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The Adhominem Defense

There’s, of course, a potential theory being built in all this although I can’t imagine its final shape. One of my favorite criticism anthologies from my grad years was Nothstine, Blair, and Copeland that dared to show the behind-the-scenes machinations of a successful published article.

Ideas surrounding liminal rhetoric — those who speak on the borders of a culture — have always intrigued me. Pied Pipers, prophets, cultural surgeons, casuistic stretchers, comedians — so many pictures for that person. And, of course, my suitor metaphor. <shrug>

But most critics have little experience with the insider/outsider rhetorics. And I do know them firsthand. So I’m going to take little notes that, if past experience proves accurate, will develop into a larger, more public offering. Maybe you have some suggestions you see in all this too. 🙂 This inbetween my silly youtube stuff and crafting pics.

One trope that keeps popping up is what my brother chuckled about last night and named “the adhominem defense.” The adhominem fallacy, of course, is when you attack the person instead of the ideas:

Don’t believe him when he talks about his illegal immigration policy. He’s divorced!

The problem is that the retort is a distraction from the issues at hand. Wiki points out that it’s the converse of an appeal to authority, both as fallacious as the other. The attacker is trying to reform the discussion into the indefensible, private matters and take the upperhand in the process. It’s an argumentative sucker punch.

The adhominem defense doesn’t fit any boxing metaphor (king hit, rabbit punch, and feint don’t fit) because the initiator of the conversation didn’t know they were fighting at all. It’s a sort of tuo quoque, but more specific and passive-aggressive. Here are some examples:

In hearing a perfectly appropriate suggestion, reminder, or conclusion, the listener reads it as a personal attack, assumes the worst possible intent, and lashes out. The initiator is struck silent — either stunned at the tantrum being thrown (“Dear me, lady, I was just trying to give you your wallet!”) or  pitched head-first into introspective searching (“Huh? Why do I need to ask Lincoln about my academic conclusions about his words? Did I miss that day in Rhet Crit?”).

And the discussion ends. The wallet gets left behind or the Lincoln observation lies fallow. It’s a lose-lose situation really.

What it comes down to, I think, is reading everything as agon. No, that’s not it either. It’s more than a contest or a debate. It’s a war. It’s reading everyone as the enemy. It’s yelling at the dog who won’t pee. It’s continuous line-drawing in the sand just daring for someone to cross you, even if it’s just a stumble over a pebble. It’s worse than run-of-the-mill tragedy — it’s pushing everyone over the edge that comes near you, even your allies and yourself.

Oh . . . and Happy Anniversary, m’dears! It’s been quite a year.

[tags]rhetorical criticism, scholarship, agon, Kenneth Burke, Tragedy, Comedy, Creative Casuistry, war rhetoric, fallacies [/tags]

7 thoughts on “The Adhominem Defense

  1. The problem is exactly as you’ve put it. When someone lives life with a defensive and adversarial attitude long enough, *everyone* becomes the enemy. Colleagues are the enemy, employees are the enemy, spouses are the enemy, children are the enemy… not one part of the very Body that we’re to love and cherish is beyond suspicion. With enough rehearsals the grooves in the gray matter are so deep, all that’s left is narrow cynicism, an atmosphere of Cold War of McCarthyism where the Red Menace lurks at every corner. Loving the Body with unguarded transparency and a heart full of grace is impossible because of the constant worry that one of your errant members is going to pull a shiv out and knife you in the back. Well-intentioned correction from the foot is viewed with the highest suspicion and antagonism by the head, and so parts are lopped off willy-nilly.

    But as long as you wear a nice tie, smile beguilingly, and say that it’s all done for the sake of separation, well, then it’s all oky-doky. Right? Isn’t that what the Bible teaches?

  2. And as I said in my now-expunged chapter in the book, soon even you-yourself becomes the enemy. And you’re raging inside. Separating from yourself.


  3. All false ideas, at their root, are self-destructive. The list of illustrations runs from ideologies like communism to post-modern skepticism to vices such as greed and lust. I cannot be sure why, but I am inclined to say that it is because the Father of Lies cannot sustain anything. When the One By Whom All Things Consist is no longer present, what else can you expect besides self-destruction?

    Perhaps Camus is outdated, and we need a new myth to explain how our world has lost its mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erysichthon

    I have long heard of people separating from themselves in jest, but I am not that surprised (or even that saddened) to see it in fact.

  4. That said, I throw a caveat from my “ever-mindful-of-the-ditch-on-the-other-side-of-the-road” mind. Not *all* attacks that are labeled ad hominem are in fact ad hominem. If I am telling you about this great stock I am about to buy, and you say “but it’s Kenneth Lay who is selling it” I should probably pay attention. 🙂

  5. Dear Camille,
    Love your web page! Didn’t know you existed until I discovered your story and unbelievable struggles, on the BJU web page, that I didn’t even know existed ‘either’ until I googled in a key word re a subject and theme I had been researching and studying. Phariseism. I thought I would just be looking up word, researching a theme stream, and then letting it go at that. And go onto to other projects. EEEK! And then I find out what the BJU crowd were really all about! I mean the CEO religious ‘power brokers’! I was so shocked! I had no idea things were so bad, so negative, so mean and hurtful, at an institution well known for its fundamentalism and legalism. I do not like fundamenatlism at all. But as a christian I choose to love other christians even if I don’t agree with them. I would not, however, fellowship or associate with a fundamentalist. I have been really hurt by a few. Forgiven and healed and free. Your web page is pretty amazing. There is such a spirit of freedom and honesty in it, and you are really ministering to people who can safely read and ponder your words of honesty, without any fellow control freak fundamentalist breathing down their neck! When I discovered Dr. Ted Mercer’s posthumous blog spot letters, by accident, and read the main one,for the first time, ( since then i have re read all of them ) I was so blessed to read the story of a wonderful christian who stood up for himself and refused to be destroyed by the first two BJU dictators and their yes men arm twisters. If I could go back in time on a time machine and meet him, I would consider it a great priviledge, to be in his presence. What a fine christian man who loved God, BJU, and his students, and fellow colleagues, and did not retaliate to hurt any one in spite or vindictive retaliation. What a wonderful christian. It would have been a privelidge to meet him. Thank you so much for creating a posthumous blog spot for Ted Mercer. You so honored the memory of his loyal and faithful love and service to the wonderful God he followed. Thank you also for posting those page excerpts from Vandervonen’s book re confusing teaching about SIN NATURE etc. It was a blessing to me to read the pages, and reminded me of good teaching I had received but had not been re inforcing correctly as in spirit and in truth. I found another article on the web Sunday, related to the theme. Although I do not agree with some of the statements, the meat of the message rings true. The article on the Web is called, MAN’S SINFUL NATURE-ANOTHER FALSE DOCTRINE by Dean Finnestad. I know you do not have a background in the Baptism in The Holy Spirit, but the article is quite good, so look beyond what you don’t have in your background and glean from the article what can be life giving and spiritually freeing. I journal a lot, write a lot, and a lot of what I write about is human feelings, emotions, healing, freedom, and really good stuff to free myself up as well as others. actually half of what I write as an amateur writer is close to apologetics. Anyway, your web page is awesome. So keep up the good work. So happy that you were able to have full term babies and the gift of a family. What a blessing. I know what it’s like to experience spiritual abuse. I am now healed, but the journey of healing was long and difficult. It’s so wonderful to be free, isn’t it.

    Because you now know that fundamentalism did not tell you the truth about christianity or the christian life and walk, have you ever thought that, maybe BJU’s version of christianity ‘also’ didn’t tell you the truth about the Catholic Church? BJU is the most virulent anti-catholic institution in America! I am Catholic. I was raised Anglican, and converted to the Catholic faith at age 34, nine years after marrying the man of my dreams. Five years after converting, I became radically born again. The Pentacostals brought me to personal faith in Jesus .A christian television ministry in Canada. One phone call. One prayer. And my life changed for eternity. I have been walking with the lord as a Catholic Christian for over thirty one years. And The catholic church is NOT what you have been taught it is. I fellow shipped with Protestants, really good ones for many years, including a wonderful Charismatic Anglican Church, learning from non catholic christians about what it really means to be born again, and I only stopped fellow shipping with Protestants, a few years ago, because that particular church had turned somewhat fundamentalist, toxic, and I just couldn’t take the hypocracy and bigotry any longer. End of June, 2005, I sent my former cell group leaders, a sixteen page letter, explaining my concerns with both ‘their’ behavior and ‘their churche’s.’ I was not angry in the letter, I was just angry that God wanted me to send it at all. But he wanted them to know. I never heard one word of sorry, or apology, or please forgive us, from them, not in six years. That’s how people’s hearts can be so hardened. Two months after I mailed that confrontation letter in obedience, the false guilt about the spiritual abuse baggage, which sticks like VELCRO, lifted off my life so incredibly, that I thought I was going to float away, I felt so light and free. Allelujiah! Periodically, I like to revisit theme of freedom and healing, to celebrate them, and to let the healing go deeper. Thanks for letting your wonderful web page assist me in my own celebration of healing and freedom. It’s interesting that, the head pastor of said church I stopped fellowshipping in, a few months after sending letter to former cell group leaders, he shook my hand. That was his silent way of thanking me for my witness and for my honesty. I had gone back for a Saturday, to order some CD’s from a Healing school by Randy Clarke, because I wanted the amazing Church History on them. It was so eye opening. Since then, I’ve studied and researched the reformation movement on the web and read some books about it. And now I better understand what happened, which was pretty bad for both sides. Any bad doctrine and theology, never came from the Catholic Church. It came from Luther and Calvin. When I heard on EWTN that Luther taught that we didn’t have a free will, I went banana’s. And that’s when I started to study and research the Reformation. Believe me, he was dead wrong about that one. And his terrible doctrine as well as Calvin’s so called depravity, has caused dreadful bondage in christians’ lives for centuries. Anyway, I have gone on too long. Thank you so much for your web page. I am so glad you are happy in a loving church that blesses and does not judge its members. Mine is like that too, although, sometimes a pastor can get a little religious. I just love them and forgive them. There’s a great article by a catholic convert on the web, called TIP TOE THROUGH A TULIP. It’s good! He used to be a Calvinist. I think it’s by Dave Armstrong. Got to go now. Have chapel from five to six, and set up for Bible Study at Church for seven, and then head up to the sanctuary by seven thirty for VIANNEY, a one man play acting out a Saint from the time of the dreadful French Revolution when the Catholic Church was suppressed for about 12 years. I have become a real history addict.I love apologetics too. And C.S. Lewis, is AWESOME. Sincerely, Barbara Quinn, Catholic & Christian.

  6. Dear Camille,
    I’m not commenting on my previous letter, and this following joke is not about you or any of your web friends who have posted on your web. This morning my husband said something really funny. We were discussing the strange context/meaning of Ad Hominem defense or attack, etc. This is the joke about a person who disagrees with someone else “You’re WRONG, and you’re also UGLY!.” He sounded just like his dad who also had a funny sense of humor.

    Anyway, this is the human dilemma we find ourselves in. On two different sides of the religious divide, it’s unfortunately so easy to either cause and take offense at what we or others say, that isn’t what we like or understand. I generally avoid conflict altogether, but sometimes it’s good to plant a seed to ‘think about.’ God is so much bigger than the things that challenge us in life.

    I read this morning an amazing line. That God’s Grace, Grace, is greater than sin, ie ‘more powerful!!!” Wow! Amazing eh! I’m going to take ‘that one’ to the bank, and let it grow interest for future spirtual withdrawals for bad days! Peace, and blessings. And thanks for posting my long response on your web. That was so very generous of you, considering my being on the other side of the religious divide.

    Sincerely, Barbara Quinn, also a free thinker.
    Catholic & Christian.

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