…and why you shouldn’t:
I think Hannah Arendt said that one of the great achievements of Stalinism was to replace all discussion involving arguments and evidence with the question of motive – Christopher Hitchens
You’ve all read something like this, or heard something like this, I am sure. Something like…
– Oh, you’re only talking about the oppression of women under Islam because you’re a wayycist! (Pope Myers)
– Oh, you’re only talking about how environmental policies immiserate the poor because you’re being paid off by the Koch Brothers! (David Appel)
– Oh, you are only concerned about the ninety-two Sobibors because you want to control women’s bodies! (certain comentators here)
– Oh, Mandela only opposed apartheid because he was a filthy commie! (certain lice you can find in WND and similar outlets; excellent response here).
This stuff is a kind of mental crack. It gives a quick high, makes the user aggressive and pointless to deal with, and is ultimately completely toxic.
So, here is why you should leave that stuff well alone.
Motives do not affect the correctness of the argument
Suppose Person A makes an argument for the distribution of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa, and though he says his motive is to counteract the spread of AIDS, his real motive is a fear of too high birthrates among black Africans. How does his motive affect the effectiveness or otherwise of such a program when it comes to combatting AIDS?
You cannot always be sure what the motive is
Take the above scenario, and assume Person A makes it to Person B who believes A is sincere and so goes on to make the argument himself. I present the argument to you, and I don’t tell you from whom I have received it. How can you possibly tell?
Having a stake in an issue cuts both ways
The ad hominem argument isn’t completely invalid. If someone has spent ten years working in the field of climate science; chances are, he is more knowledgeable than the man in the street. However, no such truth applies to having a stake in an argument. We should try to see where someone is coming from, sure, but that does not make them more likely to be correct. The principle negative effects of global warming will be on the equatorial peoples; it does not follow that they have better climate science than the northern ones.
Similarly, I’ve been informed that no man should discuss abortion because he does not have the same stake in it as a woman does (this is a variant of the ‘check your privilege’ meme). One could just as easily say that no woman should discuss abortion because her stake in the matter makes it less likely that she will objectively analyse it.
Which of these arguments is right? Neither. Both. Who cares?
It makes you stupid, because being wicked isn’t the same thing as being wrong
No matter how rancid a person is, it is unlikely that he is 100% wrong about everything, and it is worth noting the things he does get right. You think you could learn nothing from Holocaust deniers? Well, Raul Hilberg, who wrote the seminal study on the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews would disagree, and says he’s used stuff from neo-Nazi publishing houses. Similarly, it was David Irving who showed that Oswald Mosley was receiving direct payment from the offices of Goebbels, and dug up a great deal of information on Churchill that is both factually accurate and not in most histories.
Would it surprise you to learn that there was an author who accurately predicted the rise of Japan and its war with America, and that the Wahabis would emerge as a major menace – way back in 1920? Well, that man was Lothrop Stoddard, as poisonous a racist as you might like, but it was precisely because he was a poisonous racist that he was able to intuit that well. Orwell wrote, at a time when polite society was blase about the rise of fascism, that the only people who understood the fascist menace were those who had felt its lash on their own skins, or those who had a touch of the fascist mindset themselves. It is precisely because Stoddard was so obsessed with race and blood and destiny that he understood the effects those ideas would have in others.
Argue like this, and you are going to lose
Take a look at the guy at the top of this post. Where is he now, where’s the system he defended? Who reads his lies now? But people still read Solzhenitsyn and even under the absolute rule of Communism, everyone understood that the system and its pronouncements were lies.
When Nelson Mandela was banged up in Robben Island he managed to convince even some of the hardened racists they sent to guard the place, simply by being rational and explaining themselves as best as possible. There were laws against printing Mandela’s name, and everyone in the country knew who he was, and in the first free election, Mandela got the clear majority of the white vote.
When you decline to argue a point, you leave the bad bits of your opponents case supported by the good bits of your opponents arguments. So he will make converts, and you will not.
Let me note that the two examples are some scary customers. You, my dear practitioner of this method, are a guy with a blog, if that. You don’t have a secret police, you don’t have armies, you don’t have a state, you probably can’t even get someone fired. You are going to lose. Those of us who keep our rational-argument-fu in good shape will not just beat you, though we will, not just break you, though we will, we will completely annihilate you, to the point where your views are no longer read or reviewed by anyone outside of the dustiest corners of the historical profession.
After all, we’ve already seen off this guy:
What chance do you have?