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The Ad Hominem

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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It is perhaps wise for the young not to learn logic, for the young tend to grow up. For what begins as play – since it is as much fun to frolic with premises and conclusion as with a ball – soon turns into discernment. In a game, the critical faculty is as much spectator as the viewer – its analysis of events in the field or the court has no implications for him, personally. However, in the thrust-and-parry of argumentation, the personality stands exposed. The fair fighter stands defenseless against foul play, for instance. And what's more, there are no referees.   

The most excruciating foul known to man is the ad hominem. The argumentum ad hominem translates literally as "argument directed to the man.” There are two variants, one more noxious than the other (in my opinion). There's the circumstantial ad hominem. This commonly takes the form of "Oh, he's just a Marxist, what does he know?" or "He's just a mullah, so what do you expect from him?" Instead of the individual's argument, his circumstances are attacked. Is it not possible that a Marxist or mullah may be right even when their statements are obviously colored by their prejudices?

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A few weeks ago I was reading about a literary festival of South Asian writers held in (where but?) Washington D.C. Naturally, my expectations were as lofty as the personalities were elevated. And then, to my unforgettable chagrin (this was a few weeks ago, remember, but the impression is as vivid as though it were this morning) I stumbled on these lines.   

"One young man asked why so many women writers wrote about oppression, and complained that it gave an unfair impression of the culture when in fact most women were not oppressed. The moderator's response was, "You speak from experience?" and the audience dissolved in laughter."  

The audience might have amused itself at the expense of the young man, and the moderator might have slapped himself on the back for playing successfully to the audience, but the logician's sympathy will clearly lie with the young man. Instead of arguing against his premises, against his claim that most women were not oppressed, the moderator said that his observation was inconsistent with his circumstances.   

The young man could have gone further. He could have pointed out the fallacies in the moderator's statement. He could have said: "What you are saying is that all knowledge derives from personal experience; only women have personal experience of women's oppression; therefore, only women have knowledge of oppression." By now the moderator should start wriggling in his chair, not from mirth this time, but from intellectual discomfiture. For the inevitable conclusion follows: women can never transmit to men the knowledge of their oppression, and men can never acquire it by observation. Therefore, men can never know – and any man (or woman) who disagrees cannot be corrected. Consequently, even women do not know! And, I should add, no dissident view on the subject can be proven wrong, but can be ridiculed only – as on this occasion.   

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The circumstantial ad hominem is closely related to the ad hominem abusive. And this is the more pernicious variety. The love of abuse is more evenly distributed among humanity than the love of reason. Perhaps that's not right, since I have known this vice to be more prevalent among academics and intellectuals than others. It appears that those who trade in knowledge and the intellect hold these in least respect. A trader, naturally, does not value what he sells, but what he earns.   

The instances have been many, when I have put forward a proposition in the honest expectation of a healthy debate, and have received the verbal equivalent of a pie in the face. I have even had the experience of being abused at length by a bluestocking, who, having failed to rouse my temper, turned her ample ammunition on my parents! Only a South Asian intellectual could have resorted to such deviousness, since the nuclear family has well nigh broken down in western countries. It would not occur to a white, Caucasian female that she may be able to get at the son by abusing the parent. And if such things occur in 'polite' society, what must be the prospect for the nation?   

For what goes on in our living rooms finds an ampler expression in the national theatre. The democratic process, of course, is an abusive process. The intellect must be abandoned to the crowd. They seek entertainment, not information, least of all reason. And since language serves three functions – to inform, persuade, and entertain – and the vote-seeker must persuade his audience, the twin needs of entertainment and persuasion form an unsavory cocktail of vitriol. When Barry Goldwater ran for president of the United States, one of the party slogans was: "In your heart you know he's right.” I admit, it is not a memorable piece of prose, unlike the repartee that issued from the other camp. Their slogan was: "But in your guts you know he's nuts.” Goldwater's views have become commonplace today – they are even found in American guts, along with E.Coli  

To win at any cost – that is the psychology behind the ad hominem. Ever since I made this Freudian discovery (or should that be Adlerian, for we are dealing here with power rather than the libido, unless I am very much mistaken?), I have developed a greater interest in psychology than logic. And soon, of course, my interest connected with economics. Psychology and economics – I have found these two subjects more enlightening in dealing with my fellow homo sapiens than logic. People are motivated by a love of power – power over minds and power over the purse. And, of course, in most cases one leads to the other. Take that young man in our example above; he was a momentary victim of the moderator's love of power. And what power! The power to make an audience in Washington DC laugh! The power to have that power reported in the presses! Enlarge the audience, magnify the gains, and we have the recipe for riotous laughter – and laughter in riots.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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