Nation of Beancounters

Ad hominem analysis

Posted in Lists, On Discourse by Navin Kumar on January 26, 2013

There are two ways to respond to an argument one doesn’t agree with, e.g. “homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to become parents, because they’ll mess up their kids”.

The first is to negate the argument, by logically or empirically proving it false (or irrelevant) e.g. “The data shows that children with gay parents have life outcomes similar to those of straight parents.”

The other is to analyze the people who make the argument e.g. “You only think so because heteronormativity blinds you to the reality of how gay people are.”

1. Let’s start with the most obvious point: when you perform such an analysis, you haven’t actually responded to whatever point the other person is raising. You are spending time, energy and ink on this rather than a rebuttal. This is not, of course, a fallacy in the traditional sense.

2. No-one’s heart or mind is changed by such analysis. So it’s hard to see why it gets deployed during a debate, other than to get cheers from one’s own side.

3. This analysis might be true. Unfortunately, the analysis of one’s opponents motivations and intellectual origins is rarely unbiased or accurate. It is too tempting to attribute the most vile motive to others. e.g. pro-life individuals don’t really care about the fetus, they just want to return to a time where women stayed at home; they see women as baby making machines.

4. The analysis might be interesting and/or useful, such as this analysis of Macs vs PCs or this analysis of why Americans do not care about the disproportionality of Israel’s response or this analysis of economic issues in the left-wing and the right-wing. But (a) such analysis is the exception because (b) this is best done when one is genuinely thinking about the differences between people’s worldviews, not when one is responding to an argument.

5. The question “why do these people do these things?” is of less interest to readers than writers think.

6. I’ve gotten into the habit of skimming over such analysis. It is a skill worth acquiring.

7. UPDATE: There is a word for this – Bulverism.

Paul Krugman does a lot of this. “Check your privilege” is an example of such analysis.

This post was inspired by this exchange.

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