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Ad Hominem and the Straw Man: Futile Argument Tactics

October 25, 2009
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Ad Hominem and the Straw Man: Futile Argument Tactics

Ad Hominem

It may be wise to never fling insults when complaining about people who fling insult but in the wonderful world of self-appointed gurus, it happens. Sometimes by accident and other times it is deliberate. When deliberate the term ad hominem (attacking the person) comes into play.

There is no great secret to ad hominem attacks because they require very little in the way of intelligence. It is an appeal to personal traits of the opponent rather than the logic of a position, as such it is perhaps the most common fallacy in any discussion. In simpler terms, you can accept someone rejecting the proposal due to a lack of supporting evidence but it would be logically inexcusable to use the person’s race, creed or colour as the basis of that rejection. “What would you know about chemistry you are a Liberal?” The politics of the person has nothing to do with chemistry but to the unscrupulous, it is a convenient diversion away from the central question.

There are several explanations in books and on the Internet on this common fallacy and they can possibly be summed up in this way:

1. Appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason.
2. Attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering his argument.

The Straw Man

Often you may find that a person will resort to sweeping allegations about and entire agenda that does not exist. That is to find one example and apply it to an entire group or to put words into the opponent’s mouth in order to denounce them falsely. It can also include exaggerations and misrepresentations of words. The straw man provides a punching bag in a one-sided rhetorical conversation to make it look as if they refuting claims. The problem is that the claims being refuted were never made.

You can see examples of the Straw Man being used in editorials, political speeches and blogs whenever someone wishes to strengthen their position by attacking an imaginary position. The ‘Reds under the Bed’ in the McCarthy era was an example of the Straw Man. The practice of blacklisting and denunciation of suspected communists presumed that each of these people had a secret agenda. A secret agenda that was annunciated as trying to destroy America from within. Charlie Chaplin was also blacklisted despite the total lack of evidence. In more modern times unionists were accused of being anti-business zealots and incapable of being anything other than communist fronts. This flies in the face of Polish history where Lech Walensa was the unionist who directly opposed communist control.

A false accusation about someone’s position is no different than any other form of scurrilous lie because it sets out to demonize the opponent rather than engage them. The punching bag needs to be strung up and silenced before the tirade of false rebuttal begins. In a sense, it is a fraudulent position that indicates a fear of engaging the issue in question. Straw Men do not fight back as you knock their stuffing out. Yet all that has been achieved is a hollow attempt at diversion and ‘shifting the ground’ to something irrational and pointless.

Unfortunately in a propaganda war where all dissent must be crushed the ‘Straw Man’ is one of the first weapons of choice.

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