Room for improvement in America’s discourse

Published 9:29 am Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The weird thing about ad hominem responses is sometimes they trigger laughter and sometimes they trigger mortal combat.

As evidenced by the fact that ad hominem Latin, there’s nothing new about it. The translation is “to the man” or, updated, “to the person.” In the rules of debate, to respond with ad hominem is to attack the speaker, not what the speaker said.

Use of ad hominem during a formal debate competition results in disqualification. Why? Because debates are about who presents the better argument. A personal attack is a flat-out dodge, a non-response.

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A comedy duo back in the day was the Smothers Brothers, Tom and his younger brother, Dick. In their act, Dick was the wise, capable and calm brother; Tom was a goof.

They would argue. Dick used fact and reason to make points; Tom would respond with nonsense. As their banter continued, Tom would sputter, becoming less and less adept at responding. His final outburst was, “Well, Mom always liked you best.” The retort had nothing to do with what Tom had said, and the humor was based on the total disconnect. The audience loved it.

Fast forward to the age of social media and the opportunity to write comments on websites. Sometimes the first and rarely the second response has something to do with what was written, but rarely are there more than three cogent replies before the name-calling (ad hominem) begins.

This trend, along with sometimes violent refusal to allow different viewpoints to be spoken, doesn’t bode well.

Every day, it seems, responses on the internet become more visceral. Every day, more childish. Responders then attack other responders. “Racist.” “Homophobe” “Snowflake.” And there’s the worst thing you can be called in Mississippi, “Liberal.”

On campuses there are loud protests if a guest speaker is presumed to be (usually) too conservative to be heard.

There are great cycles in the human experience. The blueprint for America traces directly to ancient Greece and Rome and to the philosophers and clerics who led Europe from the Dark Ages into the Age of Reason.

The Dark Ages were horrible centuries, not due only to disease and pestilence. The Dark Ages were dominated by mysticism and superstition. Reason, like Elvis, left the building for a long, long time. The practice of employing discovered and observed facts to form and underpin conclusions was nowhere to be found. Instead, nonsense prevailed. A stone would be tied to the leg of a person accused of witchcraft before she was tossed into a lake. The “thinking” was that she’d be proved as a witch if she freed herself and proved innocent … if she drowned.

John Locke was one of the thinkers in the Age of Reason. “To prejudge other men’s notions before we have looked into them is not to show their darkness but to put out our own eyes,” was something he wrote. “It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of the truth,” was another.

Perhaps it is too much to expect in an era of instant global communication that people, universally, would not go into “attack the messenger” mode any time they read or saw something at odds with their views.

Perhaps it is error to think that what’s said on the internet, especially when anonymous, reflects how most people think. Perhaps it is a place of irrationality, but there’s no escaping the fact that the leaders of the state and nation are influenced by the chatter. Network and local TV stations even feature tweets as a reflection of the public’s interests, and more and more venues reject appearances by people with whom they differ.

It shouldn’t be too much to expect people to spot the difference between a reasoned response and a shallow attack on a speaker, to measure the former and laugh at the latter. A person doesn’t have to be a braniac to spot ad hominem.

As for guest speakers and, well, conversation in general, former President Obama had some pretty good advice. When Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, warned of protests, bowed out of a commencement address at Rutgers, Obama said, “If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.”

The Dark Ages are gone and probably won’t return. Fear not. But from the highest levels of conversation to the comment section, America’s discourse could be improved.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at