Is Donald Trump’s Name-Calling Actually a Good Debate Technique?
With Donald Trump running for president again, and with his Republican rivals preparing to throw their hats into the ring, it is worth asking: how did the wholly unqualified reality TV star defeat sixteen GOP rivals — from governors to senators to CEOs — in his first race for his party’s presidential nomination back in 2016? Was it by besting them on policy? By raising more money? Or was it . . . by taunting and diminishing them with childish nicknames?
Liddle Marco. Lyin’ Ted. Low-Energy Jeb.
The pundits derided Trump for his “use of vitriolic, ad hominem attacks” and dubbed him the “schoolyard debate champion” for having “insulted his way to the top of the GOP.”
Now, I’m not disputing that description of him, but what if I told you that Trump’s much-maligned tactics were not that different from those deployed by one of the most respected and accomplished orators and debaters in history? Back in Ancient Rome, the statesman, lawyer, and rhetorician Marcus Tullius Cicero was notorious for the invective he rained down upon his rivals. As the classical historian Valentina Arena has pointed out, in one famous argument, Cicero called his opponent Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, a belua (“monster”), bustum rei publicae (“funeral pyre of the commonwealth”), carnifex (“butcher”), furcifer (“scoundrel”), maialis(“gelded pig”), and inhumanissimum ac foedissimum monstrum (“most foul and inhuman monster”). Cicero, Arena added, also mocked his opponent’s physical appearance, including his “hairy cheeks and discolored teeth.” (Positively Trumpian!)
The Latin phrase ad hominem literally means “to the person”—and so the ad hominem argument is an argument that’s applied to, or against, the person. These days, though, such Ciceronian invective is seen as off-limits, a no-go area in both everyday argument and formal debate. Ad hominem arguments are viewed, almost universally, as bad, bad, bad.
In sports like soccer or basketball, players are taught to “play the ball, not the man.” It’s fair play to go after the ball — but as soon as you start to tackle other players in the process, it’s a foul. You’re penalized. In high school debate clubs and college courses around the world you’ll find teachers encouraging students to do the same. Students are taught to differentiate between their opponent and their opponent’s argument.
The rationale for doing so makes perfect sense. In theory, a person’s merits are irrelevant to whether their argument makes logical sense. As academic Michael Austin puts it more pithily: “If Adolph Hitler said the world was round, that would not make it flat.” So pretty much every introductory textbook on philosophy, logic, or rhetoric sequesters ad hominem arguments to the chapter on logical fallacies. That is, they are literal mistakes in reasoning — and to be avoided in a debate at all costs.
Here’s the problem, though: as the philosopher Tom Whyman asks: “If ad hominem arguments are illegitimate, how come they’re so useful?”
Look, yes, in theory, you should attack the merits of the argument itself and not the person making it. But, in the real world, playing the ball and the man can prove to be a rather effective, and often necessary, tactic. It can discredit your opponent and their argument at the same time. It can win over a skeptical crowd and give you the upper hand. And — I’ll let you into a well-kept secret — it’s not necessarily a fallacious argument either.
GO AFTER THEIR ETHOS
The father of rhetoric, Aristotle, outlined three main modes of persuasion to win over an audience more than two thousand years ago. He called them pathos, or an appeal to emotion, logos, or an appeal to reason, and ethos, or an appeal to the speaker’s own character and credibility.
When it came to the latter, as the great philosopher explained in his landmark work Rhetoric, “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” It is not true, Aristotle continued, that the “personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”
So if, per Aristotle, one’s character and reputation are “the most effective means of persuasion,” then what on earth are you doing playing only the ball, and not the man? If you’re unwilling to question or critique your opponent’s credibility, you’re giving them an advantage right out of the starting gate.
The inconvenient truth is that to win any argument, and especially to win over a skeptical or divided audience, you need to establish your own authority and expertise while challenging your opponent’s. And for that, you do sometimes need to rely on ad hominem arguments — logical fallacies and politeness be damned!
To understand how to attack your opponent’s ethos, it’s best to start by understanding the three most common forms of the argumentum ad hominem—and why, in my view, they happen to be totally legit.
1. Ad hominem: abusive
You might call this the Trump special: an argument, as the name suggests, based on verbal abuse and name-calling. It ruthlessly highlights some character flaw, real or imagined, in your opponent and it doesn’t let up. How many times did Trump call Hillary Clinton “crooked” — without any real evidence! — during the 2016 presidential campaign? And did it or did it not stick? And now think about how Joe Biden, in the 2020 campaign, dug in to label Trump a “racist.” (Though, to be fair, there was plenty of evidence for that charge!)
The critics would say that this argument is a fallacy—because whether or not Hillary is “crooked,” or Trump is “racist,” their arguments over tax cuts or childcare need to stand on their own merits. They’re wrong. As Bruce Thompson, a philosopher and expert on informal fallacies, has acknowledged, there is a defense of the abusive ad hominem to be made here.
“People who have provided reliable and accurate information in the past are more likely to do so in the future; people who have based their arguments on unsubstantiated and inaccurate information in the past may not be worth listening to now. Where the quality of an argument rests on the accuracy and reliability of certain alleged facts, and where it is not convenient to check those facts for yourself, it is not fallacious to take into account the reputation of the person offering those facts.”
The abusive ad hominem is all about the reputation of your opponent. It’s all about their ethos. If an opponent is not a good or honest person, if they’ve been unreliable or fallacious in the past, that should affect how an audience considers their present argument. So don’t be afraid to say that!
2. Ad hominem: circumstantial
This type of argument attacks your opponent by saying that their claim is driven by their own circumstances or personal situation — by some hidden bias or conflict of interest, perhaps. Examples abound. What if a study suggesting that climate change isn’t as bad as we thought . . . is funded by fossil fuel companies? That might raise some red flags. And if the “ordinary mom” on Fox railing against critical race theory in school turns out to be . . . a former Republican Party operative? Surprise! Maybe there’s something less ordinary going on.
The critics would say that a circumstantial ad hominem argument is a fallacy because the fossil fuel funding doesn’t automatically mean the study is incorrect. The mom’s political affiliations don’t negate the possibility that there might be a real problem with critical race theory in schools. (There isn’t, but that’s an argument for another day!)
The critics, though, are mistaken here — or at least being absolutist. Because the point of the circumstantial ad hominem is not to dismiss an argument out of hand but to make sure we apply extra scrutiny to the person making the argument. The point, argues Canadian philosopher David Hitchcock, is to be aware of and on guard for possible bias. To avoid being naive or getting duped. I would also point out here that an obsession with informal fallacies ignores the reality of human nature. We human beings tend to be intuitively suspicious of conflicts of interest. In 2018, a study coauthored by Montana State University psychologist Ralph Barnes concluded that “allegations of conflict of interest may be just as influential as allegations of outright fraud” when it comes to whether or not people are willing to believe claims made by scientists. In fact, they found, raising a conflict of interest was as effective at discrediting a scientist’s claim as questioning the “empirical foundation” of that claim.
3. Ad hominem: tu quoque
This type of argument is all about hypocrisy. Tu quoque literally means “you also.” A tu quoque argument attacks your opponent by zeroing in on any of their past words or actions that contradict or cast doubt on their current claims. It highlights how they might advocate a view or position that they don’t or can’t adhere to themselves. In the ongoing debate over abortion, for example, pro-choice advocates in the United States like to point to “an illustrious list of Republican men [who] are publicly anti-choice, but privately have supported women in their lives having abortions,” as the Guardian reported in 2018.
The critics would say that those GOP lawmakers may indeed be raging hypocrites. Nevertheless, the logical pedants remind us, that hypocrisy is irrelevant to any argument over whether life begins at conception, whether the fetus feels pain, or over the correct date of viability. Again, though, the critics are missing the point! The point of the tu quoque, in this particular case, would be to challenge a Republican lawmaker to try and answer for their inconsistent behavior. Is it really unreasonable to ask a person to explain why their acts don’t match their words? In fact, why should we care whether or not a conclusion was logically and deductively reached, when the purpose of the tu quoque is to look at how we act on our beliefs in real life. If you’re demanding that others abide by rules you can’t or won’t follow, maybe there’s a problem with those beliefs. At the very least, it’s worth putting your opponent “on the spot” to make them “explain away” the inconsistency.
IT’S RHETORIC, NOT LOGIC
So please put away your logic textbook. We have to treat the argumentum ad hominem, as the philosopher Alan Brinton has argued, “as primarily a rhetorical phenomenon rather than as primarily a logical one.” Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and we should view the utility of ad hominem arguments through that lens, rather than to “focus so narrowly on the relationships between premises and conclusions.”
Each of the three common types of ad hominem has a useful place in a great debater’s tool kit. But you’ll want to apply them in the right way. If you use an ad hominem to dismiss the conclusion of an argument out of hand then it is, indeed, a fallacy. Instead, you can make them part and parcel of your larger case. If you use an ad hominem argument to question your opponent’s credibility, to raise the issue of bias, or to put your opponent on the defensive, then these are legitimate and appropriate rhetorical moves that go back centuries to Ancient Greece and Rome.
They’re far from fallacies. Again, this isn’t that complicated. The fact that an ad hominem argument can be fallacious does not mean that it must be fallacious.
And this isn’t just my opinion. The philosopher David Hitchcock, a professor emeritus at McMaster University, has argued in a wide-ranging essay on the subject that “there is no such thing as an ad hominem fallacy.” Why? Because sometimes calling your opponent’s ethos into question is warranted. As Hitchcock concludes, “a move that is sometimes legitimate and sometimes mistaken is not a fallacy.”
Got that? The conventional wisdom–mongers are wrong. Even top philosophers say abusive, circumstantial, and tu quoque ad hominem arguments are fine, as long as they are used in the correct way: not to go after the logos of an argument, but to challenge the ethos of the arguer.
Credibility is an asset in any argument, and if your opponent’s isn’t warranted, don’t let it stand unchallenged. Don’t shy away from the ad hominem. You’re an utter fool if you do.
Excerpted from WIN EVERY ARGUMENT: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking by Mehdi Hasan. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Mehdi Hasan. All rights reserved.
Order a copy of Win Every Argument here.
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