I wound up in an e-mail exchange with Bill Marx last night in which he called me "the master of ad hominem." I was struck by this because it's a slur that's been bouncing around the web about me; Isaac Butler said much the same thing here [correction - the term actually appears in the comments to, rather than the main body of, that post] and J. Holtham has tossed the claim around, as have other bloggers.
But one can only assume from this that Bill Marx, et. al., don't understand the meaning of "ad hominem." So in the spirit of education, I thought I'd run a post about the term.
An ad hominem argument (meaning "argument against the man") is defined as something like this:
Person 1 has made claim X.
There is something objectionable about Person 1.
Therefore claim X is false.
A good example would be:
Bill Marx claims that the Huntington Theatre should have done a play other than All My Sons.
Bill Marx is pudgy and unpleasant.
Therefore, his claim is false.
I never make arguments like this - even when, as above, all the separate statements may be true. I think to lazy writers like Isaac and Bill, "ad hominem" has become a synonym for "insulting." And of course I've insulted them plenty of times - but always because of what they've said, not because of who they are. I'm constantly saying things like "Isaac Butler is a dishonest careerist because he said X, which is untrue but opens up a possible job opportunity," and "Bill Marx is a pompous ass because he said X, which doesn't help local theatre but only buffs his own ego." You see that "because he said X" part? That means the statement was an attack, but not an ad hominem attack.
Likewise, if I say "Lydia Diamond R. has distorted the historical record in two different plays to match a consistent psychological profile, and therefore is neurotic," that is not an ad hominem argument. It could be false, but you have to prove that with a statement that has a "because" in it (but does NOT have the name "Thomas Garvey" in it). You have to say something like "Lydia R. Diamond may tailor history to her own psychological profile but this is not neurotic BECAUSE . . ." I'm not sure what would come after that "because," but that's what you have to do - the argument stands separately from me, personally, and it has an inner logic that you have to address.
What's funniest about those who claim I resort to ad hominem attack is, of course, that they themselves are far more prone to the practice. The retort to my assessment of Diamond, for instance, has often been (and I'm not making this up) "Thomas Garvey is a troll!!" In the past, other bloggers have replied to my arguments with "Thomas Garvey is a coward!" "Thomas Garvey is an old queen!" And, of course, "Thomas Garvey is a racist, no wait, he is a BIGOT instead!"
This, of course, brings up something very tricky for the identity politics crowd: many of their claims are hard to distinguish from ad hominem attacks, as they tend to work backward from broad social characterizations. The whole circumstance of a white man criticizing a black woman, which is what has happened here, is fraught for these folks, and many of them immediately jump to the essentially ad hominem argument of "You're racist (and sexist)!" And if that claim doesn't match your profile, it morphs to "You're unconsciously racist!" or "You're structurally racist!" The target floats, but remains essentially the same, and it is, potentially, an ad hominem attack. Of course you might argue from this that therefore those who "dialogue" about identity politics should be especially careful about indulging in this kind of thing. That would seem to be a reasonable admonition, but it's likely to fall on deaf ears.
Because of course I agree heartily that there are some arguments that are racist, and some that are unconsciously racist. Maybe even some that are structurally racist. But the thing is, even if you're going to make that argument, you still have to begin it with a sentence that runs "Lydia R. Diamond tailors history to her psychological profile, but that is not neurotic BECAUSE . . ." (Or, in the case of RVC Bard, "Feeling unworthy of white people's presence is not neurotic BECAUSE . . .") You have to source your attack in the topic at hand. You can't begin with a general argument about the existence of racism, and then work backward to Lydia R. Diamond and RVCBard; this is a form of deductive fallacy, because while racism certainly exists, these two people could still be neurotic about it.
And yet so far no one in this blogosphere imbroglio has written any analysis at all about Lydia R. Diamond or her plays (and of course RVCBard hasn't stopped crying since I ran my post, so no one's going to go near her with anything but kleenex). But until they do, those who attack me are guilty of - yes, wait for it - ad hominem attack.