Arguments and Ad Hominem Online

by Joseph Shieber

Yes, Dowd is such a hack! How can anyone still read her?!

One of the aspects of contemporary intellectual life that I find baffling is the extent to which online culture revels in ad hominem attacks. By this I don’t only mean the way in which someone who offers up an argument is “called out” for some personal transgression of theirs that is utterly unrelated to the argument they’re presenting. I also mean the way in which the mere names of long-serving opinion writers can serve as a short-hand for a type of writing or position reviled by a certain internet subcommunity. (In a recent post at Three-Toed Sloth, Cosma Shalizi suggests that these aspects are endemic to literary life more generally; I should drop the qualifier “online”.)

So, for example, you might read that “pundit types … seem to forget that [Matt] Yglesias rose to the top of the blogosphere based on being from Harvard and being early in the game and that’s it. Nearly two decades later and it’s just bullshit all the way down.” Or that “[Thomas] Friedman’s true peak of influence was in the late 90s through the 00s, when he combined random fake conversations with taxi drivers, Friedman Unit facile discussions of the Iraq War, and paeans to globalization as our savior that routinely made fun of the anti-globalization movement as hopeless Luddites who wanted to hold the world back.”

(I chose these examples from the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog – a blog I greatly admire! – but I could no doubt just as easily have found similar snark on right-leaning blogs about, say, Robert Reich or Paul Krugman.)

In one sense, of course, such snark isn’t baffling at all. It’s fun to read! Also, Yglesias and Friedman are both enormously successful and enjoy outsized public platforms, something that’s likely to engender at least a smidgen of jealousy from academics and others who rarely achieve those rarified levels of public prominence.

What puzzles me is that, if the goal of a discussion is intellectual engagement with an idea or argument, then such ad hominem broadsides are at best a distraction – and at worst positively obstructive to appreciating whatever might be gained from considering that idea or argument.

Of course there are lazy thinkers, bad writers, trivial ideas and bad arguments on the internet! It’s certainly also true that some public intellectuals don’t deserve the prominence that they’ve been accorded on the contemporary scene.

Here, though, the core of my problem. Take pundit X – perhaps some pundit whose work you generally revile as being sophomoric. Either the particular argument X is advancing now is worth discussing or it isn’t. 

If the argument isn’t worth discussing, DON’T DISCUSS IT! If others are discussing it, either leave them to it, or demonstrate to them why they shouldn’t waste time discussing the argument. (And note that such a demonstration can’t consist of snark about X; you need to explain why this particular ARGUMENT is one that isn’t worth discussing.)

Suppose, however, that the argument IS worth discussing. If it is, then surely that discussion would have to do with whatever reasoning and evidence is internal to the argument itself. Again, in this case, such a discussion wouldn’t profit from snark about pundit X!

I’ve made a related point before, in the context of discussing why it is that certain strands of the analytic philosophical tradition foreground discussions of arguments, sometimes to the exclusion of considerations of the particularities of the proponents of those arguments. Even if Schmidt, rather than Gödel, was the originator of the incompleteness theorems, surely it’s ultimately the theorems themselves that are of interest.

This is the point of distinguishing, in philosophy of science, between the CONTEXT OF DISCOVERY and the CONTEXT OF JUSTIFICATION. 

The context of discovery concerns the specific, contingent process that lead to the discovery of a certain scientific idea, process, or theory. Alexander Fleming leaves his lab bench messy before rushing off for vacation in Scotland. Kekulé dreams of a snake eating its own tail. There is no logic to the context of discovery!

The context of justification, on the other hand, consists SOLELY of logic and evidence. The ideal of the context of justification is that the argument provided in this context is one that could be reproduced by anyone – and one that would always lead inexorably to the same result.

In his lecture, “What is an Author,” Foucault does a good job of describing what is, in effect, the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. Foucault attributes this distinction to one of four functions of authorship – that an author’s voice can stand for different functional roles in different contexts – sometimes even within the same work:

“In a mathematical treatise, the ego who indicates the circumstances of composition in the preface is not identical, either in terms of his position or his function, to the ‘I’ who concludes a demonstration within the body of the text. The former implies a unique individual who, at a given time and place, succeeded in completing a project, whereas the latter indicates an instance and plan of demonstration that anyone could perform provided the same set of axioms, preliminary operations, and an identical set of symbols were used.” (Foucault, “What is an Author?”, trans. Bouchard and Simon, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 130)

What the distinction between context of discovery and context of justification suggests is that, to the extent that what we care about is a particular argument, idea, or process, then the contingent histories or personality quirks that happened to give rise to that argument, idea, or process are actually irrelevant to our discussion of the argument as an argument. What we care about, in such cases, should be whether it really is TRUE that the argument constitutes “an instance and plan of demonstration that anyone could perform provided the same set of axioms, preliminary operations, and an identical set of symbols were used.”

So far, I’ve discussed the second sort of ad hominem strategy in online discussions: dismissing an argument because of a caricature of the author of that argument. What brought me to a consideration of this second sort of strategy, however, was actually my interest in the prevalence of the first ad hominem strategy: “call out” culture.

After I’d begun writing this post, I saw Liam Kofi Bright’s “A Brief But Angry Post,” which deals with related themes. Kofi Bright’s target in that post is an inconsistency that I’ve also recognized: many of the people who engage in merciless public shaming online are the same people who oppose punitive measures in the sphere of criminal justice.

My target here, however, is a different one. If my criticism of the second ad hominem strategy is correct, then that has implications for the first strategy of “call out” culture as well. To the extent that certain arguments are worth considering, they are worth considering even if the person advancing those arguments has done something worthy of being “called out”.

In other words, my reason for objecting to “call out” culture is a different one than the one that Kofi Bright targets. Whereas Kofi Bright sees “call out” culture as inconsistent with ideals of “redemption and reconciliation,” and a source of potential harm to those being called out, my point is the Millian one that “call out” culture hurts the very people who engage in those practices, by blinding them to potentially worthwhile arguments, ideas, or processes.