I am grateful to John Loftus for highlighting through vivid illustration the denigration of civil discourse that I lament in my forthcoming book You’re Not as Crazy as I Think (see the books section of this site). In the book I point out that those who espouse indoctrinational modes of thinking commonly dismiss the views of those with which they disagree not by interacting with the arguments of those individuals but by attacking their character and/or intellect. To put it bluntly, they marginalize the interlocutor as being wickedly immoral, woefully ignorant, or both. And they use this as a way to insulate their own views from critical analysis.
Case in point: in the last couple days on this very blog, John Loftus has accused me of being a snake and a Pharisee. He has added that I am dishonest and even charged that had I lived in the sixteenth century I would have burned a Christian woman to death at the stake, or at least added my cheering voice to the cacophany as others did so. John has continued this assault on his own website where he accused me of being “dumb”. (Merely dumb? Could it be that he is at last running out of ideas?)
What is the source of this verbal barrage? Apparently this vitriol was all generated by my request that John defend a controversial assumption in his essay “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” As I keep requesting him to clarify his commitment to this controversial premiss, John refuses, decrying that I am merely trying to drag him down the “rabbit hole” of definitions.
As I noted in his blog, this rejoinder is terribly self-serving. Whenever somebody asks you to defend a controversial enthymeme (assumed/implied premiss) or an explicit premiss in your argument, you protest that they are merely concerned with unimportant, arcane “definitions”. And you then focus the attack on the character of the individual.
Now I should add that not all ad hominems (attacks on “the man”) are improper. If you are hiring a daycare worker and I tell you “But he’s a convicted pedophile!” that’s an eminently relevant attack on the man in that context.
But if somebody asks you to clarify and defend your views and you start attacking their character, that is a grade-A fallacy. Even if the person raising the objection is the devil himself, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the challenge to your views.
Needless to say, the situation is all the more egregious when you are merely inventing attacks (like my alleged counterfactual complicity in murder) and throwing out insults like “you’re dumb”.