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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files #11, Ad Hominem

Every week, I haul out my old persuasive writing notes and handouts and share another argument fallacy with my readers.  This week I'm a little late, but I'm still posting it, as usual.

I still believe that knowing how to debate skillfully is important for all Christians--even those who aren't sharing their faith with others.  You still have to know how to defend your own faith from those who would confuse you.  Think of it like fencing classes.  I'm just sharing classic mistakes that, if identified, could help you go for the kill when something important is on the line.  When it comes to the things of God, even small things are important, like the pebbles that slew Goliath.

Ad Hominem Is Not About Hominy

The first time I heard the name of this argument, I joked that it meant a request for more of a certain classic Southwest canned vegetable.  Actually, it's a fancy Latin phrase that means "to the man."

People that use the Ad Hominem fallacy are getting desperate to win, and they've run out of logical proofs that could sway their audience.  It's that moment in Robin Hood when Basil Rathbone realizes Errol Flynn is getting the better of him, and goes for the dagger at his waist.  The debate and all its proofs (which are crumbling) is thrown aside, and the losing debater starts insulting his opponent's parents or his choice in hair pieces.

Okay, now I'll define it more clearly: This fallacy is mudslinging, or generalized character attacks on the opponent or the opposing issue, often based on emotional appeals rather than logical evidence.  This is why Ad Hominem is probably the most familiar and easily identified argument fallacy I will cover in this series.  That doesn't mean it isn't used in formal debate, or that you should be any less wary of it.

Example: She doesn't know which end is up most of the time, so why would I take her advice on anything?

Example: At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane."
"I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable.  The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.  King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do."
Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts 26: 24-28 NIV).  (In the familiar King James Version, Agrippa's reply was "Almost thou hast persuaded me to be a Christian," which really highlights what I mean by the desperation of those who use this argument fallacy.  They were afraid of losing their position in this religious debate Paul had drawn them into.)