You’re All a Bunch of Jerks: The Art of the Ad Hominem Attack

What are the odds but a couple days ago I saw some propaganda on my Facebook news feed. A friend of mine apparently liked a post from a group called Oil Sands Action. (I’ve included a screen shot of the photograph and tagline of the post below.)

Untitled-2

The picture is an obvious attempt to improve the public’s perception of tar sands development. I suspect many people working in the energy sector felt vindicated by the picture and by reading the article. I wouldn’t blame them; it’s nice to know you are doing such a bang up job, you know, not destroying the environment or changing the climate. Taking the photograph at face value, a person would be forgiven for thinking Mordor had been effectively replaced with a wondrous, green nature restored.

Digging deeper (as I am prone to do) I’m thinking the elves aren’t about to “un-sunder” themselves and return. The fact of the matter is the photograph presents a simplistic image of a complex situation: the green grass diverts our attention from the significant damage that was done, and continues to be done, with tar sands development (a project James Hansen, arguably the world’s foremost climate scientist, says if developed fully will mean “game over” for the environment). Image, however, is everything. Not knowledge. Not critical thinking. Not a nuanced view. Actually, if you look at the comments made by the Oil Sands Group itself they make frequent use of images—not arguments—to sell/transmit their message.

I read some of the user comments to the Oil Sands post. People seemed pretty enthusiastic about the good news. I suspect most of the commentators were probably members of the page. To my thinking I felt there was a little too much patting of the back and self-congratulatory rhetoric. So I decided to contribute a few sobering words to the otherwise optimistic stream of comments: “All the oil extracted [from the tar sands] was still emitted (as CO2) in to the atmosphere with all the resident effects. Planting some grass over former open pits doesn’t exactly mitigate the global impact of extraction, now does it?”

Several Facebook users responded to my comment; however, none of them dealt with my premise: the damage is done; the green fields hide the scene of an environmentally disastrous policy; we extracted the oil, we sent it to market, we burnt it, and we emitted a significant amount of CO2 in to the atmosphere (and the oceans) in the process. Again, people who replied to my post didn’t deal with my premise, they attacked me personally. They criticized my lack of “oil business savvy”—not sure how my business sense was relevant to the science involved—or they discredited my position by pointing out my apparent socialist leanings—as though the 97% scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is some sort of leftist cabal. The few responses that weren’t personal attacks presented an overly-simplistic grade school scientific understanding of the carbon cycle, e.g. Plants need CO2, it makes them grow big!

Please follow this link for an explanation on the significance of the 97% consensus: http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/.

In reality, I wasn’t pushing some sort of leftist agenda. I was presenting a view congruent with the scientific consensus on climate change as it exists—which is non-partisan and non-ideological—combined with an understanding of how the carbon cycle actually works: due to over a century of human industrial activity we passed a benchmark of 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere in 2013. Climate models predict that if this number does not drop the planet will warm by 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century (and we could get a lot hotter than that). As I mentioned earlier, one of my interlocutors observed “plants like CO2, it makes them grow big!” Well, while this is true, we haven’t seen a concentration of CO2 like this for millions of years (and definitely not while modern humans or their Australopithecine ancestors have existed).

Animal life, including humankind, evolved to live under specific circumstances (we actually almost went extinct as a species around 70,000 BCE due to rapid climate changes). Further still, an environment in which “plants grow big” doesn’t necessarily translate in to an environment suitable for sustaining human life. Also, the problem isn’t CO2’s existence; the problem is the concentrations of it in the climate (along with other greenhouse gases like methane). If we have the right amount of CO2 (say around 250-350 ppm), good; if we have too much (400 ppm and growing), eco-systems as we know them collapse (and they are collapsing (we are living through the Sixth Great Extinction)), the climate changes, and we ultimately embark on a path some scientists believe ends in our eventual extinction. Plants grow big, indeed.

Follow this link for a description of the Sixth Great Extinction: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150623-sixth-extinction-kolbert-animals-conservation-science-world/

I was a little vexed by the scientific illiteracy I encountered on Facebook (though not surprised). Yet, what I found more vexing was the fact people didn’t attack the ideas I was presenting from a point of knowledge but resorted to attacking me personally. When you attack the person, and not the idea, you are committing the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad hominem (“attack the man”). When you launch an ad hominem attack you don’t try to disprove the speaker’s idea instead you focus your attention on the speaker (thereby deflecting attention from the actual issue being discussed). In reality something is true—not because of who spoke it—but because it stands on its own and is valid on its own merits. In my case I wasn’t spouting rashly formed opinions. I was echoing the scientific consensus as it exists on the relationship between tar sands development and climate change.

So why do people content themselves with personally attacking the person instead of the idea? Lots of reasons: there’s some sort of advantage to be had; the attacker believes they know a lot more than they actually do (as per the Dunning-Kruger Effect); or they are just being defensive (motivated reasoning). The situation reminds me of something Upton Sinclair said regarding human nature, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, [especially] when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The people who attacked me likely work in the oil fields (or they have family and friends who do). For this reason they have significant motivation to discredit critics of tar sands development because if they can vilify the critic they don’t have to change their corresponding behavior or beliefs; and just for the record, I never judged the people working in the oil fields; I benefit from their work and I appreciate it; moreover, they are just trying to make their way in the world and want to take care of their families. This is noble. Nonetheless, I am critical of people who are willfully blind because it is perhaps the worst form of intellectual dishonesty. As the African American poet and playwright James Baldwin once observed, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of ignorance long after that innocence is dead turns himself in to a monster.”

Interestingly, the use of ad hominem attacks has been around a very long time. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, the poet and politician Cicero penned a series of scathing criticisms of Mark Antony. Cicero accused Antony of being ambitious and mis-representing the final public will and testament of the murdered Caesar for personal gain. Antony didn`t address the charges levelled at him by the poet; rather, Antony used his own significant skills as an orator to convince the public Cicero was a traitor and enemy of Rome. Antony succeeded; and Cicero was not only attacked verbally, he was beheaded because he had the audacity to speak truth to power.

More recently in 2009 American President Barack Obama initiated a series of healthcare reforms known as the Affordable Healthcare Act. The act’s most vocal opponents focused less on the relative merits of universal healthcare and instead focused the public’s attention on how the president was a, wait for it, a “socialist.”

Dun-dun-dunnnnn.

Name calling is a surprisingly effective strategy in American politics. In particular, calling someone a socialist is especially effective due to decades of hysterical anti-communist propaganda; it would appear Americans are to a large degree conditioned to fear and hate the socialist; they hate socialists, they just don’t know what a socialist is—confused critics were calling Obama a socialist, communist and a fascist. Not everyone falls for this nonsense; however, more do than don’t. The funny thing is all Americans are socialists on some level, e.g. public fire protection, public schools, public roads, transit, police protection, etc. In reality a socialist is simply someone who believes in the wisdom of pooling the wealth of the community to secure all the individuals within it. However, to listen to critics who confuse Hitler with Stalin, you’d think a socialist was some sort of evil creature drawn from an Anne Rice novel who not only wanted to suck your blood but your bank account dry, as well.

So dumb.

Israel provides an excellent example of a government resorting to using ad hominem attacks to deflect attention away from its repressive policies against Palestinians. The Palestinians are hardly saints; however, the recent surge in 2015 in violence involving the Palestinians and Israelis is a reflection (at least in part) of a historically dysfunctional relationship between the two peoples. Lord Durham would describe the situation as “two peoples fighting within the bosom of a single state.” The violence is also a reflection of Israel’s repeated refusal to compromise or reach an accommodation with the Palestinians; and this is no small issue, e.g. since 2003 the state of Israel has been condemned by the United Nations in 45 resolutions for its treatment of Palestine (more than the rest of the “offending nations” in the world combined…that includes Iraq, Iran and North Korea). If for no other reason than all of these resolutions, there might be something to the criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. However, if one criticizes Israel the critic is labeled an “anti-Semite” and silenced. Is it possible, at least in principle, for a person to level a valid criticism at Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and not be an anti-Semite? I think so.

Yet, the name calling tactic works: former president of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, made frequent use of the ad hominem “anti-Semite” card to deflect attention from the criticism to the critic; consequently, many people in this ridiculously politically correct age are silenced because they do not want to appear to be racist. How foolish are we as a species for falling for such tactics? Swinging way over to the other side of the political spectrum, the Nazis of the 1930s used to discredit critics of the German regime like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill by calling them “Jews” (as though being a member, to quote J. R. R. Tolkien, of that “gifted people” was somehow something negative).

We naturally possess the ability to reason. Likewise we possess an equal and seemingly inexhaustible capacity to be influenced by both propaganda and logical fallacies, as well.

Therefore, I am compelled to simply conclude that you’re all a bunch of jerks.

Advertisements

One thought on “You’re All a Bunch of Jerks: The Art of the Ad Hominem Attack

Comments are closed.