‘Ad hominem’ is not Latin for ‘I cannot rebut your argument’
Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
Jonathan Chait’s latest adventure in pointless contrarianism has already been wrestled to the ground and noogied, with Alex Pareene doing an especially delightful job. The short version is this. With the exception of the incident at the top of the article (about which: intimidation, violence and threats of violence are completely wrong) Chait catalogues some snarky behavior and petty grievances, then tries to blow it up into a threat to democracy.
As Angus Johnston pointed out, everything else that Chait objects to in his article is speech. He says he’s in the “solution to speech you don’t like is more speech” camp, then proceeds to lament people using more speech to prevent, say, Condoleezza Rice from having yet another opportunity to share her unique thoughts about things. Those who didn’t want their university to sponsor one of the architects of the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history had, in Chait’s view, an unwillingness to encounter contrary ideas. (Does he not know what the point of protest is?)
So while in theory Chait favors more speech for everyone, he doesn’t really like how it can work out in practice. Those he disagrees with are welcome to their more speech, but only on the condition that it is exercised in a way no one notices.
He traces this troubling development to the beginning of the political correctness movement in the early 90s. This is kind of funny because the title of his essay recalls a formulation conservatives loved to use back then – invoking the phrase as a way to endorse reactionary positions. (“Well, this may not be politically correct, but (insert antediluvian sentiment here).”)
Whatever the origin, lots of people can now broadcast their opinions on social media. Someone says something, then others respond. If the first thing said is provocative then there might be lots of responses, and those responses might be pointed. Chait is totally fine with that first thing, which makes sense considering he’s a professional instigator at a major media outlet. But that second thing? Why, it’s “swarms of jeering critics” (everyone to the cellar!)
Here’s another curiosity. Chait deplores mansplaining as “an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man,” but he uses his own all-purpose term of abuse to respond to Pareene. (It also violates Rule #1 for Contrarians. Bad form!) In Chait’s case it’s “ad hominem.” This is something I’ve observed more and more lately – writers using that phrase as an excuse to not address substantive criticism.
A great deal of online criticism has a mix of styles. Some combine insults and mockery (the dreaded ad hominem) with substantive critiques. To grab one random example of someone who favors this approach, consider Jonathan Chait. In just the last couple of weeks he has called James Inhofe primitive, the opinions of climate-science skeptics “bizarre ramblings,” the Republican Party “obviously unhinged” and senseless, and so on. He certainly likes his personal attacks, doesn’t he?
Which is fine, or can be anyway. Name calling can be an effective rhetorical technique. Making your opponent look foolish can help persuade others that your position is the right one. What you can’t do, though, at least not without looking like a thin skinned and pompous twit, is use ad hominems when it suits you and then recoil in priggish horror when they’re used against you. And that’s exactly what Chait does in his response – one which, hilariously, both uses and decries ad hominems in the same sentence.
I don’t think many people who dive in to the rough and tumble of social and political debate have an unwavering sense of propriety. Calls for civility usually come from those who are on the inside looking out. If you’re on the outside, your voice may be all you’ve got. Sometimes it takes being a little bit loud and colorful to get noticed. That goes both ways though. It’s fun when your preferred targets are on the receiving end of ridicule, not so much when you or your allies are. But if you’ve been dishing it out you damn well better be able to take it.
You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to say, this piece has personal attacks and therefore should not be dignified with comment, then gleefully use personal attacks in your own writing. If you do, anyone who’s paying attention will understand the real reason for not responding: you’ve got nothing. That’s certainly how it looks in this case.