OPINION: It’s not debatable, ad hominem attacks destroy constructive conversation


Claire Redinger

Trump and Biden’s engagement of ad hominem attacks during the first presidential debate was distracting, disruptive and disappointing. Photo courtesy of AP.

There are two things I know with certainty: One, I am not the only American who was profoundly disappointed, but not surprised, by the first presidential debate. Two, I am not the only UNO student who has taken English Comp. II.

As I watched the debate—well, as I had the debate playing in the background while I tweeted and announced my presidential campaign on Snapchat—I recalled writing a seven-page rhetorical analysis for my English class during my sophomore year of college, (hello, Professor Seitzer). Throughout the semester, I learned how to write a paper, yes, but I also learned how to construct an argument. And I don’t mean argument as in yelling, eye-rolling and fighting on a national stage … because you both want to be president. I mean argument as an art form. I’m talkin’ rhetoric, baby.

In an article for The Conversation, Anthony Arrigo, an associate professor of rhetoric and communication at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, defines rhetoric as “the practice and study of persuasive communication.” I learned a similar, albeit more complex, definition when I took Communication Research Methods last year (hello, Dr. Gent).

Rhetoric can be traced back to ancient Greece, where Aristotle spent a lot of time studying what makes messages persuasive and how to create those messages. “To Aristotle, there were three main elements that all work together to create a persuasive message: a person’s use of logic and reasoning, their credibility and their use of emotional appeals,” writes Arrigo.

These rhetorical elements – logos, ethos, pathos (and kairos, which is timeliness) – have been studied, put into practice and passed down for hundreds and hundreds of years. Logos creates strong, well-informed, undeniable points that stimulate the listener’s mind. Ethos requires the persuader to speak and act like someone who deserves respect and to be someone who knows something, at least from the listener’s perspective. Pathos puts the listener in touch with their heart and appeals to their humanity. Kairos assures the listener that what the persuader is saying matters, and it matters now.

When they come together, these elements form air-tight arguments. They persuade as intended because the listener understands the argument, respects how it is being presented, deeply cares for the cause and has a sense of urgency. Expert rhetoricians use form, method and the rhetorical devices studied by Aristotle—weaving everything together so tightly that the listener can’t find a single hole.

But, the world is filled with less-than-perfect rhetoricians, and the 2020 presidential race reflects this reality. There were appeals made from both President Trump and Joe Biden. Rhetoric was present. It simply took a backseat to the logical fallacy that is ruining our democracy, our friendships and our ability to construct arguments: ad hominem attacks.

Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person,” meaning it is an attack on a person’s character, personality or other attributes. In short, it’s a distraction. Using this method makes the argument all about the person and not at all about what they’re saying. Examples include, “There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,”  from President Trump and “The fact is this man has no idea what he’s talking about,” from Joe Biden.

Both of these quotes illustrate the emptiness that ad hominem attacks bring to an argument. They’re messages that communicate nothing, and probably did not persuade undecided voters. And these attacks far outweighed any data or facts shared during the 90 minute debate.

Claims need context, and arguments need rhetorical devices. Calling each other names and fighting in front of the entire nation and Chris Wallace is, simply, not a debate.

So, what can we take away from that fateful Tuesday night fiasco? We can do better.

Most of us will never use rhetoric to convince a country to vote for us (even if our tweets and Snapchat stories say differently.) But, at some point or another, each of us will engage in an argument. We’ll be approached by family members, friends, classmates, professors or strangers who disagree with us. Sometimes they’ll disagree loudly, sometimes passively. Sometimes it will be face-to-face, while other times it will be on the timeline or over the phone. But it will happen.

When I scroll through Twitter these days or even chat with classmates, I am often quickly exhausted by the conversation. There are so many people saying so very little in the world today. Attacking a person’s appearance, their career, their religion or their intelligence does not “advance the cause” like many think it does. Saying “you’re a Nazi-loving white supremacist” or “you’re an evil, baby-killing liberal,” (I’ve read both), without grounding these claims with any semblance of logic rarely helps, and it always harms.

At the end of the day, ad hominem attacks just create more noise.

So, for Aristotle’s sake, when we engage in argument, let it be as an art and not as an empty attack. Let’s challenge our leaders to follow the example of the people they want to lead. And – because democracy relies on it – let’s all take Comp II.