Friday, 14 December 2012

Ad hominem


Adverbial & Adjectival Phrase. L16.
[Latin = to the person] 

Of an argument, etc: directed to the individual, personal; appealing to feeling not reason.

When I was in my teens, I was involved in a debate regarding whether creationism should be taught in schools. The opposing team was called 'The Wild Boars' and, I must say, their lead debater was cleverer and better prepared than me. 

I was asked to write the team names on the blackboard, together with FOR or AGAINST underneath respectively. In doing so, I pretended I had misheard the team name and wrote 'The Mild Bores' on the blackboard instead. Later in the debate, when the captain was referring to displaced apes moving out of Africa, I retorted 'You're a displaced ape!' 

The thing is, I won that debate, and won it from a trailing position according to the pre-debate ballot. So was I right to use ad hominem so flagrantly? Both examples certainly got good reactions from the audience in terms of laughter, and I was able to apologise for both as just joking. Without a doubt, though, both damaged their lead debater, as it gave the impression that he was someone who lacked a sense of humour and took himself too seriously (of course, neither of these "failings" should sway an intellectual debate, but they do). While it's intellectually lazy, ad hominem can be a useful debating tactic if your only aim is to win a debate. If you value intellectual rigour and integrity, however, it's really a very, very lazy and stupid tactic to employ

Oh, it's also very stupid (you big fat stupid face, you!) to protest ad hominem when it isn't. So, if you come to my house asking to borrow my car and level the charge that you have neither license nor insurance and you're drunk, that's not ad hominem. 

Do you have any examples of ad hominem? Have you ever used it successfully? Do you prefer it as a debating strategy and thinking pattern because you're too lazy to put sound thought into constructing your arguments and opinions? Please feel free to leave a comment. 

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