By David Hegg
Does anyone else think our entire society needs to go back to high school and re-learn to debate? I can remember learning the rules, regulations, and ethics of argumentation and rebuttal in my high school debate class under the tutelage of Mr. Bart Hagen. And, we had to demonstrate both the appropriate actions and the thinking behind them in real, adjudicated debates that dealt with the social issues of the day.
Over the past few years I have watched our society break almost every debating rule in situations where differing views collide. But, by far the greatest casualty is the rule against argumentum ad hominem, Latin for “argument against the person,” and if we take the Latin ad in another of its accepted meanings, we have “argument to the person.” In either case, the argumentum ad hominem is almost universally fallacious in that it attacks the person rather than the person’s argument.
Today, we see ad hominem arguments being accepted as a sort of coup de grâce – a death blow – which decisively ends the argument in favor of the one slinging it. For example, “You’re completely wrong in your thinking because you grew up in a two-parent household and went to private school.” Or, “A woman shouldn’t do a man’s job.” Or even, “A man who has never worked with his hands shouldn’t run for public office.”
All of these attack the person rather than the issue at hand. Frankly, while one’s family situation and education do have an effect on a person, it cannot be proven that all who experience these benefits think alike. And if the issue is intellect, perseverance, and/or ability to do a job, a person’s sex has no relevance. Lastly, there is no proof that working with one’s hands dictates how a person thinks or what level of character, integrity, ability, or wisdom they possess.
But the ad hominem argument has grown legs that have taken it into much more important areas, and today it has been granted an almost unassailable status. “You can’t possibly understand the danger since you’re a Republican!” or, “You Democrats are the greatest threat to our democracy.” Or, “You Christians are haters, bigots, and a blight on society.”
All of these are fallacious simply because it cannot be proven that every Republican, Democrat, or Christ-follower has the same beliefs, and possesses or lacks the same character traits and integrity, especially if there are substantial arguments and evidence put forward to the contrary.
What we’re seeing today is a complete reversal in dealing with opposing opinions and beliefs. It once was understood that determining a person’s character by their skin color, economic position, age, or a number of other variables was heinous. But today, in too many places that matter, it is acceptable to throw a bomb into a substantive discussion by saying, “Of course you think that way because you are ______ (insert skin color, economic status, political alignment, age, religious standing, etc., here).”
And why have we as a society walked intentionally into accepting ad hominem as a viable argument? The answer is also quite an indictment on us all. Attacking the person or the party or the group is so much easier than actually dissecting and overwhelming their arguments with incisive logic and irrefutable, legitimate evidence.
What we learned in debate class is that those who stoop to ad hominem not only hijack the discussion and take it off topic by instigating a personal attack, but they do so because they can no longer legitimately defend their position. They have run out of real arguments and their only hope is to change the subject by making it personal. And, we also learned that when that happens, a good, educated debater will realize how defenseless the opponent really is, and will call out the fallacy of ad hominem and claim victory.
So, what do we do? First, we stop and examine our own hearts. It is so easy to fall into an ad hominem mindset today. Second, understand that remaining in your own private echo chamber in which you only hear what you want to hear, and already agree with, will only deepen your belief that you and your friends are both good and right while those who disagree are not only wrong but also bad, evil people who are just plain wrong and should be canceled.
Let me speak plainly even though I should be more guarded. I’m a Christ-follower. I know what I believe and always attempt to live a life that makes what I believe appealing. I strive to be winsome, ready to listen, and always open to real discussion, even debate, with anyone. I also am pretty knowledgeable about opposing worldviews, and can hold my own in a debate. But, my preference is to pursue relationship, not merely get into arguments. And why is that? Simply because we’re all more than just our opinions, our views, our beliefs. We’re fellow travelers on the road of life, and we can either get to know one another or stand at a distance and throw rocks.
You, the good people of Santa Clarita Valley, are my people, regardless of how much we may sometimes differ. Let’s figure out how to collaborate as we navigate the future together. And no more ad hominem.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.