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.