On the Necessity of Incivility

Jamie Aroosi argues for the urgent necessity of ad hominem arguments.

We live in vulgar times. A host of vile beliefs, from white supremacism to overt misogyny, have reemerged from the dustbin of history and into mainstream political discourse. Powerful interests continue to manufacture popular constituencies for these beliefs through lobbyists and partisan media outlets. Consequently, the public sphere has come to seem like a free-for-all in which money and power reigns while logic and reason retreats. And of all the largely ineffectual responses to this new reality, the most ubiquitous has been the call for a return to civility. However, I would like to suggest that a certain type of incivility, the incivility of ad hominem argument, is both a necessary and an appropriate rhetorical tool for these times. And for any time.

Ad hominem arguments attempt to undermine beliefs by attacking the believer’s character or motive rather than the belief’s content. These sorts of arguments face two criticisms. The first is that their personal nature undermines good faith discussion. The second and more serious criticism is that they seem to sidestep the actual issue, which is whether the belief in question is true. As a consequence, demonstrating that someone is making such an argument all but ensures its dismissal.

Politically, ad hominem arguments also fly in the face of conventional wisdom about public discourse. For instance, liberal democracy is widely believed to rely on vigorous and free public debate. In a democracy, no single person, such as a king, can claim to have a monopoly on the truth. Instead, we generally believe that the truth emerges as a consequence of spirited public debate because only truthful ideas will be able to withstand scrutiny. And we find this belief enshrined in documents like the Bill of Rights and James Madison’s Federalist #10 and #51, which were themselves indebted to works of liberal political philosophy like John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. They seem to suggest that we can and should criticise the beliefs of our opponents but that we should stop short of criticising our opponents themselves. As Thomas Jefferson pronounced about his critics: “let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

However, this liberal doctrine rests on an underlying premise—that people hold their beliefs in good faith. If this was the case, and we were to demonstrate that our opponents’ beliefs were false, their good faith would require that they change their mind. And the same would be true for us. In such a world, reason would triumph and democracy would be served. But this premise is not only wrong – it’s dangerous.

We hold many of our deepest beliefs not because of their truth content but because we want to believe them. Science denialism is a good case in point, as no amount of evidence and argumentation is sufficient to sway a flat-earther or anti-vaxxer. But this is similarly true of more explicitly political beliefs, such as white supremacy and misogyny, which are equally unsupportable and yet even more mainstream. And if these past few years have proven anything, they would seem to have proven that our own belief in rational debate might be flawed, because having our ideas disproven has rarely been enough to get us to change our minds. How could it, after all, if the reason for our belief is an underlying desire or motive? Ad hominem argument, in its insistence on attacking the motive behind a belief rather than its explicit content, is the only tool that can help us see this truth.

To better understand the problem, it helps to take a long view. For many proponents of the liberal position, the story of Western thought is the story of how reason slowly emerged over time, until finally becoming the principle of public life. Beginning with Socrates’s many arguments in the Athenian agora and ending with the enshrinement of rational debate as a principle of democracy, the liberal notion of public discourse is seen as the natural culmination of the Western project. In other words, what Socrates died for is now protected in our First Amendment.

But in championing Socratic debate as a political tool we often forget that Socrates was a failure! As even a cursory glance at his dialogues reveals, his arguments often ended in the same way. Despite disproving his interlocutors, they rarely changed their minds. So, if we’re looking for a tool of political progress, the liberal notion of debate hardly seems to be it.

In fact, if we look more closely at the Socratic dialogues, we don’t see evidence supporting the efficacy of rational debate, but evidence supporting the need for ad hominem attacks. For instance, in one of the classic examples, Socrates debates a religious expert named Euthyphro about the meaning of piety. For Euthyphro, “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” However, as Socrates helps reveal, without direct access to the gods, it’s unclear how laypeople might determine what actions are dear to the gods. Consequently, this formula seems little more than a justification for obedience to religious authorities—of which Euthyphro, not coincidentally, happens to be one. Euthyphro’s beliefs are self-serving, justifying his own position in Athenian society, so that it should be little wonder when Euthyphro unselfconsciously claims that “the pious is to do what I am doing now.” And so, it is also unsurprising when the repeated refutations of his position do little to change Euthyphro’s mind. He does not believe his beliefs because they are true, but because he wants to believe them.

The more things change! We rarely admit, either to ourselves or to others, when we hold our beliefs for self-serving reasons. Yet, despite the fact that many Socratic dialogues end in the same way—with Socrates’s interlocutors disproven but stubbornly refusing to change their positions—Socrates himself never resorted to the type of ad hominem attack that would connect their stubbornness to an underlying motive. Without a confession, there always remained a shadow of doubt, because what we say and do exists in the observable objective world while our desires and motives exist within the hiddenness of our subjectivity. And Socrates famously refused to assent to anything that couldn’t be definitively proven as true, even if in works like the Apology he confesses that this scenario is more than likely true. However, if Socrates never felt comfortable making these claims about unjust desires and the beliefs to which they lead, his disciple Plato did.

In Books 8 and 9 of the Republic, Plato develops an elaborate political theory that describes the relationship between our desires and our political beliefs — between “the city and the soul.” As with Euthyphro, Plato argues that our desires determine our beliefs: people who devote themselves to commercial life come to believe that money is the highest value, those dedicated to warfare believe that it’s honor, while those dedicated to philosophy believe the highest value is the truth. When individuals from these groups acquire political power, their personal values become political values because they refashion the city in their own image.

For the city that believes in the truth, rational debate might be sufficient, but for everyone else, the truth of their beliefs does not reside in their explicit content but in the underlying desire that led to them. Consequently, Plato didn’t dramatise the path to the truth as entailing rational deliberation, but rather as one in which we are unwillingly dragged from a cave out into the sun. So, if Socrates avoided making ad hominem arguments even as he exposed the hidden motivations of his interlocutors, Plato developed a philosophy by which we could.

Plato’s advance is not only a philosophical one, but also marks an important transition from a private to a public approach to the truth. For instance, in the Apology, Socrates recounts how he had avoided a public life in favor of a private one. A desire for truth makes you many enemies, and Socrates thought he could better serve Athens if these enemies saw him as a personal rather than a political threat. However, witnessing the injustice of his mentor’s execution, Plato came to realise the insufficiency of a purely private approach to truth, as it allowed injustices to occur that we might otherwise prevent. So, when Plato’s Philosopher Kings return from the sun back into the cave, they don’t engage in the type of debate for which Socrates was known, because they knew how this story would end—they would be ineffective at best, physically killed at worst. Instead, their tactics were political. Armed with Plato’s philosophy, they identified the hidden motivations that guided belief, so that they could engage their opponents according to their desires rather than the veils under which those desires hid, thereby “turning” their souls towards the truth.

In American politics, we’re long past the point where we should give up on the illusion of a public sphere defined by rational argument. As Socrates helped demonstrate, this isn’t a political position but a private one. Rather than establishing a culture of civility, we’re merely abdicating our role in politics and allowing our opponents the unobstructed satisfaction of their desires. But as Plato knew, if we stop arguing with those who stubbornly adhere to false beliefs, we might identify the motive behind their intransigence, so that we can deal with this motive as the political problem that it is. These people might come around eventually, but the future shouldn’t depend on them.

That is to say, the sooner we embrace ad hominem argument the better. Rather than being undermined by it, the truth depends on it.

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Jamie Aroosi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College and the author of The Dialectical Self: Kierkegaard, Marx, and the Making of the Modern Subject (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). He is currently writing a book on ad hominem argument.