Ad Hominem

First of all, I hate Twitter.  Not so much as a forum for sharing links to stories or the occasional witticism.  But as a platform for “arguing” a point of view, let’s be honest, it’s total crap.  140 characters to express a thought is nothing but a means to see which idea is the most popular, not which is the most valuable or well-reasoned.  Being a cynic, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s rare those two columns are aligned, and even less so since the dawn of social media.

The shorthand of Twitter leads even thoughtful, intelligent people to say really stupid things.  It’s where someone will complain about being the target of an ad hominem attack while committing an ad hominem attack without any hint of self-awareness or even a clear indication that the tweeter knows what an ad hominem attack is in the first place.  So, let’s clear that up.

An ad hominem attack is one that seeks to disqualify the position of a speaker or author based solely on a criticism of his or her character.  This can be as nasty as saying something like “What does she know, she’s gay?” while debating, say, education policy.  But it can also be as benign as criticizing the speaker based on his or her affiliations with work or political party, etc.  This is a major dysfunction in our politics today—the assumption that valid positions never come from sources we’ve decided are bad or that everything the “good guys” say should be accepted without question.

It is not ad hominem to criticize aspects of the way in which a speaker or author presents his or her position while also rebutting the substance of that position.  For instance, if an author writes something with which you disagree and writes it in an arrogant, offensive, or sarcastic tone, it is fair game to criticize both the style and the substance because the style is part of what’s being communicated. I give you Mr. Trump, who is usually saying something false and almost always in a manner specifically designed to offend.  Technically, criticizing Trump’s hair in context to his candidacy is an ad hominem attack, but that may be about it.

Recently, Steven Tepp, CEO of Sentinel Worldwide posted an article on Medium accusing the organization Public Knowledge of exceeding the bounds of discourse by leveling ad hominem and factually selective attacks on the US Copyright Office.  In reference to various topics, Tepp states that PK has characterized the Copyright Office as either unqualified to comment or that it has overstepped its purview.  His observation of PK would be consistent with recent posts I’ve written noting, for instance, how the EFF seeks to dismiss or misrepresent the role of the Copyright Office with regard to the FCC “set-top box” proposals or its mission to have Section 1201 struck down as unconstitutional.  Just as a matter of basic logic, if any party is stating that the Copyright Office has no business weighing in on copyright issues, this ought to trigger at least a mildly skeptical response.  If an organization funded by the pharmaceutical industry stated that the FDA was out of bounds, would you take it on face value?

But how did Public Knowledge and Mike Masnick, and no doubt many of the usual suspects, respond to Tepp’s criticism on Twitter?  By calling him a former Copyright Office employee turned MPAA lobbyist.  In other words, an ad hominem attack.  No rebuttal to the substance of what Tepp said—which is limited to statements of fact about process and the law—just a dismissal out of hand because he’s on “the wrong side.”  It doesn’t really matter what the subject is, by the way, this is how we’re steadily destroying political discourse 140 characters at a time.

In this particular case, with just a couple of tweets, non-experts declare the experts dismissible (see climate change deniers) and also reinforce the bias that Hollywood is running Washington despite the mountain of evidence that the most influential corporation throughout the entire administration is Google.  Compare the number of Google lobbyist visits (128) to the White House to the number of MPAA visits (0) and then decide if Steven Tepp’s criticism of Public Knowledge is invalid because MPAA.  Unfortunately, on social media, this form of debate is sufficient for many people.

Over the last four years, my delving into specific issues related to copyright and the digital age has made me pay closer attention to how generalized many of my own biases have been as a liberal and a Democrat.  Nearly all of the legal experts I have met—and Tepp is one of them—have been extremely thoughtful and balanced in their views, and at least half of them are political conservatives. In fact, this recent post by a new young blogger Rebecca Cusey caught my attention because she’s making what she calls a “conservative” case for copyright, but what’s interesting is that part of her argument invokes labor rights, which is a traditional Democratic party plank.

Not surprisingly, whether the issue is copyright or trade or the economy or the environment or police reform, there are still people in the center, trying to work from a qualified understanding of facts and seeking the best ideas no matter whence they come. Social media rejects this by its very nature.  It feeds on and reinforces careless, associative logic that insists everyone remain in his camp and carry the standard of whatever label has been assigned.  It’s mostly ad hominem.  That’s why I hate Twitter.

© 2016 – 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Is it ad hominen, or disrespectful to Twitter, to say that I love your character David? Thanks for everything you do to illuminate a thoughtful course forward amidst the noise.


  • “Technically, criticizing Trump’s hair in context to his candidacy is an ad hominem attack, but that may be about it.”

    Yeah but you can critize it as a side issue. “Hey Donald the position you’ve taken on X demonstrates a total ignorance on the subject because A, B, C, and BTW shit-fer-brains you really ought to do something about your hair.”

  • Not surprisingly, whether the issue is copyright or trade or the economy or the environment or police reform, there are still people in the center, trying to work from a qualified understanding of facts and seeking the best ideas no matter whence they come. Social media rejects this by its very nature.

    Isn’t there something a bit ironic in criticising ad hominem attacks while making a blatant argumentum ad temperantiam in your conclusion?

    • Ha! Yes, Sam, if you read that to mean that I am talking about compromise, or that compromise is necessarily a fallacy. Perhaps I could have put it better. I’m not really advocating a negotiation in which one assumes the best result comes from compromise. Come on, I’m an American and a cynic. How could I ever believe such twaddle? 🙂 What I’m really getting at is a general disdain for expertise that comes with disdain for all systems. And you cannot propose to address a challenge if opposing interests can’t even agree that you’re working from the same set of facts. Masnick, who knows jack shit, dismisses an expert with a tweet, and a bunch of people who know even less think, “Right!” And I say that as someone who knows jack shit himself compared to people who have actually made a career in the law. Meanwhile, what did said expert say that wasn’t true?

      • “Masnick, who knows jack shit, dismisses an expert with a tweet….”

        Isn’t that an argument ad hominem? Even assuming that you’re right that Mike Masnick doesn’t know anything about copyright, that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily wrong to dismiss someone you think is an expert. He could have been lucky.

        (Additionally I fear that you may be wandering into argumentum ad verecundiam territory here; copyright expertise doesn’t entitle anyone to respect for their pronouncements. They have to show their work, same as anyone else.)

        But in my opinion, so long as we’re discussing logical fallacies, I think your big problem is begging the question. You’re an outspoken copyright maximalist and a troll. Pretty much every time you talk about copyright you want more of it: a greater scope of protection, fewer and more limited exceptions and safe harbors, no possibility of shorter terms, every possibility of longer terms, no consideration that there should be formalities reintroduced, etc. Your posts have no underlying position other than expanding copyright toward the maximum degree possible, and where expansion is not possible, at least maintaining the status quo until perhaps expansion is possible. Anyone and anything convenient to this you support, anyone and anything that suggests that even in some limited respect copyright might be excessive now or would be excessive should some change occur, you oppose. There’s no principled argument because you have no principles.

        So before you go criticizing the mote in Twitter users’ eyes, please think first to the beam in your own.

      • Well, I think the predicate of this post is that Tepp did show his work, and the respondents couldn’t be bothered to address the facts he presented. For the record, saying that Masnick “doesn’t know shit” (and equalizing my own knowledge with his BTW) is not an ad hominem attack, but an exaggeration in a comment to make the point that he and I are both non-experts. But, by contrast, if you can find anywhere on this blog where I have dismissed an attorney or other expert outright, rather than examining and citing evidence to contradict his/her premise, I’ll write the retraction.

        It seems clear, however, from your third paragraph that you don’t read this blog, or you would know that, for instance, I do not advocate longer or perpetual copyright terms. See if you can find the post where I say “Judge Posner doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” It doesn’t exist. Even if I don’t agree with his opinion, I wouldn’t dismiss the guy out of hand. But if I do sound dismissive of the idea that the European Pirate Party has wise things to say about copyright terms, no apology will be forthcoming because such voices promote completely ignorant arguments. If you think my posts have “no underlying position,” you’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but either you don’t read, can’t read, or are so full of Google’s Kool-Aid that you’re convinced of copyright’s ill effects without evidence to support the premise. So, if you believe I’m a troll, I’ll be sorry to lose you as a reader, but thank you for sharing.

        P.S. – I had to add this: one cannot be a troll and a maximalist. A maximalist is a zealot while a troll doesn’t believe what he is saying at all.

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