What is a Personal Attack? (the ad hominem fallacy explained)

Certain Vermillion Area Arts Council members, including myself, have been accused of making “malicious and intemperate personal attacks” against the now-resigned VAAC Board. While I cannot speak for all accused, as an essayist and a teacher of composition, I feel it’s my job to define “personal attack,” which is commonly referred to in rhetorical circles as the ad hominem (Latin: “to the man”) fallacy.

Personal attacks are a rhetorical strategy of attacking one’s opponent personally rather than attacking their views, argument, or stance on an issue. They’re very popular in political campaigns. For example: an opponent of Belinda Dolittle’s is asked to discuss problems with Belinda’s foreign policy stance. The opponent replies that Belinda is a shrew, so her foreign policy stance would obviously fail.

While in certain circumstances, Belinda’s shrewishness might be an issue, this ad hominem fallacy of logic does not explain why Belinda’s shrewishness could be a factor in the failure of her foreign policy (say, if she’s a shrew to other country’s leaders). It simply attacks her character rather than her foreign policy stance, which is what is at issue in the argument.

It is not, however, a personal attack to question whether or not a Board of Directors acted appropriately and within its bylaws to execute a purchase option on another building without the knowledge or consent of its membership. Likewise, it’s not a personal attack to question whether one individual should serve for some months as both treasurer and “chairman of the board” (a position not provided for in the VAAC bylaws) simultaneously.

Nor is it a personal attack to suggest that if the Board acted against its own bylaws, and in doing so, threatened the stability of the organization and created the appearance of extreme impropriety, that those individuals comprising that Board should step down. Conversely, this is what’s called a “logical argument.”

I think the reason for the “personal attacks” confusion might be found in the ways the two parties framed the context of their discussions. For the VAAC Board, the discussion was simply, “should we or shouldn’t we sell the Washington Street Arts Center, and should we or shouldn’t we buy this other building?”

For many members, the discussion encompassed a much wider context about whether or not the Board had been legally constituted when the purchase option was executed, whether or not it was in the Board’s authority to execute the purchase option without member consent, whether or not the Board was following the bylaws of the organization, and whether or not a good faith effort was made by the Board to contact former members not yet renewed for the current year in order to quell the rumors and “baseless accusations of hidden agenda and unauthorized activities” reported by me to that Board both here on my blog and at two meetings of the VAAC Board and membership.

It is not a personal attack to express one’s concerns about what a situation looks like, and how it might affect the organization to which one belongs. On the contrary, it is logical, and I would argue necessary (especially to avoid any legal repercussions), to explore and answer the above questions fully before proceeding to the very big question of whether or not to sell the building.


2 responses to this post.

  1. When criticizing someone (such as the board members), the line between appropriate on-topic criticism and personal attacks is very blurry. That’s why I think it is a good idea to speak in as respectful a tone as possible, so as not to accidentally cross the blurry line. I even wrote a short article about it: Ad Hominem Arguments and Personal Attacks

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on March 13, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Thanks, Scott!

    I both agree and disagree with your statement about that line being blurry.

    While I do not think it’s difficult to avoid criticism that engages in personal attacks (maybe because I am constantly critiquing essays and monitoring my language for mistakes such as “you” rather than “your essay”), I do think it is hard to be on the receiving end of criticism and not take it personally, whether or not it’s a personal attack.

    Again, as a writer, I am used to having my work critiqued, so I generally don’t take criticism personally even if it is somewhat personal.

    Personally, I think it’s fun to engage in debate, and I’m generally somewhat shocked when a personal attack is used because it seems so obviously “against the rules” of civilized discourse. Likewise, I was surprised to be accused of “personal attacks,” which is partly why I wrote the above article.

    But, I think critical thinking and debate skills are not at an all-time high in this country, so personal attacks are sadly becoming more and more common as an “easy way out” of a good debate. And an accusation of personal attacks can sometimes be a personal attack in itself.

    Thanks again for your comment and for the link!


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