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Politicians rely too heavily on ad hominem attacks

Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 20:07

The Bush administration and conservative media have been remarkably successful at discrediting dangerous political opponents in the eyes of the public. During the presidential elections, anyone who paid any attention to the media knew that Kerry had been called a flip-flopper and that some people thought Dean was a raving lunatic, and those labels have been hard for the former candidates to shake even to this day. However, conservatives may be relying a little too much on their strategy of ad hominem arguments, and their recent sustained attacks on Joseph Wilson, husband of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, is little more than a distraction from the real issues involved in the case.

According to Northwestern University Professor of Argumentation and Debate David Zarefsky, the term "ad hominem argument" generally refers to an argument in which an attack on a person is substituted for a response to an argument. These arguments are often considered to be fallacious because they tend to ignore the central issue under contention. For example, if Person A says, "We ought to privatize social security because private investments will eventually lead to more money for senior citizens," and Person B replies, "Why should we listen to someone who eats his own boogers?" it doesn't take a logician to realize that Person B didn't really respond to the argument.

Though they are usually rhetorically suspect, there can be little doubt that ad hominem arguments are often effective at influencing the public. Many elections are marked by references to opponents' character, and these sorts of references often dominate both the talking points of talk show guests and everyday conversations between friends. From "Massachusetts liberal" to "warmonger" to "bleeding heart," the fact that so many character labels exist strongly suggests that they have useful political capital.

In fact, as Zarefsky says, it is not even the case that ad hominem arguments are always fallacious. Ad hominem arguments may sometimes provide valid reasons for questioning the arguments put forward by others. One such instance would be if the person putting forward an argument had a bias or vested interest that prevented them from being impartial about the claim they were putting forth. For example, when Richard Clarke claimed that President Bush had his mind made up to invade Iraq before going to the U.N. Security Council, many conservatives said that Clarke was a disgruntled former employee simply trying to make money for his new book. While there was much evidence put forward to support this claim, it is at least true that if Richard Clarke were a disgruntled employee simply trying to make money for his new book, then we would have good reasons to question whether the claims he made were true.

However, the recent attacks on Joseph Wilson are a far different matter. The question at the heart of this investigation is whether someone intentionally leaked the fact that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA agent. The investigation has serious implications, since intentionally outing an undercover officer is against the law and since the notes of Time Magazine reporter Matt Cooper suggest that White House senior adviser Karl Rove reportedly told Cooper that "Wilson's wife" worked for the CIA. The case is further complicated by the fact that Bush said in June 2004 that he would fire anyone in his administration involved in leaking Plame's identity.

In response to this investigation, conservative media pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich have been spending an inordinate amount of time denouncing Joseph Wilson. Gingrich for example, in an interview with Bill O'Reilly, stated that Wilson lied about his fact-finding trip to Africa and that he was "a liberal Democrat that's for John Kerry." Again, the evidence that Wilson was lying is pretty flimsy, but in this case, even if it were true that Wilson lied, this would have no relevance whatsoever to the actual investigation. Even if Wilson was the biggest, most despicable criminal on the planet, it is no less of a crime to endanger national security by disclosing the identity of a CIA operative. The investigation is focused on conversations between reporters and officials in the Bush administration, and it is hard to see how Wilson's character has any relevance to what took place in those conversations.

The conservative media machine seems to be growing a little complacent in the strategies that worked in the past. But by picking random people to portray negatively as a distraction from the actual case, the media is insulting the intelligence of people who turn to it for information. Ad hominem arguments may be relevant in some instances, but the Valerie Plame scandal is not one of them.

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