Asking the Ad Hominem Question

I generally wince when someone debating Topic X starts talking about his opponents, giving reasons he thinks his opponents believe as they do, trying to discredit their position by psycho-analyzing the reasons they hold it or expressing his disapproval of “the sort of people” who hold such positions.    It’s typically a variant of a thought analyzed well by Kathryn Schulz in Being Wrong: “I think the way I do because all evidence and logic support me; the only reason you think the way you do is because you suffer from… [here, fill in the blank.]”As I see it, such ad hominem arguments are often resorted to by those unable to make a good argument on Topic X itself.  Moreover, by making the debate personal, the ad hominem debater usually comes across as insulting, and that’s a sure-fire recipe for things to get ugly quickly.

I think it’s quite different to pose an ad hominem  question to oneself.  Asking ourselves why we believe what we do, when others don’t agree with us, can be a mind opening exercise.  (In case it’s not clear, “I believe what I believe because its true, and others disagree because they’re stupid” doesn’t count.)

Allow me to offer an example.  Having gotten some flack from readers for my thoughts about Charlottesville, I decided to ask myself the ad hominem question in an effort to understand why I favor removing statues of Confederate generals from public squares, when others don’t.   What is it about my background that causes me to favor such removal?

I’m pretty sure it was my career as an employment lawyer, a capacity in which I was often asked to advise employers on diversity issues and strategies for legally maintaining a dedicated, harmonious, loyal (and therefore productive) workforce.    Many of my clients experienced  variations on a problem I’ll call cultural conflict in the workplace, by which I don’t mean conflict between employer and employees, but among employees themselves.

The conflict involved was often racial, religious or gender-based.  For example, one company piped music from a radio station into its warehouses, only to discover that one group wanted to listen to a country music station, another a Latin station, and a third an R&B, Hip-Hop or Motown station.  Each group claimed it was being discriminated against if it didn’t get its way.  Another variant of the problem was when assembly line workers came to work wearing T-shirts that other employees found offensive —one T-shirt featured a burning cross; another the picture of a person wearing a white sheet and hood while aiming a gun at the viewer; another featured the “N” word; others were donned featuring raised fists and the words “Black Power” and shirts implying a revolution against “white rule.”

A frequent variant on the “culture conflict” problem  involved office environments where employees shared cubicles and wanted to decorate their cubicles with words or images that their neighbors or cubicle-mates found offensive.    In one case, one Christian employee began to hang skeletons, ghouls, devils and demons all over a shared cubicle, beginning in August, in preparation for Halloween; her Christian cubicle-mate believed that celebrating Halloween at all was the work of the devil; she countered  by hanging crucifixes, pictures of Jesus, manger scenes and Bible quotations on the shared cubicle wall, saying that devil worshipers would go to Hell; a third resident of that same cubicle corner — the one who actually complained to management — had religious convictions that prohibited the celebration of any holidays or the use of any religious imagery at all, on the grounds that all of it was idol-worship; she wanted it all removed.

Perhaps the most common variant of the culture conflict was in workplaces where male employees wanted to hang calendars or other pictures of naked (or scantily clad) women, while  women (and some men) objected on the grounds the working environment was made illegally offensive as a result.

In one case, there was already a racially charged atmosphere: a group of white ‘good ole boys’ always ate at one lunch table while blacks ate at another.  There’d been some mild taunting back and forth, but nothing too serious, when one day, several of the white employees started “practicing their knot tying skills” by making rope nooses in plain view of the blacks at the other table.  The blacks saw an obvious message which the whites of course denied.

In all such cases, the employer was left to decide what to do.  There were difficult legalities to deal with.  Some employers tried to address the problem by declaring that employees could post no personal messages on company property (like cubicle walls), but could post what they wanted on their own property (their  lunch boxes,  tool boxes, T-shirts, etc. ) But the public/private property distinction didn’t end the problem.  Someone who brings a Swastika and a “Death to All Jews” decal to work on his lunchbox is an obvious problem for workplace harmony, regardless of what the law says about it.

Surely, my background in this area shapes my views about cultural conflict regarding statues in public squares.  And I think what decided my position on statues was that such problems arose among my clients scores of times, yet never once was it the employer itself that wanted to post the material, wear the T-shirt, celebrate the holiday, practice tying knots, or whatever.  It was always a question of playing referee in the conflict between opposing groups of employees.

I believe it’s by analogy to that situation that I instinctively consider the problem faced by a government body deciding what or who to memorialize in the public square.   I don’t claim it’s an easy task.  But if a company or city had ever asked me if I thought it ought to hang crucifixes in its cubicles, display a picture of the devil in its lunchroom, hang a Confederate flag or a Playboy centerfold  in the conference room, or have its managers fashion nooses during an employee meeting, I’d have been flabbergasted.   It’s not that Robert E. Lee is like Satan, or Jesus, or a Playboy Centerfold, if we’re talking moral qualities, or what OUGHT to be offensive.  Rather, it’s the fact that, in my experience, all that mattered to the employers was that some of their employees considered the displays offensive.  When the display was controversial , it was viewed as a problem.  And without exception, my clients took pains not to introduce controversial images themselves.

In abstract theory, I can imagine that some symbols or ideas might be so important to the common good that an employer (or city council) should celebrate them, despite their being divisive.  (A statue of the sitting President?) But in the case of Confederate generals who fought to preserve an institution that has been illegal for 150 years now, my own cultural background — including my work experience —gives me no clue as to what their countervailing importance might be.

Anyway, I really do wince when people make ad hominem arguments against their opponents, but I like asking the ad hominem question of myself.  Whatever you think about Confederate generals, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve given the thought-experiment a try, especially if it has helped you understand differences in points of view between yourself and others.

— Joe

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9 thoughts on “Asking the Ad Hominem Question”

  1. That’s a thought provoking question. Being something of a moderator of disputes at work and between children, I like to think that I listen to both sides and seek win win solutions or perhaps just diversions to quell conflicts. In the case of the statues, it’s really two opposing groups both dedicated to creating conflict I see as the problem. The rest of us are just getting dragged in, so what I’d like to do is think on how to plug the drain. My answer remains the same. Ignore them and they’ll stop getting the attention they require for recruitment and somehow convey at the same time that this is not because I don’t care. Motive? I care. And now I feel guilty that I didn’t identify some inner personal dysfunction somehow?

  2. It is sometimes helpful to look at the same issue from another, non-confrontational perspective. I find several images and headlines about cultural memorials that are not racial. Here’s one from Britain’s Daily Mirror : “ISIS destroy statues and shrines of 2,000-year-old Iraq city in latest sickening act of war on culture”. Is this a ‘sickening act of war on culture”? Or is Isis simply expressing it’s right to not be offended?
    Is this a false equivalency?

    1. We have met the enemy and they are us. (Pogo)
      I hated drunk drivers. then I was one. (me)
      What one does and believes are allowed. but what others do and believe are always debatable.
      I thought that Joe had broken his own rules by bringing up current politics, however after a quick loosening of the grip of my own debatable politics I realized that it really didn’t matter. Blind faith is more than a rock group from the sixties,

      1. I appreciate your point about my breaking my own rules. First draft of the original post on Charlottesville addressed that , but I deleted it to shorten the piece as a whole. I was indeed reluctant to address what was arguably a matter of current controversy with an opinion on one side or the other — but decided that the real topic here has to do with civility and the avoidance of violence, so while I may be wrong, I decided it was in keeping with what WMBW is about. Certainly debatable. Thanks.

    2. I think it’s very equivalent, as long as we keep in mind the distinction between the role of a democratically elected government and the role of a private actor or actors subject to that government. I see Isis as being like such subjects of the realm, like the employees in my examples – not just an employee who wears a T-shirt, but one who makes, and uses, a noose. Meanwhile, the essence of democratic government is that sometimes you have to go along with what the government, elected by a majority, decide, even if it isn’t what you would do if you were king. Isis is not an elected government of a democratic republic. When it destroys public memorials, it breaks the law, and it commits an offense against the rest of society that goes beyond a mere expression of opinion or philosophy, to destruction of property in which others have an interest. Among private citizens, wearing a burning cross on my T-shirt is one thing; building and burning a real one on your lawn is quite another, and burning an actual fellow-citizen is worst of all. But when democratically elected officials make decisions about what memorials to have, and what memorials not to have, they are doing precisely what they were elected to do — making decisions, as best they can, about what is best for the common good. Like the renaming of Idlewild after JFK to honor that slain President. Like the decision to discontinue some postage stamps and commission new ones. Like the decision to build a memorial to Abe Lincoln, despite the south’s hatred of him, or the decision to erect a statute of Robert E Lee in the first place, in an effort to heal the wounds of a defeated south. This is what governments do, and from my perspective, they should do so in order to solidify and harmonize, rather than to divide. Private entities like ISIS should be free to offer opinions, but when they take the role of government into their own hands and destroy monuments, I see it as something else entirely.

  3. I like the discussion… and remember the Alamo… and something about Jim Bowie and bringing a gun to a knife fight… but, *I* may be wrong… or at least in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Now, how do I get out of this place and… “permission to leave my post, Sir!”

  4. I see they’ve removed the monument to fallen Confederate soldiers from the WPB downtown cemetery. If not a cemetery, where? I don’t remember seeing it during my visits there, but I gather it was a memorial to soldiers who gave their lives believing in the multiple reasons for the South’s secession. Not a glorification of the cause or individual prowess. As I see (WMBW), it comes down to who owns the cemetery, if it is private then it should be the right of the owners to determine its use. If public, then it should go through public process.

    1. The plot thickens, the cemetery (Woodlawn) is owned by the City, but the monument is owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Which raises questions about free speech, but apparently the owners have failed to respond to the City’s overtures of the last few months. The monument was vandalized a few days before removal. The City paid to clean it and remove it. Is a monument (in a cemetery) to the men who died for a lost cause a “symbol of hate and bigotry”, that creates divisiveness? Guess I’d have to read it in person to form an opinion.

      1. Yes, the plot thickens, especially seeing a comment regarding the statue of Lee posted by a direct descendant of the general who opposed him at Gettysburg! Since I just remembered this evening that my family is related to Lee, that means our families fought on opposite sides of the conflict — and here we are, 150 years later, still trying to sort out what they fought over!
        As for a privately owned monument in a public cemetery – are you sure? I thought cemetery monuments generally were on small plots actually bought and paid for by the monument owners – that only the common areas would be publicly owned. If a privately owned monument is on public land, as you say, surely there must have been some additional legal understand providing an answer regarding a right of removal — a lease for a term? A contract by which the city granted the private owner the right to erect the monument in perpetuity? A contract permitting the city to remove the monument if notices regarding maintenance were not replied to? Complicated, but probably dependent on fine points of the arrangement?
        As for whether a cemetery monument to dead soldiers is a symbol of hate and bigotry, I don’t think so, but like you, I’d feel more sure if I saw it and read the inscription. But typically, in the context of a cemetery, I suspect all would agree there’s civility in remembering the dead.

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