AD HOMINEM AD NAUSEUM
Imagine a child who comes running to his mother, saying that the neighbourhood bully beat him up. The evidence is clear; a bleeding lip and a black eye. He hopes that his mom will take some action against this obviously despicable act. To his astonishment, his mother launches into a tirade, where she suddenly lists all the times he has misbehaved at home: dropped his glass of hot chocolate, broken the TV remote, and spilt chili sauce on the nice new carpet. His mother says that because he indulged in these other misdemeanours, not only does he have no right to accuse the bully of beating him up, but also that the incident he experienced never even happened, inspite of the cruel and clear evidence right in front of her eyes. With that, she leaves. Needless to say, the child is completely flummoxed, and feels humiliated and cheated.
Some people are taking a stance exactly like the mother's, to try to either accuse certain individuals of not having the right to express their opinions about certain matters, or to exculpate other individuals from misdemeanours or crimes, in a way that would make logical thinkers cringe. This is even if what the former are saying is right, and what the accused are doing is plain wrong.
I am aware of a couple of such recent incidents. For example, Arundhati Roy has long been lambasted for her left wing and sometimes extreme views. I agree that she does cross the line sometimes, and launches into extended spiels against globalization (like her pretty misguided and silly denunciation of cell phone corporations in India). But does that suddenly discredit everything she has said about, say, the current US administration, or about corporate greed? What about this article here, published remarkably soon after 9/11, which I still think is a commendable article of simple clarity. Because we don't agree with Ms. Roy's views on certain issues, let's not slot her into the general category of being a nut, and suddenly start seeing an ulterior and deluded motive behind everything she says. There is almost nothing in the world which is all right or all wrong. It's important to objectively analyze what an individual says, and then judge it, instead of finding ammunition against that individual's character, and implying that that necessarily renders everything what she or he says as wrong. Elementary logic can tell us that this is not the right approach. Not that I am implying that elementary logic can be applied to social problems, but in this case, many times it's quite clear that one thing does not automatically imply the other. Maybe it does, maybe it does not. My problem is with critics trying to find a necessary and sufficient connection between the two that according to them, exists by default.
The second such individual against whom ad hominem attacks have always been a favourite ploy of his critics, is Noam Chomsky. Recently, there was an article asserting that Chomsky is a 'closet capitalist' because he has a trust fund set up, through which he holds stocks in some of the very corporations he is accusing of being criminals. I already have posted my opinion about this in detail. To expect an individual who criticizes a system to not partake of any benefits of that system at all, is being naive and unrealistic. In fact, this is precisely what that individual's critics would want, that the individual should get out of the system completely, so that he is no longer in a position to criticize it. Does that mean that every American citizen who criticizes the government for some policy or the other, does not have the right to live in the US?
Let's assume for a moment that Chomsky does all that he has been accused of, and also that that is the only side of the picture (a fundamentally false premise). Still, how does that suddenly debunk all the arguments against corporations and US foreign policy he makes? Like I said in my post, how does the cook's possibly shoddy character suddenly make his cakes rotten? There is no necessary connection between the two. Also, such articles are really relevant, if they are so at all, for someone who hero-worships Chomsky. I love his writings by and large, but I don't think he is not flawed. But I do try to make efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to call wheat wheat, and chaff chaff. I think all of us should. The point is that after one hundred years, professional historians and political scientists will not care one bit for what Chomsky's character was, but only for what he said (They don't even do that for Marx- that's why I think that Paul Johnson't book is brilliant but meaningless in the end). So why indulge in so much character bashing? What's the point here?
The latest salvos in the fray seem to have been fired by those, who are criticizing former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, for speaking up against Donald Rumsfeld during Rumsfeld's trip to Atlanta a few days back. McGovern plainly asked the secretary why he lied that he knew the exact locations of the WMDs in Iraq. Not suprisingly, Rumsfeld was in quite a fix, and in the end, managed to barely get away with the kind of seemingly clever but trite remarks which politicians are known for. He even managed to try to inject some humour into the matter to try to deflect people's attention, by saying that there are troops who go out into the field wearing gas masks and chemical suits, and they don't do this 'for the style'. Well, American troops in Iraq are also not there for the style. They believe that their government has sent them there for a valid cause, and it's also a fact that without their trust in their government which has led them there, their government would be nowhere. The government should remember this.
In any case, a blogger hurled accusations at McGovern, citing that McGovern was involved in all kinds of shady and unpatriotic activities [Hat tip: Gawker]. Apart from the fact that this charge sheet looks like vintage tabloid slander, as Gawker also simply notes, even if this is true, how does that suddenly exonerate Rumsfeld from having misled the people? Just as the existence of troops with yellow suits hunting for CWs does not necessarily point towards definite sites of existence of these weapons, McGovern's past, even if true, does not distort McGovern's allegations. Let's say McGovern turns out to be some flag burning protest marcher, who has participated in rallies against every American president in the last 30 years. How on earth does that have anything to do with Rumsfeld not having lied to the people about WMDs? Isn't that a violation of simple logic? It seems that such people as this blogger use the same strategy as any 'good' politician, to try to deflect the issue at hand, and prove that is is meaningless, by going down the character defamation road.
Indulging in ad hominem attacks is hardly something new. Also, such attacks in some way, remind me of the arguments that creationists make 'in support' of their 'theory'. They claim that evolution has certain pitfalls in it, and that makes their 'theory' true by default. No matter that they have not procured a single shred of evidence in support of their own contentions, nor have they actually proved that evolution is a fundamentally flawed theory. The ad hominem perpetrators are similar. They attack their opponent's character, and try to prove that this allegation makes his statements false by default. They neither produce negative evidence to disprove his beliefs, nor positive evidence to corroborate their own.
Such attacks have always been part of the paraphernalia of any 'good' politician. But that does not hide the fact that at the least, they point to clever use of propaganda aimed at obscuring the main issue, and at worst, point to plain jealousy on the part of the accuser, or desperation from having run out of valid, relevant arguments to counter their adversary's arguments. This is too old a ploy, and nobody should be taken in by it. Unfortunately, people still do, and it's important for all not to lose sight of the goal.
As for the analogy with the bully, the tragedy is that these days, the child does not even have a mother to run to. All he can do is negotiate with the bully and demand explanations from him. And no point in expecting the bully to accede.