In debate, an attack is ad hominem if it's intended to refute the opponent's position by discrediting the opponent personally, independent of the issue at hand, rather than by refuting the opponent's argument. For example, "Your ideas about how to finish this project on time are worthless, because you can't even submit your status reports on time." Because ad hominem attacks can mislead, groups that don't recognize them when they happen can make unwise decisions.
All personal attacks need not be ad hominem attacks. The more run-of-the-mill personal attacks include situations in which the attacker is engaged in bullying, or the attacker harbors a long-held personal grudge. Personal attacks are ad hominem attacks if they are attempts to refute arguments based on faulty reasoning. In an ad hominem attack, the attacker, as a means of debate, discredits the attacked person.
To reduce the incidence of ad hominem attacks, and to enable your group or team to recognize them when they occur, train the group in advance as part of the group formation process. Here are some concepts that can be part of a strong foundation.
- Know the various forms of ad hominem attacks
- ad hominem attacks come in endless variety. An attack on a female based on feminine attributes or stereotypes is an ad feminam attack. (As far as I know, there is no name for the analogous attack on a male based on male stereotypes.) An attack based on the biases of an advocate is an ad hominem circumstantial. An attack based on hypocrisy is an ad hominem tu quoque. An attack based on the similarity between the advocate's views and the views of some widely discredited individual is called guilt by association.
- Understand the risks of identifying ad hominem attacks
- Dismissing an argument as an ad hominem attack risks being seen as engaging in an ad hominem attack yourself. To limit this risk, demonstrate that the attacker is attempting to refute the attacked person's argument. Then demonstrate that the attacker is employing a personal attack to do it. This isn't easy to do in the context of an ad hominem, because many people don't really understand what an ad hominem attack is, and many don't know what's wrong with ad hominem attacks.
- Understand cloaked harassment
- There is a gray area. It's possible that a bully, or someone harboring a personal grudge, might use faulty reasoning intentionally as a way of harassing a target. Superficially, this might look like an ad hominem attack, but it is actually bullying or harassment. I draw Dismissing an argument as an
ad hominem attack risks
being seen as engaging
in an ad hominem
attack yourselfthis distinction because dealing with bullying or harassment requires approaches that differ from those we use for ad hominem attacks.
Identifying ad hominem attacks can be tricky. For example, when the basis of an advocate's argument is personal authority, questioning the validity of that authority isn't an ad hominem attack, even though it might look like one. Be very careful. Top Next Issue
For more on ad hominem attacks, see "Mudfights," Point Lookout for April 14, 2004.
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- Caught in the Crossfire
- You lead a company, a department, or a team. When two of your reports get caught up in a feud, what
do you do? Let them fight it out? Order them to stop? Fire them both? Here are some tips for making a peace.
- Obstructionist Tactics: I
- Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If
even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. What tactics
do obstructors use?
- Covert Bullying
- The workplace bully is a tragically familiar figure to many. Bullying is costly to organizations, and
painful to everyone within them — especially targets. But the situation is worse than many realize,
because much bullying is covert. Here are some of the methods of covert bullies.
- Dealing with Deniable Intimidation
- Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive
or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable
- Unresponsive Suppliers: III
- When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers
are a special case.
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