Theresa May has made an issue of left-wing discourse. She’d do well to get her own house in order first.
The most disgusting normalization in discourse is of arguments about the person, rather than the argument delivered by the person. This fallacy is an old one, hence the Latin name – argumentum ad hominem (“to the person”). It’s an old problem, but its casual normalization is recent.
The left is most responsible. Ad hominem is inherent to the founding injustices of socialism, such as redistribution of wealth – an ad hominem argument because it says some people should be reduced and some should be lauded according to their respective holdings, irrespective of merits. Redistributing wealth acquired through theft or corruption or fraud has merit; redistributing wealth acquired legitimately does not have merit.
Ad hominem is inherent to the “politics of envy”, which reduces to: people with advantage deserve to lose it; people without that advantage deserve to be given it, irrespective of merit.
Ad hominem is obvious in “identity politics”, where judgments are made on personal identity, not arguments. If a white cop shoots some other, identity politics explains it as racism, before arguments about the merits are available.
Ad hominem is endemic to “social justice politics” and “grievance politics.” The “under-privileged” or “disadvantaged” are assumed to be victims and worthy of promotion without arguments about merit. Often the initial assumption of injustice is itself prejudicial.
You can see ad hominem rampant in social media, due to high accessibility and low accountability.
The hot-bed of ad hominem, perversely, is academia, where free speech is closed down by campaigns to disinvite, interrupt, and variously “no-platform” speakers who have been labelled “fascists,” “bigots,” “racists,” “sexists,” etc., explicitly so that their arguments cannot be heard.
Ad hominem has its roots in the radical left but has been normalized by inaccurately-termed “centrists” and “progressives.” For instance, Tony Blair dismissed criticisms of his special relationship with George W. Bush as anti-American, of EU integration as anti-European, of open borders as racist.
In 2010, Gordon Brown asked a pedestrian on the street in Rochdale for her opinions, then, in private, forgetting the microphone on his lapel, dismissed her as a “bigoted woman” – to avoid her complaints about the local consequences of immigration. She was a lifelong member of his own party, by the way.
Last week’s dominant political pantomime on both British and American networks was Congressional consideration of President Donald Trump’s appointment to the Supreme Court – Brett Kavanaugh, which is dominated not by his jurisprudence but newly offered allegations of sexual misconduct three decades ago. My complaint is not that such allegations are being investigated (they should be investigated as criminal matters), but how the arguments are reduced to identities not contents. Outside Congress, protesters carried placards with the legend “Believe Women.” This is ad hominem, amounting to: The accuser’s argument should be accepted because she’s a woman. The accused’s argument should be dismissed because he’s not a woman.
This sort of ad hominem – judgment by identity – has already corrupted British jurisprudence. The Crown Prosecution Service defines “hate crimes” as anything that anybody subjectively declares offensive. The accuser just needs to say it’s offensive, without argument. The CPS instructed police to believe any accusation. Think about how this opposes the tradition of innocence until proven guilty.
The head of the CPS (2008-2013) who brought in this nonsense is Keir Starmer, for which he was customarily knighted. He has been the Labour Party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union for the last two years, where, true to form, his arguments about Brexit have been known for chaos and contradiction, and the pretence that Brexiteers are too stupid to offer any arguments.
His successor at the CPS is Alison Saunders, who emphasized sexual crimes, until an unprecedented rate of mistrials, due to prosecutions of mostly white men, without sufficient evidence or while withholding exonerating evidence. Meanwhile, the CPS failed to keep up with a surge in other crimes, including mass abuse of white girls by men of Asian descent.
Earlier this year the government announced that Saunders would not be reappointed for the customary second term, but she’s still in post, and the government has no plans to revise the CPS’ definitions.
Let’s talk about this government. Theresa May’s conference speech this week complained that “in the last few years something’s changed for the worse…Rigorous debate between political opponents is becoming more like a confrontation between enemies. People who put themselves forward to serve are becoming targets.”
Unfortunately, May is a hypocrite. That part of the speech – front-loaded – was part of a strategy to dampen attacks on her policies. Her dominant defence is to attack persons. Thus, her rare public comments last month were dominated by attacks on her rival Boris Johnson, including a claim to be insulted by his description of her “Chequers” plan for Brexit as a “suicide vest.” Thence she avoided his arguments about Chequers.
Her speech’s section on Brexit did not address any criticisms of Chequers, except to tell us to “hold our nerve” – which is ad hominem, because it implies that critics are just anxious – and to “come together” – which implies that critics are just contrary.
Her speech did not advance an argument for Chequers, except to repeat long-refuted lies that it would take “back control of our borders, laws and money”.
Ironically, May’s conference speech spent more effort appealing to left-wing voters, by defending left-wing victims of “abuse” and pretending that we’re more alike than not. Speak for yourself, Theresa.
To win the next election, she needs to differentiate from the radical left-wing, not ape it. Ad hominem is automatic for people with insecure arguments or dissonance about the other’s argument. May – that notoriously “bloody difficult woman” in Ken Clark’s phrase – is a chronically indecisive, shifty, shallow follower of fashion. That she doesn’t look more vacuous is thanks to her good fortune in facing Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition.
The radical left attacks persons because its own arguments about such things as identity and social justice and Marxist economics don’t stand on their merits. Their arguments are popular because people are no longer instructed or incentivized to recognize fallacies.
Your immediate solution is to insist on ad argumento over ad hominem. Every time an argument about immigration is dismissed as racist, every time an argument about Britain’s sovereignty or border control or leaving the EU is dismissed as nationalistic, every time a commentator is dismissed for being too pale and male, you should respond “ad hominem” and ask for the arguments to be addressed.
This doesn’t prevent you attacking a person’s relevant credentials or performance. For instance, to say that Theresa May is a hypocrite is not ad hominem: the accusation is about her arguments. The stereotypical ad hominem response would be to claim that this criticism is sexist, that no male prime minister would be treated this way.
Journalists should be calling out each other, and their interviewees, for ad hominem. Politicians should refuse to respond to ad hominem. And educators should be teaching students to avoid fallacies.
Alas, most of these societal elites are promoting ad hominem by their examples, all the way up to our premier.