How to Argue Part II: On name-calling and ad hominem attacks

Aug 17 2009 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Debate and Discussion

Many of you been following the weekend's discussion on how to properly argue a point. Ethan Siegel originated the discussion and Isis provided an alternate perspective (Janet wondered about graphical interpretation).
I wrote a bit on the intrapersonal Overton window and how difficult it can be with staid logic and ration to move people's opinions, even those who claim to be subject to logical discussion. In this discussion I argued that frequently people seek to claim they have been called a nasty name, when they have not, as a cognitive defensive strategy to avoid being swayed by the aforementioned logic and rational argument.

Given this, we must seek at all times not to give even the whiff of name-calling so as to defuse this tendency in others, right?
Hell, no.


The problem to be addressed today is the ex hominem* argument. This is, in many debates, intimately tied to the impossibility of moving a person's intrapersonal Overton window with sober, calm and rational discourse. The ex hominem argument goes a little something like this "Hey, I'm a smart person. I know a fair bit, been well-educated and I've been around the track a time or two. I'm a good, upstanding person. Moral. Ethical. Salt of the earth citizen. More importantly, I share with you some apparent (political, sociological, ideological, professional) goals which are under discussion. In short, I'm fucking fantastic! Consequently it is absolutely impossible that I might be wrong, mistaken, subject to bias, privilege, snobbery or otherwise be in error as you are suggesting. Clearly, there must be a flaw in your argument and I will invent up some shit to avoid admitting you are correct."

Of course, interesting debates being what they are, "inventing up some shit" that actually sounds pretty convincing is not one bit difficult and preserves the person's pre-existing position.

It doesn't help the discussion progress though.

This is when it is occasionally necessary to call someone a nasty name and attack their person, as opposed to their argument.
Okay, okay, calm down knickers-knotters and sphincter-ratcheters. We are not talking about the tactics of a specific venue and whether it is in fact better to call someone an asshat straight out (dorm room bullshit session, pub, etc) or elocute around it semi-politely in such a way as they know exactly what you mean. I still maintain that tactically the best approach is to address the act, rather than the person but I allow for exceptions. Nevertheless you need to make some things explicitly clear.
You do not agree that the two of you are on the same side, that you are working for the same goods and that this person is one of the good guys. Rather, you believe that this person is on the bad side and in your estimation closer to the people you both agree are on the bad side, than s/he is to the people you both agree are on the good side of an argument. You are, for example, communicating the following:

"I know you think you are on the side of junior faculty d00d, but in fact you are just a tool of the whitebearded scientific patriarchy which is oppressing junior scientists"
"I know you think that you are all progressive and anti-discrimination my friend but actually I see you as just as counterproductive as ol' Jim Watson"
"Sure, perhaps you comfort your women trainees but your desperate unwillingness to acknowledge your male privilege makes you just as despicable to us as Larry Summers"
"Hey Mr. progressive-librul donkey brayer..you do understand the concept of heteronormative privilege, right? "

I emphasize communicating. Not "saying". Not "observing". Communicating. Driving your point home past the usual robust cognitive defenses.

I argue that this takes more than a simple statement. It often involves engaging a lot of emotional processes to convince someone that others on a "side" on which they have prided themselves on occupying for some time might actually see them as being on the other side (the bad one). People don't like being called names, especially repeatedly and by multiple people that they thought were in their camp.

Does it work? Well, sure, some people will dig in and resist even this. But guess what? Despite what the "rational argument eleventy" fans would have you think, you aren't going to be convincing them anyway. No way, no how. The argument that "I would have been convinced if you hadn't put it so meanly" is complete and utter bullshit.

My experience is that yes, communicating to people that you see them as on the bad side has a way of getting them (some, not all) to stop with the obfuscation and defense and really grapple with their own motivations that are impeding communication. I say this from the perspective of both sides of this, I'll have you know.

To draw back up from the individual to the general I'll leave you with the following thoughts. Terms such as "nigger" and "fag" were within recent memory in the US considerably more acceptable to say in public than they are now. Ditto anti-woman statements, anti-anything "jokes" and other insensitive crap. The present state of acceptable public speech did not come about at one fell swoop at the hands of rational argument towards those who saw nothing wrong with "nigger-rigged", you "gypped me", he "jewed me down", "are you on the rag?" and the like. It came about because such people came to see that most other people, even of their affiliation groups, thought that they were complete assholes for saying that stuff. They came to see that because people called them assholes.
__
*Actually I don't know that there is a good term for whatever the opposite of ad hominem is, I got this from here. "Inverse ad hominem" sounds lame pathetic.

34 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Yeah well... your mother was a hampster and your father smelt of elderberries!!!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    ...if you only knew how close I came to putting elderberries in the title...

  • becca says:

    Oh I knew, DM, I knew. My insidious brainwashing programe is nearly complete. Whahahahaha!
    I was particularly pleased with "Hey Mr. progressive-librul donkey brayer..you do understand the concept of heteronormative privilege, right? "
    *Monty Burns hands* Excellent. Excellent.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Actually I don't know that there is a good term for whatever the opposite of ad hominem is, I got this from here. "Inverse ad hominem" sounds lame.

    It's basically the argument from authority (argumentum ad verecundiam), and in particular the argument from one's own authority.

  • mpatter says:

    It's not exactly the same, but something in the flavour of this technique reminded me of the trolling manual "Strip The Experts", by an anarchist academic (go figure):
    http://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/91strip.html
    See your favourite debating strategy put to use against science by this douchebag!

  • Wisaakah says:

    Thanks for this, DM. If someone says something racist, sometimes saying "um, yeah, that was racist" is the only way to get the point across. Short sweet and to the point. That said, I hate to see a good discussion derailed by the almost inevitable tone argument that follows. "If you'd just been nicer..." Gah!
    P.S. Because you seem like you might be open to the idea: lame is ableist language. It's a word that I still hear popping out of my mouth on occasion, but I'm working on that...

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I believe that Mao referred to this approach as the "Marxist-Leninist weapon of criticism and self-criticism."
    Perhaps its most prominent advocate was Comrade Liu Shaoqi (no relation to CPP). To his regret, he found this approach to be a double-edged sword:

    In October 1968, Liu was officially denounced as "a renegade, traitor and scab hiding in the Party, a lackey of imperialism, modern revisionism and the Guomindang reactionaries", formally stripped all his positions and permanently expelled from the Party. He died in a Kaifeng prison, allegedly because he was refused medication for diabetes.

  • In short, I'm fucking fantastic! Consequently it is absolutely impossible that I might be wrong, mistaken, subject to bias, privilege, snobbery or otherwise be in error as you are suggesting. Clearly, there must be a flaw in your argument and I will invent up some shit to avoid admitting you are correct.

    AHHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!! COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEY!!!!

  • Funky Fresh says:

    This post is not very civil.

  • DSKS says:

    I agree that the call to "civility" was misguided. Wrapping a logical observation in a molotov of an argument and hurling it into the breach can sometimes (not always) be effective in jolting people out of their often well-entrenched misconceptions (about themselves as much as anything else).
    Every single example given in the post above nods to a reasoned argument that can presumably be supported, tact regardless. Yes, being angry is sometimes very useful in highlighting to a compatriot the importance and severity of the issue with respect to the protagonist, and this can bump the issue up in the priorities of the former.
    What is rarely effective in terms of actually progressing a debate towards an objectively sound resolution is wrapping up a load of old cobblers in mindless vitriol and ejaculating it in vague direction of anyone who has the gall to challenge one. That doesn't really change people. It might serve the objective goal of rallying the choir to drop their songbooks and take up their pitch forks, but it isn't going to lead to a productive end to the problem under discussion.
    Incidentally, the Overton Window nods to a rational strategy for attenuating the impact of reason on the debate and putting the emphasis on certain preexisting and immovable world views (it shifts according to the loudest and most effective circular argument). It doesn't resolve anything, and has nothing to do with what is right or wrong.

  • abb3w says:

    DrugMonkey: Communicating. Driving your point home past the usual robust cognitive defenses.
    ...or trying to, anyway. Some layman's thoughts....
    People should bear in mind what audience they are trying to communicate with; this audience may or may not be the same person(s) as the one(s) getting insulted. It's also worth bearing in mind that the insult is the means, and not (usually) the goal in itself.
    The "usual robust cognitive defenses" seems to correspond (from what I've read) to inducing a transition between the refleXive X-system cognition to the refleCtive C-system. This appears to require triggering a state of cognitive dissonance in the X-system. The technical literature doesn't seem very helpful for translating into social engineering, but humor, curiosity, and surprise seem possible example triggers.
    Use of insult via humor (elderberries aside) doesn't seem especially promising. Lewis Black, George Carlin, and other luminaries of comedy haven't made major inroads on the creationists and woo-peddlers. Unless you're on that caliber, or practicing towards that somewhere unimportant, it doesn't seem worth persuing.
    Curiosity seems even less promising. Even leaving aside my suspicions that liberals and conservatives process curiosity via markedly different frameworks, an insult does not usually provoke much curiosity. (This is especially the case for creationists, who simply presume per Matthew 5:10 that they are being "persecuted because of righteousness".)
    This leaves surprise. Which, however, inherently requires considerable creativity in the selection of insults, or limiting the use of insult to special occasions. The former is rare, and difficult. This leaves most of us with a strong need to build up a reputation for politeness to rival that of Judith Martin, so that we can utterly blow that reputation when a suitably epic impact makes worthwhile the reduction of future such opportunity. (SF/F fans might enjoy reflecting on Vlad Taltos' remarks on "a reputation for honesty" in Steven Brust's Phoenix, and from Prachett and Gaiman's Good Omens the angel Aziraphale's six millennia of practice in not swearing.)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    abb3w, granted I was very bad about conflating a complicated issue. My last points have to do with using the insult of person X to influence the attitudes of Persons A-L who may be listening and be shaped without actually being subject to the insult themselves. I agree that this is the more common and beneficial outcome. Changing the mind of the person being insulted is still possible but it may take a long interval of reflection- so what, I can wait 🙂

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    What is rarely effective in terms of actually progressing a debate towards an objectively sound resolution is wrapping up a load of old cobblers in mindless vitriol and ejaculating it in vague direction of anyone who has the gall to challenge one.

    I didn't see DM suggesting that the objective is to "(progress) a debate towards an objectively sound resolution" -- he's discussing how to win -- pure power. Distraction is a very powerful tool in that sense.
    Have a look at the current healthcare debacle in the USA: the deathers have absolutely no rational point on their side, but they've managed, using the methods DM describes, to use a clause that was inserted by a conservative Republican and get so many people terrified that "Obama is going to kill Granny" that they not only got that clause removed from the Senate version but drove support for the public option from 70+% to barely over 50%, and a lot less than that in the Senate. It's almost certainly not going to be in the final bill, which will amount to a federal law making it illegal to not have health insurance -- and very little else.
    Head over to the Denialism blog -- and recognize that the tactics they describe work. Consistently and reliably.
    You take reason. I'll take Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Bill OReilly. You'll lose, just like Obama is losing on healthcare.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    BTW, most of these tactics depend on the target being unable to simply tune out. For instance, they don't work worth a damn when I'm trying to change my employer's mind. His path of least resistance isn't to engage in any kind of introspection or reconsideration of his position, it's to label me a physioprof and fire my ass. Please note that firing my ass also reinforces his judgment that my thoughts, words, etc. are worthless.
    The result is that the brute-power plays that DM describes are much more useful as tools of the established power structure than they are of anyone challenging it.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The result is that the brute-power plays that DM describes are much more useful as tools of the established power structure than they are of anyone challenging it.
    Depends a bit on context. In academics, you might want to change the attitudes of people who do not directly affect you. Sure, you can get a bad rep in the field and pay a price. But moving the Overton window about old geezers sucking up all the NIH funds, or how it sucks for women in science, with your fellow study section members when you are sitting around the dinner table can be highly productive with relatively little direct power-relationship risk.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    (and I totes just pulled those study section examples out of thin air :-))

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    DM, your examples are making my point: they are only useful to those who are in the power structure.
    Imagine a postdoc trying to move the Dean's POV by calling her "COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEY!!!!"
    Yeah, that was productive. Now consider the roles reversed.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    D. C., it's probably more accurate to say that they're useful in dealing with people who are (at least nominally) at a similar level in the power structure or when used by someone with an ambiguous level of power.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    D. C., it's probably more accurate to say that they're useful in dealing with people who are (at least nominally) at a similar level in the power structure or when used by someone with an ambiguous level of power.

    I'll go with that -- which still supports my point that calling "privilege" on those who argue for one mode over another are engaged in PKB. All argumentative tools are tools of privilege: words don't destroy the system. At most they are tools which allow those in power to co-opt challengers by giving them a stake in preserving the system.
    NB: I find it curious that of all people Ethan Siegel is getting called on this. The odds are pretty good that he learned the "keep it civil, keep it polite, keep it focussed on the argument and not on the arguer" from a family who learned it the hard way: that approach might not work all the time, but the others were even more likely to get you killed.

  • X. Nihilo says:

    What is it with these dog latin terms that pseudi-philosoffers keep cooking up? Does it make an argument sound more respectable?
    Ad hominem is correct Latin because ad (meaning towards) takes the accusative (hence, I think, the name because the ac- is ad- with a consonant change for euphony). Accusative is generally for towards-ish things. It means "to the man".
    Ex hominem is however completely ungrammatical ex takes the ablative. Ex hominem is going away (well, out of), so it doesn't take a going towards case. And ex anyway is coming out of (as in "exhale"), do you mean coming from? (probably ab, plus, yes, the ablative).
    If you don't know what the ablative of homo (ooo err missus!) is, then why not stick to English? And, no, I'm not going to tell you! Or use another modern language, Spanish is quite popular these days!
    An argument is not made better by using words you don't understand. Any you don't convince a listener with some knowledge by exposing your own ignorance. The listener quite reasonably thinks (a nod towards Bayesian reasoning!) "I know you're wrong on something I understand, therefore it seems reasonable to guess that you're probably wrong too on issues that I can't directly evaluate".
    Stick to English, be clear.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    what the balls are you talking about hiphop DC? (damn, fooled by a spam scraper!)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Imagine a postdoc trying to move the Dean's POV by calling her "COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEY!!!!"
    Interestingly a postdoc is probably far freer to insult the Dean than is an Asst Prof. A postdoc who knows she is headed to industry is freer to tell some hoary old scientist that she's full of shit.
    and lest we lose ourselves, I'm not talking about random toddler type insults. I'm talking about the somewhat more meaningful version of personal attack.

  • Alex says:

    All argumentative tools are tools of privilege: words don't destroy the system. At most they are tools which allow those in power to co-opt challengers by giving them a stake in preserving the system.
    You are a very, very good parodist, D.C.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    No, Alex, that's absolutely not parody.
    Ask Henry Gates his opinion on the value of academic tenure.

  • Alex says:

    D.C., you have a point, but you've been arguing in the same style as the people going around saying "Insisting on reasoned arguments is a sign of privilege!" I have never gotten the impression that you are that sort, so when you start talking like them I hear it as parody.

  • DSKS says:

    "You take reason. I'll take Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Bill OReilly. You'll lose, just like Obama is losing on healthcare."
    It seems to me you have your eye on the short term nature of the game (reminds me of anti-climate changers pointing out a downturn in temperature during one year in a decades upturn). Who wins a few battles here and there with reactionary nonsense doesn't matter a damn relative to who's writing the history 30 odd years down the line. Screaming, shouting and shooting has been in the toolbox of the bigots of all stripes and they've used those tools liberally; and yet, in the US, they've done nothing but steadily lose ground over the decades. To what? Well... to "reason" for the most part.
    On that note, it's a bit early to say that Obama is "losing" health care. To arrive at that conclusion requires that we first assume the apparent objectives of the admin are the same as those they realistically expected to achieve. And that's rarely ever the case for any admin.
    Clinton recently covered these themes after getting heckled during a speech to Netroots Nation.

  • PhilB says:

    At most they[words] are tools which allow those in power to co-opt challengers by giving them a stake in preserving the system.
    So D.C. your more egalitarian tool would be?

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    So D.C. your more egalitarian tool would be?

    I'm doing descriptive, not prescriptive.

  • Oscar Zoalaster says:

    What about people who introduce name-calling as an alternative to explaining what in the hell they are upset about? Reading 'Isis' I got the impression that Ethan must be thinking "What is she talking about?" because none of what she wrote had any resemblance to what Ethan wrote, but she sprinkled her text with a lot of insults as a way of - according to what you wrote above - asserting her correctness. If you resort to insults at least, please, be able to explain what the insult has to do with the statements or actions of the person being insulted.

  • Rudyard Kipling says:

    Effective argumentation:

    IN THE Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
    For food and fame and woolly horses' pelt.
    I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
    And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

    Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
    Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
    And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
    Were about me and beneath me and above.

    But a rival, of Solutre, told the tribe my style was outre-
    'Neath a tomahawk, of diorite, he fell
    And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
    Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

    Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,
    And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
    And I wiped my mouth and said, "It is well that they are dead,
    For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong."

    Use what works.

  • abb3w says:

    Oh, a lovely current example from Barney Frank (via Fark and the Daily Kos): "trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table".

  • Isabel says:

    I tried comparing you to the Nazi doctors who were willfully ignorant of the bigger societal picture, however useful their experiments were to science, but it hasn't worked. Maybe when you've had some time to reflect...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    as I noted somewhere or other, identifying or deploying argument techniques says very little about who is correct in the matter.

  • […] been a bit since I pontificated on discourse. (I know PhysioProffe really misses these types of blather.) I do […]

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