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April 18, 2016

The weakest form of argument is the ad hominem; you try to vanquish your debating opponent, not by discrediting his or her argument, but by attacking the person making the argument. For example, "Don't believe what Al Gore says about global warming; he's made millions from giving talks on the subject."

Monroe Beardsley, in his classic logic textbook Thinking Straight, calls the ad hominem a "kind of emotional appeal that is very common." Although the ad hominem is a form of distraction, it can deter onlookers from accepting an opposing point of view. "It may be quite effective if it succeeds in undermining confidence in what the speaker says by saying something negative about what he is," Beardsley wrote.

A form of ad hominem argument that has made significant impact in recent decades is the "phobic" argument. Opponents of any rights or privileges for homosexuals, for example, are labelled homophobic. Their arguments - right or wrong - are not dealt with; instead, the proponents are labelled as fearful people, unable to cope with a changing society. Begged is the question of whether they ought to cope. Perhaps maladjustment to society's dysfunctions is the best approach. Instead, the issue is avoided. The implication: Don't listen to such fearful people.

Ultimately, ad hominem or "phobic" arguments are lazy. It is so much easier to slight your debating foe than to deal with their arguments. One might actually have to do substantial research and clear thinking.

Clear thinking has likely always been in short supply. Yet, there was a time when public debates on public issues were common. In such a forum, one could not get away with "arguments" that airily dismissed one's opponents. One actually had to know a substantial amount about the topic under debate.

The Internet has been a boon in many ways. However, one sad result of the rise of the Internet has been the collapse of the commons - that "place" where people with differing views could meet and discuss their differences. Today, like speaks to like, and arguments that do not fit the mould are either ignored or aggressively dismissed as "phobic."

If we as a society are to deal properly with important and controversial issues, we need a return to the commons . . . and an end to ad hominem and phobic arguments.