Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ad hominem, a serious threat to all intellectual debate...

I wrote this a long time ago on the Zeitgeist Forums, and I think it bears repeating here.

I am writing this here as it is clear that debates on this forum just as many other forums like it is fraught with a plague that chokes to death intellectual discussion. And hinders the purest forms of communication. An open exchange of ideas where the goal of both participants is to further their understanding of the subject.

As was pointed out in Zeitgeist, we tend to equate being "wrong" to somehow being inferior. This results in the topic of the conversations presented becoming a conflict of egos and reputations rather then an exchange of information to reach conclusions.

Miyamoto Musashi was a great swordsmen, perhaps the best of his time. He used to say:

"Today's goal is to defeat yesterday's understanding."

The form of debate that I wish to expose for what it is and ask that we all apply social pressure to eliminate from our communication is called Ad Hominem.

"An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: "argument to the man", "argument against the man") consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the source making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim. The process of proving or disproving the claim is thereby subverted, and the argumentum ad hominem works to change the subject."

Essentially, lets say two people are arguing. We will call them Charles and James. They have an audience who is listening intently to the debate.

Charles: "Look, I am telling you the sky is blue during the day."

James: "You are wrong, I declare that the sky is in fact purple during the day."

Charles: "Look at this photo. I took it yesterday. It proves that in fact the sky is blue during the day. Timestamped and everything..."

James: "Well...why should I accept photographic evidence from someone who cheats on their wife?"

Charles is winning the debate. James decides he cannot defeat Charles's logic and evidence presented. So to attempt to "win" the debate he decides to direct the conversation towards Charles's illicit affairs in an attempt to discredit Charles as a person. Thereby distracting the audience from the weaknesses in his own logic and lack of evidence.

This is a fairly obvious example of Ad Hominem, but if you look closely you can see it all over the internet in particular. When you are not face to face with someone it is easy to distract people from the original point because now everyone is focused on the new "subject". When Charles eventually retreats in shame or frustration then James will have "won".

Sometimes people will call each other "stupid" during debate to come to the same conclusion. Or will switch to personal insults and "flames" to further their defamation of the person defeating them. And particularly if they are teamed up with a pack of "trolls" this can be very effective. The intellectual exchange is buried somewhere underneath the piles of bile created by the "trolls". The audience either allows these trolls to convince them that the person is discredited, or they just stop reading the thread altogether.

Rarely will people stand up to these gangs of intellectual thugs because they don't want to be next. This allows this kind of behavior to isolate and bring down one person at a time. Eventually a forum is left with nothing but it's social "clique" of "elites" who are on the top of the pecking order. And anyone who speaks outside of what they like will be punished into submission. And what is even worse, the social structure sets up a "reward" system for participating in the hateful behavior. It's the "in thing" to pick on this person.

Some people simply refuse to participate when this is going on. I say this is the worst thing to do. The "society" of our forum should come together and expose this behavior right away. And make it very clear that it will not be tolerated.

I honestly feel that the battle against Ad Hominem ruining intellectual debate and is important to every aspect of our movement. The notion that being "right" or "wrong" has social implications and consequences is one of the most powerful things holding back mankind.

I used to moderate for a chat room that frequently had trolls. It was a Libertarian chat room so they would hide behind "free speech" as their right to be mean to any member who they saw fit to pick on. They would frequently manipulate the owner of the chat room to allow them back in when they would be kicked or banned for their behavior. What the owner failed to see was that allowing this just furthered the bad behavior. So he asked me to come up with a rule that would prevent this from being an issue. The trolls would always accuse me of kicking them or banning them just for disagreeing with them. Some of them had gotten a hold of some issues of my personal life and felt the need to bring them up whenever the debate was going badly for them. When the owner would finally take a look at what was going on, he would just see me, the one person being isolated. And therefore would identify me as the problem.

Eventually I came up with the rule. And that was no Ad Hominem. Period. We unbanned everyone and simply enforced the rule that you were not allowed to in any way use personal attack during your debate. You could disagree all you wanted to. But you could not under any circumstances refer to some flaw in the person themselves as a flaw in their debate.

It was amazing how quickly the trolls lost interest in the chat room. It absolutely paralyzed them to have such a rule and to have it enforced. This also exposed what I had been claiming all along. The people using this debate tactic were rarely there because they actually cared about the subject matter. They like many other dysfunctional members of our society would just surf the web to look for people to bully from the safety of the internet.

It also opened intellectual discussion in such a way that huge progress was made in the general understanding of the people in the chat room. With the "ego" no longer being a target for debate suddenly people started having discussions to further their understandings, not to prove their understanding was better then some other person.

I urge the moderators of this forum to consider what I have pointed out here, and to apply this same rule to the forums. And I urge the members of our movement to actively seek out and destroy Ad Hominem and ostracism in the forums and in the chat rooms. Both of these things are tools of the same system that has kept mankind in this ridiculous state for so long.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for this post. I listen to your radio broadcast and i have heard you touch on the subject often but you have not fleshed it out so thoroughly before. Keep up the good work Neil, and start your studies in enviromental engineering already :)

  3. Neil, I am against ad hominem attacks as well. I can't stand how people resort to personal attacks when they run out of arguments. It is possible to disagree, but resorting to insults is unacceptable.
    I'm glad you mentioned it. It would be worth mentioning when politicians put lame attack ads that attack a person's character rather than the person's political positions.

  4. By popular demand I am doing a show about this tonight. Tune in!