When two or more people are arguing an objective point and one of the participants makes an Ad Hominem observation, the discussion has effectively ended. Participants may ignore the person making the observation or even retire from the discussion entirely without any requirement to refute the Ad Hominem observation. Retirement from the discussion shall not be interpreted as having no further thoughts to express on the original subject.
Ad Hominem observations are easy to spot. The most obvious is when a participant uses phrases like Lisp Weenie
, Apple Fanboy
, or Windows Apologist
. Even when those phrases are not directly applied to a participant, their very use takes a discussion away from an objective comparison on merit.
The idea of trying to “win” an argument is ridiculous: such things are Pyhrric victories at best. However, How to Win an Argument: Surefire Strategies for Getting Your Point Across
does teach you how to recognize and counter many of the fallacious and downright diversionary tactics we all encounter in online debates. With this book you can at least reach an honourable détante where all parties leave with a deeper understanding of each other’s point of view.
For example, some people have said that I am a “Ruby Fanboy.”1
Even if I was a rabid, one-sided enthusiast, does that mean that when my statements are right they should be discounted for passion? Or that I am somehow incapable of ever making a correct statement about programming languages?
If an idea is wrong, it is wrong, and the idea itself can be demolished through simple inspection and argument without speculating on the motives of the author.
Ad Hominem observations need not be about a participant. There is an eternal (and rather tedious) debate about whether programmers should be permitted to actually program
, or whether they should be restrained and forced to cut and paste boilerplate code (see Design Patterns
). You will hear an argument that a particular programming technique—perhaps meta-programming, perhaps reflection—is “too complicated for maintenance programmers.”
This is a thinly veiled Ad Hominem attack on some nameless, faceless programmers who are somehow qualified to maintain code but not to write it, and who are not present in the discussion to assert or deny their competence.2What to do when confronted with an Ad Hominem observation
The very best thing to do is walk away. That takes real courage, but it is the very highest and purest response. The second best thing to do is to point out the fallacy, perhaps by linking to Wikipedia’s reference or to this post.3
The very worst mistake to make is the one I recently made: disputing the wrong statements people make about you. This brings no satisfaction to yourself, changes nothing in the mind of the ignorant, and the running flame war is a noisy distraction for those who are reading the discussion for its content.
Although it can be hard to walk away, it is the right thing to do. I will respect you for it.Exception:
This is a personal
weblog. Therefore, observations on this weblog about me
are always on-topic. Ad Hominem observations about other persons, such as those leaving comments or those I choose to quote, are still off-topic and effectively end discussion.Update: Why I allow Ad Hominem observations about me in comments, and why I encourage critics with substantially divergent views to write their own weblog and use a comment to lead readers to their writings.
I’m comfortable with people driving by and tossing a bag of feces on my lawn (crappy metaphor, that).
After all, I have the power of deletion and I can write an entire essay to defend myself. So I really can’t get too uppity if somone wants to say, “Reg, you are a drivelling windbag” in a comment.
When they drive by my
weblog, I have my entire house on display. Someone observing the exchange sees me in my element.
If they read all of my words and look at the comment and then think, “that about nails it, Reg is the definitive
font of idiocy,” then I have no one to blame but myself.
That’s the main reason I don’t consider Ad Hominems (or Genetic Fallacies or whatever we choose to call personal attacks with bags of sewage) off topic on the weblog.
It is also why I encourage some critics to write their own weblog. It is not because I don’t want the criticism: I encourage them to link to their writing. It is because others can judge their words in the context of their overall position and viewpoint. This is much more valuable to other readers, who can follow a link from my words to all of their words.
Now personal attacks in places other than
a weblog are an entirely different matter. If I am on programming.reddit.com and I accuse someone of “Clinging to their WinAPI blanket,” this is like an exchange of slaps in a saloon.
Other persons do not have the benefit of judging my rudeness in context. Who is this person I am disparaging? Do they have a long and consistent record of exemplary thinking? Am I out to lunch?
Perhaps I am not only off topic, but also deeply wrong. How is a third party to know without laboriously googling each of us?
For this reason, although personal attacks are always rude, I think they really devalue a discussion in a “public” forum like Usenet, reddit, or on a third party’s weblog.Update: Kathy Sierra’s Plight
As she puts it, Death threats against bloggers are NOT “protected speech”
A few years ago, I would have guessed that personal attacks probably follow a normal distribution, and a very rare few would be vicious to the point of being criminal, just as a very few would be so mild as to pass unnoticed, with the vast majority being obnoxious but unremarkable.
However, with time comes experience. And I agree with Giles Bowkett’s perspective that this behaviour is stalking
. Not just taunting, or bullying, but evidence of unsettling and dangerous behaviour.
There is one line that some commentary crosses when it creates an atmosphere for dread and becomes criminal. We can argue over the Port and Cigars where the line between law-abiding and law-breaking is and what is reasonable doubt.
But there is another line where it is evidence of being more than just a personal attack on the recipient but also part of a relationship the attacker is trying to create—by force—with the victim.
I’m not an expert in these matters. Feminists I know consider wolf-whistling at a pretty girl and shouting at her to ”shake that bootie!” to be over the line. I do feel that Kathy’s stalker(s) crossed that line.
Note the plural. The other thing that matters in these cases is herd behaviour. There are wolves that follow the leader. This is why it is a crime to incite others to commit crimes. never mind that garbage about ”if I told you to jump off a bridge
, would you do it?”
In fact, a major component of psychopathic behaviour
is manipulating others to do your own ends. “I had no idea they would do such a thing!” is a cliché excuse from people who tried very hard to get someone else to do such a thing. They deny it was them, they deny they intended anything dangerous, they act hurt that anyone could believe they were being mean...
We have all seen the bully in the school yard leading the intimidation, this is the same thing but we are adults and now we live with the fear of kidnapping, of rape, and of murder. And now the deterrence is more than a scolding, there may be legal consequences for these bullies.
Back to Ad Homeinem and other personal attacks. Every one we use is a drop in an Ocean of hurt feelings. Every insult on line is a tiny smidgen of incivility that gives permission to the next person.
I’m not trying to throw guilt around and say that calling one of my posts wankery is equivalent to a group of men stalking a woman on line. But I am asking everyone to consider the tone of the Internet as a whole and to try to move it towards the light and away from the dark.
- Would someone who has read my own criticisms of the Ruby Language and its implementation write such a thing?
- This does not mean that overly complex code is a good idea: “It is twice as difficult to debug a program as to write it. Therefore, if you put all of your creativity and effort into writing the program, you are not smart enough to debug it.”
- Here’s an interesting reply suggesting that sometimes the best thing to do is to point out the fallacy and continue the discussion. And this just in: a thoughtful essay on using debates to actually learn rather than to “win.”