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Argumentum ad hominem

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Definition: Attempting to undermine a speaker’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument.

Examples from several sources:

This sheila has no brains, why do you keep trying to put anything in there? This author is: ignorant, hysterical, self-aggrandizing, stupid.

This author is: a bleeding heart, lying again, cowardly, unscholarly, brainless. This author is: emotional, and an "armchair academic with no experience in the real world.”


And my most recent personal favourite: "you can’t be a blonde and have a PhD!"

There are certain topics guaranteed to evoke an ad hominem response. They inevitably awaken atavistic rage in sections of the readership. Refugees, immigration, gay marriage and climate change are among them. Anybody who writes on these issues knows to expect a personal flaying, regardless of their perspective, because addressing these topics is rather like volunteering to engage in a bout of blood sport, with the author as the fair game.

This happens across the Internet, it isn’t peculiar to On Line Opinion. It’s a global sport: trash the author (not the article) and feel superior as your reward.

There’s a cultural expectation that if you publish on inflammatory topics then you’d better be tough enough to cop the ensuing abuse. If you object to that abuse, you’ll be jeered at as “sensitive” or “precious,” thus adding a bit more ad hominem argument into the mix.

If you attempt to withdraw from what has become an entirely unproductive and abrasive exchange, you’ll be told you haven’t got an argument and they all knew that anyway; you haven’t got the bottle to accept “criticism” (read personal abuse), or you haven’t got a solution to the issues you raised so what did you raise them for?

This last accusation is interesting. It reveals that some readers have an expectation that anyone who expresses an opinion on any problem in the entire world, also must have the solution, and is a snivelling armchair tosser if they don’t. The concept of expressing and considering a diverse range of opinions, as part of the process of the birth of fresh ideas, (the purpose of OLO, for example) is entirely lost on many readers.


Pulling out of the argument apparently signifies that you’ve been trounced, and you should now be crawling back into the hole from which you so stupidly stuck up your (blonde) head in the first place, and where you really should stay from now on, tending your injuries.

Deconstructing these attitudes reveals that for many readers (almost always the anonymous ones) the value or otherwise of an opinion is often based on a set of personal characteristics they consider the author ought to possess before she or he has earned the right to publish. These must include the author having the ability to solve whatever problem she or he has raised; the ability and the desire to return insult for insult; the ability to withstand any amount of character assassination, and the stamina (not to mention the time) to continue to respond to any number of posts from any number of posters over any number of days, until the author finally spits the dummy or clears off without saying goodbye.

Either of which will inspire even more ad hominem attacks.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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