Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ad hominem

Owing to my immense privelege, I always am tempted to speak out of turn. I am not a highly influential straight white male, but I have the frictionless existence of one. Though I have been in many situations where I experienced outsider status, I have never really felt oppression. Not really.

Thus to empathise, to take the perspective of somebody who does experience these things is difficult, but fascinating to me. And there's the temptation upon looking at somebody who is fighting for the freedoms I take for granted, need empirical methods even to notice, to offer up some 'tips' some 'pointers' to those fighting for a privileged position.

Now since my past gajillion posts have been quote heavy (very little of my mind, originates from my mind) here's a bunch of quotes I think we can all agree that nobody agrees with:

"For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her;" ~ Niccolo Machiavelli

"And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." ~ Abraham Lincoln

"I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." ~ Winston Churchill.

I imagine your involuntary reactions to such quotations range from bemusement to throwing up in your mouth a little bit. Of the three white (and as far as I can know, straight) men's sayings your reaction may also entail an ad hominem fallacy.

Let's sidetrack a bit and come back, I promise.

Say you are freshly enrolled in a course called 'The Secrets of Wealth and Power' on day one you take your place at a desk in the lecture theatre and patiently await the arrival of the lecturer.

He enters, coughs a couple of times, taps the lecturns microphone and says 'can you hear me up the back?' puts his glasses on and decides to open with a joke (which I have lifted straight from Family Guy)

'Why did god give women breasts?' ... 'So you have something to look at while they talk.'

Do you get up and leave? The lecturer has just revealed himself as sexist, misogynistic, chauvenistic etc.

Getting up and leaving as a protest is, I should point out, perfectly rational. There is no question in this day and age that the lecturer is grossly unprofessional and almost certainly in breach of his contract and/or duty of care.

What is fallacious though, would be to conclude that he had no ability to impart the secrets of wealth and power. That within the domain of actual expertise he possessed, that listening to his views within his expertise was a highly worthwhile activity. You don't know, and depressingly, there are a lot of well resourced people in this world that share this fictitious characters misogeny.

Then enters the challenge of history - the all stars if you will. If the first quote was the featured one on the blurb of every copy of Machiavelli's 'The Prince' I suspect, but can't know that a lot less people would read it. Even without it, Machiavelli's place in most people's perceptual cages is already in a rogue's gallery of evil.

But to me, the thought that women would never read and study 'The Prince' is really depressing. It is not one of my favorite texts, but it does stand the test of time, exposure to the ideas it contains and the mode of amoral-consequential thinking Niccolo employs is I think important. And if it's only read by straight white guys like Machiavelli himself and Tupak, men will retain a tremendous political advantage over women in the aggregate.

The Prince is not a 'secret' text, but in effect because of the author's identification with an in-group, and subsequent treatment of outgroups in his language of metaphor, it becomes one if the out-group cannot read it without feeling revulsion and the in-group can read it and not feel any personal attack.

An emotional cipher if you will.

The Lincoln quote is one of my favorites of his, only because it so brilliantly highlights the 'ad hominem' in its regretability. In the context of someone like Lincoln, to me the greatest leader in history, saying this one is tempted to make excuses for him. Decontextualising the quote may make it appear worse than it is as well, but still it reveals one way or another something distasteful about the man.

Yet the rest of what Lincoln has said and written is pretty much the finest stuff ever said and written. To me it's so clearly wrong to strike Lincoln out because of this statement, this is the man who ended not just a civil war but the practice of slavery in the the United States of America.

Winston to me is the most ambiguous, I know little about him. My general feeling is that he was the leader that happened to go up against Hitler, as did FDR and Stalin. But knowing little about his merits it is hard for me to make an argument as to what is lost by dismissing him on an ad-hominem basis.

It is important to remember that distasteful actions can't be dismissed either. The flaws in a person's character are part of the whole package. The fallacy in ad-hominem is to say that a person's flaws invalidate their merits.

I was reminded of this by a crappy video I watched. It was about Queer's breaking up with the political parties (in Australia) that claim to speak for them. LGBTI(Q?)* issues are real and present issues, progress is only progress not mission accomplished. But this video I interpreted as a parade of Ad hominem. My interpretation was that the video called for queers to disengage from the political process, if by default. It pointed to Marriage Equality, Sex Party and the Greens all making at least one compromise in policy or endorsement.

Here, my perspective and 'the' Queer perspective (I guess, I noted the hypocrisy of a video claiming to speak for all queers, panning parties it claimed, claimed to speak for all queers) differs.

To me the Greens believe in a whole heap of garbage, but I still prefer to vote for them because on crucial fronts they believe in much less garbage than the major two parties. More so with the Sex Party, and Marriage Equality probably sounds sufficiently specialised to be of only marginally more interest to me than parties whose primary focus is on Duck Hunting and freeway speed limits. My point being, there is a whole spectrum of political parties for a white man like myself to choose from based on who has the greatest concentrated competence to run shit, or failing that the least potential for lasting damage.

Ad hominem is in effect a negative screening process. Whereby you have a criteria for elimination, which the video suggested they use - do one thing we don't like and you are gone. Deal breakers certainly exist, but if I were to adopt a negative screening process I would try to limit the criterion down to what I truly can't live with - genocide, mass deportation, apartheid, imperialism, jingoism etc.

But say every single political party supported the genocide of any permanent residency holding citizens of Sweden and Switzerland. Do I disengage? No, I would be heartbroken, but that is where I would switch to a positive screening process. My vote would be based on the presence of merit.

A positive screening process looks for the presence of things you like.

I've strayed a bit far from ad hominem, and when I think about it, Nietzsche wrote a much better and more succinct bit on this in 'The Genealogy of Morals' the lambs mentioned below I imagine set up a moralistic ad hominem based on screening negatively for the distress caused by the birds of prey, their oppressors:

That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey. And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?”

*The video I saw was read by a computer voice, which is to say de-identified and depersonalised. It nagged at me in a possible application of the ad hominem fallacy that this video was claiming to speak for an entire in-group that I feel has no actual true unified voice (nor should it) furthermore based on the closing essay/afterword of Genderqueer, I have been persuaded that Queer issues are human rights issues. That I don't feel the consequences of the limits currently in place on my freedom of expression are coincidental, they exist though. 

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