, Trump claimed that “thousands” of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, and to back this claim, he referenced a 2001 article by a journalist, Mr. Kovaleski. In return, Mr. Kovaleski pointed out that he never reported on thousands of Muslims celebrating the attacks. He rather reiterated that authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly celebrating the attacks.
Now the argument was thrown back at Trump to defend his claims about thousands of Muslims celebrating the attack. Instead of doing so, he resorted to mocking the reporter’s physical condition with some slighting undertones. The reporter has arthrogryposis, a congenital joint contracture that affects the movement of the joints.
“Now the poor guy, you gotta see this guy…”
This statement was made right after reading out some portions of the article in contest, but instead of addressing his argument as supposedly propped by the article, he starts off on the reporter.
Ad hominem attack:
This is a typical case of poisoning the well. An attempt to create an undesirable image of the opposition, with hopes that members of the audience are either distracted from the point of discourse or that the credibility of the opposition is discredited. In this context, the statement leans towards making the reporter seem unworthy of participation in such a lofty debate.
(while trying to mimic the reporter’s disabilities)
“…uhh I don’t know what I said. Uhh I don’t remember. He’s going like ‘I don’t remember. Maybe that’s what I said.’”
The video captures Trump throwing his arms at odd angles and partially slurring his words, in a bid to make an impression of the reporter’s physical condition.
Ad hominem attack:
Trump left the point of discourse to bring the argument against the man. In the absence of abusive or denigrating comments, which we mostly recognize as the highlights of argumentum ad hominem, he opted for a derisive expression. We can detect bits of abusive attack, circumstantial ad hominem attack, and red herring in the mix. He brings the reporter’s circumstances into perspective in a mocking manner while trying to distract the audience from the fact that the article in the contest doesn’t back his claim that thousands of Muslim residents in New York celebrated the 9/11 attacks.
His retort could have been structured better
Ad hominem is a fallacy of relevance, and as seen in the video, Trump’s mimicry has no relevance to the prevailing argument. It functioned to discredit the reporter’s stance by way of ridicule, without providing any argument to support his claim, despite referring to an article that was supposed to back up his claim. His argument, even if baseless at that point, could have held more meaning if his condescending introduction of the reporter, as well as the mimicry, were avoided.