The Ad Hominem Attack Fallacy Explained

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As you consume various forms of media, you can find well-researched articles that are backed with data. However, you will also encounter content that uses logical fallacies to persuade readers and viewers instead. This media might seem compelling if you aren’t aware of the various fallacies and why the content creator utilizes them. A logical fallacy like an ad hominem attack is actually a weak argument that is meant to distract the audience. 

Learn how to consume journalism with confidence. Read more about the ad hominem fallacy and how to identify it in media.

Ad Hominem Definition

Ad hominem is known as attacking the person or the entity where information comes from. The goal of this logical fallacy is to discredit the source so the statement or content is less valuable in the eyes of the audience. 

When someone uses the ad hominem fallacy effectively, the audience may no longer believe the source of information at that moment and in the future. It can cause long-term damage to someone who is trying to make a logical argument and can even harm their reputation. 

Types of Ad Hominem Fallacies

There are many types of ad hominem fallacies that someone might use to attack an opponent instead of their argument. Here are a few to look out for: 

  • Tu quoque: This fallacy uses a person’s past actions against them. This can make the opponent look like a bad person, a hypocrite, or someone who changes their mind frequently. 
  • Abusive: This type uses personal attacks to directly injure the opponent.
  • Guilt by association: This attack attempts to connect the opponent with an undesirable group in the eyes of the audience. 
  • Poisoning the well: Similar to guilt by association, this type uses prejudices or beliefs about an opponent against them.

When utilizing an ad hominem attack, the presenter will take any sort of dirt, misinformation, or negative perceptions against an opponent and use it against them.

How To Identify the Ad Hominem Fallacy

Ad hominem is a fallacy because it doesn’t argue against the point. Instead, it is meant to distract or persuade the audience. It is similar to the slippery slope, false equivalency, and strawman arguments. These will be discussed later in the article. Here are a few ways to spot an ad hominem attack.

  • The argument gets personal. The attacker focuses on the presenter or source of information. 
  • The attacker brings up seemingly unrelated information and tries to connect it to the debate.
  • The attacker tries to get the audience to stop listening to the opponent because of this information. 

There are a few key characteristics of the ad hominem fallacy. Knowing these can also better help you identify it. 

  • It plays to the audience’s biases: For example, a conservative candidate might accuse his opponent of being too liberal.
  • It takes the place of a logical argument: People often use this tactic when they don’t have a strong case. 
  • It is irrelevant: The audience doesn’t need this information to choose sides in a debate. 

Unlike other fallacies, an ad hominem attack isn’t necessarily wrong. The information used to bias the audience could be correct. However, it is still a distraction from the core argument.

Examples of the Ad Hominem Fallacy

The more you’re exposed to different ad hominem fallacies, the easier it will be to identify them. Here are a few examples of ad hominem attacks that utilize the different types mentioned above.

  • Tu quoque: “Candidate A is running as a Democrat, but he ran as a Republican in the last election. He has no values, he just wants to hold office.” 
  • Abusive: “Are you going to take fashion advice from someone so ugly?” 
  • Guilt by association: “He talks about peace but has been photographed with violent protest groups.” 
  • Poisoning the well: “Should we really hire someone who graduated from Yale to lead Harvard?” 

The examples above attack the opponent based on their past, their appearance, and their associations. None of these attacks have anything to do with the actual argument they are making, which is why an ad hominem attack is a logical fallacy.

How To Counter the Ad Hominem Fallacy

If someone uses an ad hominem attack effectively, the audience will focus more on the negative association instead of the argument at hand. There are a few steps you can take to prevent this

  • Don’t give in: The worst thing you can do is respond to an ad hominem attack by defending yourself. Keep to the topic at hand. 
  • Question the relevance of the statement: Point out how the attack has nothing to do with the argument at hand, highlighting the use of the fallacy. 
  • Refocus the audience: Do your best to return to the logical argument you are making on the topic. 
  • Seek common ground: If you cannot return to the subject, address the ad hominem attack to negate it. In some cases, you might be able to turn a negative criticism into a positive one.

For a light-hearted example, if an opponent accuses you of being a dog person while discussing the care of cats, you ask what your personal preference has to do with the argument at hand. This prevents the debate from derailing.

Similar Fallacies

Several types of logical fallacies are meant to discredit the person who is trying to make a point. Here are a few similar fallacies you may encounter as you consume media or engage in debates.  

  • Slippery slope: If something happens, it will trigger a chain reaction leading to disaster. 
  • False equivalency: Compares to very different things and equates them as the same. 
  • Straw man argument: Presents an argument in an extreme light to turn the audience against it. 
  • Ad populum: Makes a statement seem more popular than it is, also known as ‘bandwagoning.’ 

There are dozens of fallacies that people can use in arguments, none of which logically address the issue.

More Effective Arguments

You don’t have to rely on fallacies to win arguments. Here are a few tips for more effective arguments so you can win over audiences. 

  • Research your audience. Know whether the people you are speaking to are likely to agree with you or have opposing views from the start. 
  • Focus on one clear thesis. You can make a clear argument by sticking to a single statement and pointing every piece of evidence back to it. 
  • Pack your argument with research. Use a mixture of qualitative and quantitative information based on facts.
  • Acknowledge opposing views. Discuss your opponent’s viewpoints and admit when they are valid. Then explain how yours is right. 
  • Avoid absolute statements. It is easy to discredit you when you refuse to leave room for exceptions. 

It takes time and practice to develop effective arguments. The more you learn how to do this and have opportunities to debate, the better you will be at making your points.

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