On the perils of ad hominism

I think one of the first Latin expressions I learned was ad hominem. I was 14 years old and, we were having a discussion about plays in our English literature class. Mr. Graham, our teacher and apparently a writer himself, had asked us what we thought of the first scene of Macbeth that we had been assigned to read as homework for the class.

Everybody shuffled in their seats, because only a few of us had actually read it. Gladis, of course, had. She always sat in the seat beside mine in the second row -I think it was an alphabetical thing to help Mr. Graham remember our names- and she was a fastidious student. She’d even made some notes the night before on what she considered the salient features of the opening scene of Macbeth. Naturally she put up her hand to attract his attention.

“It was kinda short, Mr. Graham -only 13 lines…”

Gladis always seemed to bristle me: why would she put her hand up for that? “You actually counted the lines, Gladis?” I said contemptuously -trying to shame her, I suppose.

I remember her looking at me, tensing her face, and then blinking. Slowly. “Some things are so obvious -if you read them, that is…” She shifted her gaze to Mr. Graham. “But there is a reason that Shakespeare made such a brief conversation into an entire scene,” she added sweetly.

Mr. Graham took it as a teaching point. “Anybody other than Gladis have an idea why Shakespeare made it into an entire scene?” There were no hands, unsurprisingly, so he stared at me. “What do you think, G?” Everybody used my nickname in those days.

It was entirely expected, though: I was the usual go-to seat when everybody else was quiet -probably because of my proximity to Gladis, but also maybe because I usually had my hand up. “Uhmm… Well, Shakespeare was probably trying to grab our attention at the start -you know, capture our interest right away so we’ll be curious about what follows.” I was going to stop there, but I noticed the sarcastic expression on Gladis’ face, so I kept going. “Isn’t that what you writers try to do, Mr. Graham: make the first paragraph so riveting everybody will want to read more?”

Gladis snuck a quick look at me, thought I was trying to curry Mr. Graham’s favour, and then decided to expand on her initial statement. “I think the scene set the mood for the whole play: ambition, paradox, and evil…” She smirked at me, and then continued. “I mean, ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is really dark. You can just tell what you’re in for.”

She glared at me for a moment, and then smiled innocently at Mr. Graham: teacher’s pet.

I think he could see the dynamic developing, and thought he might use it to stimulate some discussion in the silent majority surrounding us.

“Anybody else?” he said, casting his eyes about the room. Nobody looked up from their notebooks. “What about ‘When the battle’s lost and won…?” What do you think that means?” His eyes settled on one of the quiet students who seldom volunteered an answer. “Kerry?”

Kerry looked up, totally surprised that he’d been singled out. “I… Uhmm… Well, I suppose there’s going to be a fight somewhere later in the play, and…”

Gladis turned and stared at him. “The first scene was so short, didn’t you even peek at the next scene?”

Kerry stared at her defiantly. “Mr. Graham just assigned the first scene, Gladis. I didn’t want to get confused with too much information, eh?” The class snickered in relieved agreement.

Gladis somersaulted her eyes and sent them rolling and tumbling towards Mr. Graham. “Anybody who was at all interested in plays would have read further, Kerry,” she said and sighed theatrically.

Kerry stared down at his desk in embarrassment.

But, if she thought that might have curried the teacher’s favour, she was sadly mistaken. Mr. Graham noticed Kerry’s distress, frowned briefly and then loosed his eyes on me again, for some reason. “G, do you know what an argument is called when you attack the person rather than their position?” Another teaching moment, I supposed.

I thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged.

“Anybody…?” he asked, once again hoping for a response from the class. “It’s called an ad hominem -Latin, meaning ‘to the person’. It’s a type of argument that is often very difficult to refute, because the individual who uses it usually does so in frustration because he or she cannot counter the argument itself and so attacks the person in an attempt to win that way.” He let his eyes rest on Gladis again -but only briefly.

“I mention it now because later in the play you’re going to realize that when Lady Macbeth argues with Macbeth about killing the king, she almost always uses ad hominem arguments… Just warning you,” he added, and winked at Gladis in a subtle rebuke that wasn’t lost on me. Very clever, I thought.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that resorting to an ad hominem offers only a kind of pyrrhic victory -if not a defeat- for the user. Still, I’ve I have to admit that there were occasions when I felt I’d be losing more than just face if I backed down. Of course, the tone of my voice, or the blush on my face, usually unmasked my efforts, and I’d end up apologizing, rather than wearing any ill-gotten gains.

But I ran across an interesting variation on that theme in an essay in Aeon by Moti Mizrahi, an associate professor of philosophy from the School of Arts and Communication at the Florida Institute of Technology: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-ad-hominem-arguments-can-demolish-appeals-to-authority

‘According to the Urban Dictionary site,’ she writes, ‘Ad hominems are used by immature and/or unintelligent people because they are unable to counter their opponent using logic and intelligence.’ But isn’t this definition itself an ad hominem attack on those who make ad hominem arguments?’ Food for thought. Although ‘… ad hominem arguments can be good arguments, especially when they are construed as rebuttals to appeals to authority.’

Seeking advice from experts is something which we all find ourselves doing from time to time -none of us can know everything. But suppose, as she posits, ‘children respond to their parents’ plea to refrain from smoking by saying: ‘You use tobacco, so why shouldn’t I? … Arguments against the person are attempts to undermine what someone says, not by engaging with what is said but by casting aspersions on the person who says it. For example, the child’s retort is directed at the parents, in light of their failure to set a positive example, not at their parents’ concerns about smoking.’

I like that example -it somehow proves to me that nothing is so sacred that it can’t be re-evaluated from a different perspective. You’re a fool if you don’t believe in evolution… Or are you not allowed to ad hominem yourself?