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Ad hominem attacks go for the jugular instead of the facts

I’ve never seen you in church. Why would I believe you when you say you’re a Christian?

If you think those two statements don’t quite follow, you’re right. This is an example of a logical fallacy known as an ad hominem attack. The Latin phrase (“to the person”) is used to describe an attack on the character, motives or other attributes of a person making an argument, rather than on the argument itself.

It’s easy to be knocked off balance by an ad hominem attack, but don’t be. An observation raised about you or your choices means that the other person is, simply put, changing the subject.

Just as you can, unfortunately, criticize people in many different ways, you can divide ad hominem attacks into several categories. Here’s an overview of some types of ad hominem arguments, with examples from An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments:

  • Abusive ad hominem attacks address the person and not the idea: You’re not a historian; why don’t you stick to your own field.
  • Circumstantial attacks change the subject by saying that the person holds that opinion only because it will help them in some way: You don’t really care about lowering crime in the city, you just want people to vote for you.
  • Tu quoque, in Latin, means “you too”: John says: “This man is wrong because he has no integrity; just ask him why he was fired from his last job.” To which Jack replies: “How about we talk about the fat bonus you took home last year despite half your company being downsized.” Irrelevant charges of hypocrisy fit here as well (“You’re overweight, so you can’t argue that everyone should exercise”).

When someone makes an ad hominem attack, don’t take the bait by taking it personally! Turn the argument back to its relevant points.