Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Ad Hominem

An Ad Hominem is a fallacy in which one tries to win an argument by attacking the character of one's opponent. There are many sub-varieties of Ad Hominem depending on the nature of the personal attack. In a recent back and forth between Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi and Felix Salmon from Reuters concerning a proposal to privatize street parking in New York City, we can see a nice example of an Abusive Ad Hominem, which is a direct attack on the character of one's opponent.

In Taibbi's initial piece he objects to the idea of politicians leasing a public asset for decades into the future in order to secure a short-term revenue gain today. As Taibbi puts it,
These deals involve a sitting executive selling off a valuable piece of city property at a steep discount to private financial interests (often, to friends or campaign contributors), in order to solve a current cash flow problem that, surprise, surprise, will still be there the year after you finish spending the proceeds of your sale.
Salmon then responds by misrepresenting Taibbi's position as being a concern about rising parking rates (an example of both the straw man and red herring),
Which brings me to Matt Taibbi’s latest tirade, complaining about the idea that New York could raise as much as $11 billion by selling off its parking-meter rights. Anybody who wins this contract will have a contractual obligation to implement smart variable-pricing technologies, which will have to include apps showing where the spots are, the ability to pay by phone, and other ways of making everybody’s life easier. How is this not a good thing? Well, Taibbi’s upset that prices will rise:
Meter rates in some New York neighborhoods are already at $5 an hour. A Chicago-style price hike for fat-cat investors might leave us paying thirty bucks an hour to oil barons in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in order to park for dinner in the West Village.
Though I suggests that Salmon is committing a fallacy in this misrepresentation, it may also be the case that Salmon is simply guilty of not employing the principle of charity and giving the strongest possible interpretation of Taibbi's article. Alternatively, he may just not be reading carefully. In any case Salmon concludes his response by committing an abusive Ad Hominem,
But even if Matt were somehow deserving of such a subsidy, which he isn’t, it’s a false economy: it might feel good to be able park for cheap, but it feels much worse to be stuck in traffic all the time. And the overwhelming majority of West Village diners manage to find a way of eating there which doesn’t involve a parking spot. Why should they subsidize Matt’s parasitical suburban lifestyle?  [emphasis mine]
 Aside from the misrepresentation of Taibbi's position, the Ad Hominem should be clear. Why does it matter where Taibbi lives? If he has a good argument, the location of his home or the kind of life he chooses to live is completely irrelevant to the points he makes. For Salmon to raise this issue and go even further by calling Taibbi a parasite is a classic example of the Ad Hominem. It is also worth noting how Salmon switches from using Matt Taibbi's last name when he is discussing the argument to using his first name when he levels the Ad Hominem. The use of an opponent's first name is a subtle though effective attempt to infantilize one's opponent in an attempt to make their arguments look child-like and immature, further strengthening the general tone of the Ad Hominem attack.

As a final note, Taibbi responds to Salmon here.

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