Ad Hominem

April 17, 2006

I have been watching a lot of debate recently on LJ…and here’s what I have to contribute:

Ad Hominem is to attack the person instead of attacking that person’s argument. Instead of saying, “your argument is stupid”, in ad hominem, you say, “you are stupid because you argue like this.” Instead of “I do not like your opinion”, you say, “I do not like you.”

Please, in all LJ discussions, everyone should, I think, avoid Ad Hominem. One should be careful to separate the opinion-holder from the opinion. If approached the right way, it is possible to change someone’s opinion…or at least make the person see one’s side of an argument. That is the essence of debate…and unless the decencies of debate are preserved, the exchange of views quickly degenerates into an argmument and then to a slanging match, with four-letter words being strewn around as the equivalent of stones or chappals.Even in print, it gives to just the kind of aggression and tendency towards violence that we have just seen happening. Surely we all want to avoid that.

I sound like a convent-nun headmistress, don’t I? But since the other method of verbal abuse and “you are stupid” doesn’t seem to resolve any conflict…how about trying the more polite way? When you see an argument that you don’t agree with…don’t react. Keep your temper, and after considering the other person’s point of view, respect the fact that s/he has the right to differ from you, and then make your points calmly and logically. Emotions will not cloud up the issue and the debate can proceed.

It’s the norm to be polite when you are agreeing and impolite when you are not. One should try being polite even when one is disagreeing strongly.

I have seen the efficacy of this in my own life.

My parents-in-law belonged to a culture where it was the done thing for the groom's family to ask for dowry in cash and kind. There was an emotional upheaval just before my marriage because of this, and I went into the marriage with some very negative thoughts. I thought my in-laws were greedy, grasping people. Over the years, I realized that they were not. It was the culture and they felt they had to follow it. I then decided to tackle the issue before my husband's younger brother got married. My mother in law had passed away, and my father in law was saying something like "this family will 'do a lot' for their daughter" when I thought I should talk to him. Instead of accusing him of holding these values, I told him how I felt before my wedding, and how so many daughters-in-law came into the family with these same negative value judgements about the very elders they should actually be respecting, and how, in many cases, it soured the family relationship for life. My father-in-law was very thoughtful for a couple of days, and I wondered whether I had offended him deeply. But he was a fair and just man and he responded that he had never even thought of the dowry thing from this point of view. He completely changed his opinion, and the other marriages (three of my younger brothers in law) were conducted without my father-in-law ever mentioning the topic of dowry again. Indeed, when one brother-in-law had a registered wedding in the UK, my father-in-law told the girl's parents that as far as he was concerned, the marriage was legal, and he was not bothered about a traditional marriage. When my youngest brother-in-law's wedding was finalized in a rush and wedding halls were not easily available, he actually suggested to the girl's parents that a simple registrar wedding would suffice. My father in law was born in 1913...he belonged to a very orthodox generation...but he completely changed his attitude and opinions because the argument was sound and presented without too much of sound. My respect for him shot up sky-high, and I wish many people one-third his age could react with such an open mind.

So please…in debate…no Ad Hominem!