Understanding Ad Hominem Attacks—A Harmful Logical Fallacy

From the Lecture Series: The Art of Debate

By Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D., Wake Forest University

In logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks are personal attacks made against a person rather than their argument. Their character, judgment and personal lives are used against them to disprove their knowledge of an issue. How can you avoid committing or suffering one?

Two people arguing
(Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

This is the third article in a series about Logical Fallacies. You might prefer to start with our earlier posts, False Analogies and Understanding the Straw Man Argument.

Focusing on debate as a way to personal and professional advancement is useful, but that also means standing up to flawed arguments. To do that, we have to be willing to get into a debate and to point out the flaws of the debating as it occurs. You can take argument fallacies head-on if you understand how they function.

Source Credibility is Key

In many debates, the credibility of your source—your author or study—is relevant for an argument. For example, say someone states your source is economically motivated to support your side of the argument because she is a lobbyist who earns money by defending your side of the debate. That attack might have some weight. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, but it might be a relevant piece of information for the audience to know to assess the credibility of the source.

This is a transcript from the video series The Art of Debate. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In the context of conspiracy theories, there is rarely a blurry line. Instead, the conspiracy theorists assert that anyone who challenges their arguments may themselves be a part of the conspiracy. This is one reason why people are afraid to get into an argument with conspiracy theorists. It is not enough to have the audience evaluate the evidence for what it is; the theorists usually challenge the motivation of the other people engaged in the discussion.

Learn more: Fallacies in Your Opponents Arguments

Conspiracy Theorists Try to Undermine Authority

Conspiracy theory in word cloud
Tactics of intimidation are critical for conspiracy theorists. (Image: Zurainy Zain/Shutterstock)

The tactics of intimidation are critical for conspiracy theorists. If all the arguments supporting a conspiracy are lined up side by side, the conspiracy supporters are more often than not in a difficult position. The most effective strategy they can employ is to challenge or undermine every form of authority that the audience may rely on when making a decision.

The tactics of intimidation are critical for conspiracy theorists. Click To Tweet

How do the conspiracy theorists work to undermine the authority of your examples? For example, the trustworthiness of major news outlets is undermined by saying those companies made large quantities of money from people watching their televisions for weeks on end by making sure facts were not reviewed rigorously. The conspiracy theorists assert as well that the major news outlets were complicit in helping President Bush distribute a message that left no room for dissent; no serious journalists ever investigated the president as a potential orchestrator of the events. The 9/11 report is attacked as biased; the conspiracy theorists argue that the people who created it were participants in the conspiracy, and they claim the report is a piece of propaganda.

Learn more about using evidence in debate

Eyewitnesses, too, are discredited by the conspiracy theorists. They explain that eyewitnesses supporting the major narrative were hired disaster actors and actresses given lines in advance to feed a particular story. They accuse these people of being preplanned advocates for the administration and question the authenticity of their emotional responses. The ad hominem attack is a crucial part of the conspiracy theorist’s arsenal because it both scares people into submission and serves as a weapon of argumentation. If you can’t beat the person’s argument, you manufacture a motivation for them that fits with the narrative of the conspiracy.

Learn more about elements of a good rebuttal

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get Ready to Debate

Ad hominem attacks can be extremely persuasive. Logically, you may think that people would see through the deception and be turned off, but that’s not the case. When people see others withdrawing from the conversation, they often suspect weakness, instead of realizing it maybe because others don’t want to be attacked. Those observing may wonder if it’s a signal that the conspiracy theorist is onto something. The truth is, if you want to be a part of debating this type of opponent, then you need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get into the trenches with a group of people that will attack first.

Common Questions About Ad Hominem Attacks

Q: Which is an example of an ad hominem attack?

An example of an ad hominem attack would be if you were debating someone about gun control laws and that person said, “Of course you would want to skirt gun laws, just like you cheat on your taxes!”

Q: Is ad hominem ever valid?

Ad hominem is only valid when the person’s character or background has a specific bearing on the matter being discussed. For instance, if you’re debating about an ethical issue involving a corporation and that person has stock in the corporation, then your argument would have validity.

Q: How do you counter ad hominem?

To counter ad hominem in an argument, you should demonstrate that your opponent’s statements about your character are completely unrelated to the matter being discussed.

Q: What does “ad hominem” mean?

Ad hominem means “to the person” in Latin. It is an attack against a person’s character rather than the merit of his/her argument.

This article was updated on September 9, 2019

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