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.