"Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, small minds discuss others," said Eleanor Roosevelt. And he wasn't wrong. When intellectual stature is lacking, one falls into the personal mud.
Unfortunately, the tendency to denigrate others when there is no solid argument is increasingly common in all areas of social life, a tendency that endangers the possibility of reaching an agreement because it destroys bridges. This trend is known as argumentum ad hominem or "argument against man".
Cosa if you pay attention to an argument with a man?
The argumentum ad hominem is omnipresent in our daily life. We meet him in the media or in social networks, when there are two parties who defend opposing arguments and one of them tries to discredit the other by resorting to irrelevant arguments such as personal appearance, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, culture, religion or political affiliation.
Argumentum ad hominem is the tendency to attack the interlocutor instead of refuting his ideas. Those who use it refute the other's arguments through personal attacks aimed at undermining their authority or trustworthiness.
One can resort to personal insults, public humiliations, or even mention mistakes that the person has made in the past. It is also common to attack the interlocutor's personal characteristics which, apparently, contradict the position he defends. And there are those who resort to lies or exaggerate the alleged defects of the other to destroy their ideas.
The main goal of this attitude is to discredit the person defending an idea by shifting the focus to an irrelevant aspect that has little or nothing to do with the issue.
Many examples of argumentum ad hominem have occurred and continue to occur throughout history. Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, was a misogynist, but that doesn't mean many of his philosophical ideas weren't extremely interesting. Ayn Rand was a staunch advocate of capitalism, but that does not imply that we cannot value its objectivism.
As the politician García Damborenea underlined: "It is understandable that the idea may be displeasing, but if Hitler were to affirm that two plus two equals four, we would have to agree with him". After all, even a stopped watch tells the truth twice a day. If we don't accept that reality, we simply close ourselves off to the diversity and complexity that exist in the world. And we will probably lose the opportunity to grow, being trapped in the ideas of those who think like us and share our value system.
Personal denigration says more about the attacker than the attacker
Argumentum ad hominem is often the result of a lack of argumentation and frustration. Using this strategy is as if a footballer, failing to reach the ball, tripped the opponent to make him fall. It is not a fair game. And, without a doubt, it says a lot more about the attacker than about who is being attacked.
When one does not have solid ideas, one resorts to denigration and humiliation. These attacks can become extremely virulent and personal, as they aim to shame the other person and make them remain silent or lose their credibility.
However, the personal attacks also disqualify the attacker, because they show his irrationality and his poverty of arguments. Who cannot fight on the level of ideas, but wants to win at all costs, will drag his interlocutor on a personal level.
We are very vulnerable to ad hominem arguments
The main problem is that, while we like to think of ourselves as highly rational and sensitive people, we are actually particularly vulnerable to argumentum ad hominem, researchers at Montana State University have found.
These researchers asked people to read scientific statements and indicate their attitude towards it. In some statements a direct attack on the empirical basis of the scientific claim was added, in others an ad hominem attack on the scientist making the claim was inserted.
The researchers found that ad hominem attacks have the same impact on our views as attacks based on logical and scientific arguments. This means that we are not objective in evaluating arguments.
In part, this trend is due to the fact that the credibility and shared values of the broadcaster are characteristics that we consider positive and determine the influence a message will have on us. If someone attacks the source of the information by attacking its credibility or questioning its values, it will sow the seeds of doubt and it is likely that we will give less importance and credibility to its ideas and opinions.
When you provoke an attitude of rejection towards the opponent, a rejection towards his words also develops. It is a psychological transference phenomenon that is exacerbated by our tendency to view discussions or debates as competitions in which there must be a winner. And in our society, to win it is not always necessary to be right, but to prevail, even through denigration.
Come sfuggire all argument to man?
If sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of a debate and we are tempted to attack our interlocutor personally, it is better that we pause for a second to think about what emotion drives us to do so. It is likely to be anger or frustration. Instead, we should think that a constructive debate is not one in which winners and losers are declared, but one in which both grow up.
Being a victim of this type of attack can be very frustrating. Therefore, the first thing is to contain the urge to fight back and bring the conflict to a personal level. Jorge Luis Borges told an anecdote in "History of Eternity" in which a man was thrown a glass of wine in the face in the middle of an argument. The attacked did not flinch. He simply said, “This, sir, is a digression; I await, however, your argument ".
We also need to protect ourselves from the kind of deceptive "argument" that is meant to manipulate the opinion of the masses into not listening to valid ideas. It is therefore a question of keeping an open mind and being on guard against any personal attack, because it probably implies that behind there is a solid opinion or idea that is difficult to discredit.