“Argumentum ad hominem’ is what we called this back in the days when I was on the debating team in prep school. I was interested because it was supposed to be something that the more academic kids like me did instead of sports — where I consistently had shown prize-winning ineptitude for many years.
Besides, it was something you could do with (?against?) boys prep schools. Even in choral singing, the lowest of the altos were the only ones who actually got to stand next to boys. Here, on the debating team, there was at least an equal number of boys and girls, and everyone got to talk to a real live boy.
The sheer emotional excitement of that time causes me to digress.
Besides “Argumentum ad hominem” literally means “argument to the man.”
What it really means is attacking the person who has said something instead of attacking the argument itself. It has become the rule and not the exception in politics. An example would be when Al Franken calls Rush Limbaugh a “big fat idiot” instead of pointing out that not everyone collecting welfare payments is a teen-aged single mother addicted to crack.
Now that cell phones and cameras and microphones are public and private playthings, and “dirty” fighting is the rule and not the exception there have been numerous cases where formerly private conversations and opinions have become public. Politicians and celebrities (Hello, Mel Gibson) have discovered that conversations which may have been meant to be private and unwitnessed — and we all have conversations like that sometimes — become the 11:00 news and the tabloid headlines.
Thus it has always been. As an old-timer, I recall James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan sheepishly resigning his office after telling an audience at some official convention about affirmative action at work on one of his committees: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”
There were other, earlier incautious outbursts from many others — so it’s no surprise when it happens again today.
Okay, someone called Meg Whitman — the lady who would-be governor of California — a “whore.”
So? Aren’t we all?
Not to be outdone, I was once called a “whore” — a “research whore,” to be more exact. I was on the faculty of a university and trying very hard to do a little research that was publishable, so somebody would have some tangible proof that I could do the things I said I could. I was willing to do a lot, give unrelated favors if necessary, to get the opportunity to publish a little paper which would probably count as a few points toward that elusive holy grail of professorial “tenure.” ”Tenure,” as far as I could figure, was a state in which someone could never, ever be fired, even if they had reached end-stage senile dementia. I certainly did not plan to be a professor at that university for very long at all, and I had essentially no idea what a “research whore” was.
The idea of “whore” made sense. In university politics as in real world politics, everything seemed to have been done “under the table,” as a result of covert threats of things that would not come to pass, some kind of sub rosa blackmail.
It has since occurred to me that all of politics seems to have been transacted in something like this way. Why not — most business has some version of quid pro quo. Recently the news reported an agreement between a large accounting firm and a bank. It turns out the accountants cooked the books, which helped the bank’s poor stock ratings in exchange for promise of more bank business.
I guess people all have prices. It seems to make sense.
George Bernard Shaw reportedly had this conversation: Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?
Actress: My goodness, Well, I’d certainly think about it.
Shaw: Would you sleep with me for a pound?
Actress: Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?!
Shaw: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are only haggling about the price. (I’ve also seen this quote attributed to Winston Churchill. It’s believable if you know anything about either of them, but probably just a tall tale.)
But the problem with situations such as Ms. Whitman’s is more like schoolyard bullying. People vote for a candidate, not their arguments. So candidates that can make the other candidate seem worthless – well they seem to win.
And nothing works faster than calling a name. Labels, which we decry in other phases of our lives, are convenient and effective if you want to down the other person.
Maybe we are all whores, but just with different prices.
I remember when being mistaken for a whore was an honor. It meant you were worth paying for. I remember the night of the Beaux-arts ball in Paris, when I was out on the town with a woman university professor and a Nobel Prize candidate who was married to a prominent man.
We dressed quite glamorously for the occasion, and as we left the ball late in the evening — two unescorted ladies strolling along the boulevard — the gendarmes detained us.
They didn’t seem convinced at the explanation that Madame was a professor of histology at the local university, and young Mademoiselle was a neurosurgical student.
They said the French equivalent of, “Sure, lady. That’s what all the prostitutes say.”
At least they did not haul us to the jail. Instead, my mentor insisted they take her home and verify our identities with her husband. Of course, Monsieur was not amused to be awakened at such an hour, but he was a well known Professor himself (and actually won the Nobel Prize for medicine a few years later), and his words, as much as his wrath, seemed to mollify the Sûreté. The officials left with a warning that he should never have let two such glamorous women go out alone.
So now you know my sordid past.
What student bullied in the schoolyard has not heard from his or her parents that the only possible response to name-calling is the age-old chant — “Sticks and Stones can Break my Bones but Words can Never hurt me.”
We know that is not quite true. Words can cause trauma as readily as gunfire or being pursued by a wild grizzly bear. Insults cause an awful lot of psychopathology. But many of us really are sturdy enough to bounce back.
The question, really, is what is taken as truth.
I do not think we are the intelligent and educated public that Thomas
Jefferson wanted us to be. Sometimes, we are simple minded enough to think name-calling reveals truth.
This is about as simple minded as it is possible to be.