Anyone who has paid even a tiny amount of attention to the presidential campaign (and even a tiny amount can be too much) has heard plenty of logical fallacies, even if not aware that’s what they were.
Ad hominem (personal attack) fallacies flourish in politics; they’re probably the most familiar of the logical fallacies, but also widely misunderstood. Fallacy Files says:
“It is a frequently misidentified fallacy, for many people seem to think that any personal criticism, attack, or insult counts as an ad hominem fallacy. Moreover, in some contexts the phrase ‘ad hominem’ may refer to an ethical lapse, rather than a logical mistake, as it may be a violation of debate etiquette to engage in personalities. So, in addition to ignorance, there is also the possibility of equivocation on the meaning of ‘ad hominem.’”
To be clear, someone commits the ad hominem (Latin for “against the man”) fallacy when introducing irrelevant personal information about an opponent as evidence of a conclusion (Uncle Bob is wrong because he’s ugly and Aunt Mabel dresses him funny), typically in hopes of distracting the opponent and others from the actual topic at hand. (Omigod, did you see the size of that bird????)
If the information is relevant to the topic, or is purely name-calling (Uncle Bob is ugly, dresses funny and he’s wrong), on the other hand, it may be ad hominem, but is not a fallacy; it’s just an attack.
RationalWiki makes the distinction between insults and ad hominem attacks:
“Calling someone an idiot when you have explained the evidence five times and they still refuse to address it, or provide counterexamples, is not an ad hominem attack, but rather a valid logical conclusion based on their actions.
“Similarly, tacking an insult onto the end of any argument might be bad form, but it doesn’t automatically make it an ad hominem. It’s only an ad hominem if you say the other person must be wrong because they are an idiot—not the other way round.”
Not that it matters to some people on comment boards, a group that’s pretty much the poster child for ad hominem (if there isn’t one, there should be), deploying every insult possible about anyone who disagrees, rather than addressing their evidence, regardless of how many times someone points out said evidence. Providing proof of their assertions isn’t their job, which is why they tell you to “Google it, you moron.”
No, wait, I’m wrong … Donald Trump is the ultimate poster child for ad hominem, even though he’s far from the only offender. Any time he’s not “treated fairly” (read: not being genuflected to and told he’s pretty and smart and the best guy ever), he goes on the attack rather than deal with the actual issue. And he wants people to “attack” him (read: ask him a substantive question, or bring up relevant past actions, or challenge false evidence he plays off as true so he can say they’re not playing fair) … what better way is there to get free press?
But it’s in ad hominems that he excels (he’s YUUUUGE!). Everyone but him is a “loser” who doesn’t deal in facts (tell that to the facts, pal). Carly Fiorina’s looks, Hillary Clinton’s age and Megyn Kelly’s … well, everything … are ripe for ridicule. Jeb Bush is a “sad sack” and a “basket case”; Macy’s is “very disloyal”; conservative Washington Post blogger and columnist Jennifer Rubin is “one of the dumber bloggers.” As for valid criticism of policy statements—not so much. Why introduce evidence that disproves an opponent’s points when you can just call him a doodyhead?
Trump’s sitting out Fox News’ Republican debate in Iowa was noted early on by Ted Cruz, CBS reported: “‘Let me say I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,’ Cruz deadpanned. ‘Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump part out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up.’”
Not that Cruz is really that much better at showing respect to others.
Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication and director of the Aggie Agora at Texas A&M University, wrote about Trump recently on The Conversation, noting that the word “demagogue,” from the Greek, originally meant leader of the people.
“Today, however,” she wrote, “it’s used to describe a leader who capitalizes on popular prejudices, makes false claims and promises, and uses arguments based on emotion rather than reason.
“Donald Trump appeals to voters’ fears by depicting a nation in crisis, while positioning himself as the nation’s hero—the only one who can conquer our foes, secure our borders and ‘Make America Great Again.’ His lack of specificity about how he would accomplish these goals is less relevant than his self-assured, convincing rhetoric. He urges his audiences to ‘trust him,’ promises he is ‘really smart’ and flexes his prophetic muscles (like when he claims to have predicted the 9/11 attacks).”
Trump capitalizing on the largely unfounded fear he’s churned up? The hell you say!
I see the apparent uptick in personal attacks on the campaign trail as just one more symptom of our increasingly uncivil society. It’s made it even harder to get anything done, with insults and ideology taking the place of logic and facts and obscuring the real issues.
Yes, Trump’s an easy target for columns like this. But if he backed up what he says with actual evidence and clear policy positions and wasn’t quite so thin-skinned, I might not have anything to say this week.
Nope, I’d still find something. Illogic is everywhere.