Ad rem vs. ad hominem, and a further request from me

I knew I was opening up a kettle of worms when I (for the first time ever on this blog, I might add) set up a scale for evaluating my reaction to some specific future projects for Armitage, but still, I was really frustrated yesterday.

The most frustrating thing to me about the discussion was that I allowed the atmosphere in the comments to make me lose my own temper.

I apologize to all of you for losing my temper yesterday and ask your forgiveness.

I hesitate to say this, because of the “preaching to the choir” effect — the wrong people will feel criticized. If what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to you, feel free to ignore this post. But I’m getting to the point where I have to say it. Twice in the last ten days I arose in near-equilibrium and then lost it while dealing with the blog comments. The costs of my comment policy are getting high enough that I’m reconsidering it.

I want to emphasize my apology. It was wrong of me to have lost my temper.

If you like the relatively open comment policy on this blog, please consider the two requests I make of all commentators below.


First: I consistently ask people not to make comments at this blog ad hominem, but it occurred to me recently that perhaps not all readers know what I mean. It’s also clear that ad hominem argument and nasty tone rule the media in the U.S. at the moment so perhaps there’s a general feeling that it’s okay.

I don’t want those things here, period.

This post is not directed at anyone in particular, but it’s intended as a manifesto so that I can link to it again in future if I need to.


Not all discussions are created equal. I like to have robust discussions because disagreements usually teach me something, but I also enforce boundaries on it here to make sure that it remains pleasant for me to engage in it.

This blog encourages ad rem argumentation — robust discussion, including disagreement, about the topic in question.

In contrast, I do not allow ad hominem argumentation either in response to me or between commentators. In ad hominem, the person making the argument criticizes the opponent rather than his/her argument.

800px-Queso_frescoAbstract example of ad rem vs. ad hominem argumentation:

Proposition under discussion: I, Servetus, assert that the moon is made of green cheese.

(ACCEPTABLE) Ad rem response: It is incorrect to assert that the moon is made of green cheese. The composition of the moon has been measured by geochemical mapping from orbit, according to the following source. Orbital mapping, as well as radiometric analysis of samples of moon rock gathered by astronauts who walked on its surface, have revealed that the moon is not made of green cheese, but rather various minerals.

(NOT ACCEPTABLE, WILL GET YOU BLOCKED FROM COMMENTING HERE): Ad hominem response: Servetus, the mood is definitely not made of green cheese, but if you really believe it is, you’re crazy and you have no right to discuss this question or astronomy, period. Servetus, you are an asshat for believing that the moon is made of green cheese.

Important: Name-calling or direct charges that the speaker herself is crazy are only the most blatant form of ad hominem. Rephrasing an argument in the abstract, such as, “People who believe that the moon is made of green cheese are crazy,” in order to hide the target of one’s personal attack also constitutes ad hominem. This is particularly the case if it’s clear in a comment strand who it is that holds that position, *but also* even if no one who holds that position is participating in the conversation. The argumentation is still ad hominem because it attacks a person rather than addressing the faults in an argument.

BBCShowcase05Here’s an example involving an Armitage-related argument.

Proposition: I, Servetus, assert that Richard Armitage is incredibly eager to return to a television career in the U.K. as soon as possible.

(ACCEPTABLE) Ad rem response(s): It seems unlikely that Richard Armitage would want to return to U.K. television in the near future. Since making The Hobbit, he’s made another film in the U.S., and has referred in the press (cite sources) to wanting to continue making films. If he wanted to work in the U.K., it would make sense for him to spend time there networking, but as far as we know, he’s spent very little time in the U.K. since the 2011-12 winter holiday break. It is unlikely that U.K. television would pay him a fee commensurate with what he can now reasonably command. (and so on)

(NOT ACCEPTABLE, WILL GET YOU BLOCKED) Ad hominem response(s): Since the evidence that he wants to return to U.K. isn’t very good, and he hasn’t said anything about it, Servetus, you’re silly to believe that. That you believe that stems from some emotional need that you have for him to be on U.K. television. You don’t have a right to talk about Richard Armitage if you believe that. Fans who believe that aren’t true fans. They’re crazy.

Subsidiary point: Tu quoque (charges of hypocrisy toward a speaker) are also often considered a form of ad hominem. It is acceptable to point out any contradictions in a speaker’s position — this is ad rem argumentation; it is not acceptable to say that the speaker is wrong because he has asserted contradictory positions.

The point in all of this: an argument is valid or invalid on its own terms, regardless of how we feel about it, and independently of who makes it.



I concede that some readers may not care about the art of effective disagreement. I care because I learn from disagreements. Not everyone may do so — but there’s a further reason to disagree effectively. Read the great summary here of classical argumentative strategies. Here’s a telling quotation that puts the benefit in simple terms:

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in [ad hominem – name-calling] than up in [refuting an argument]. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way. [¶] If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.

My responses to ad hominem as blog moderator will follow my own discretion.

Sometimes people show up suddenly to drop an ad hominem bomb — if I don’t know the commentator, s/he will be blocked from commenting, and an explanation will be given.

Oftentimes, however, people simply fall into it without noticing. If you read the comments here you know that I’ve done it a few times and when I’ve realized it, I’ve apologized to the person I was speaking to. In cases where I notice ad hominem argumentation creeping into a comment, I will simply edit it out of the comment and note that the comment has been edited for ad hominem.

Readers who cannot stop engaging in ad hominem, however, and do so repeatedly despite warnings, will eventually have their comments put on moderation and/or blocked.

In the main, the line is whether I perceive a commentator to be generally of good will. While it’s hard to make that judgment on the Internet, this is my blog and my decisions are final.


Second: a plea to everyone. Tone doesn’t make an argument better or worse on the merits, but as the citation above makes clear, it matters, on a human level, both to me and to all of us.

I love giving regular commentators as much freedom as I can. That freedom also demands responsibility. Please don’t leave a comment that you know will set the cat among the pigeons because you’re bothered by something I or someone else has said, or just because you’re interested to see what will happen if people get really annoyed with you. This has been happening more and more often lately — at least four times in the last six weeks.

If that’s your response to a post of mine, or if you see that someone else has left a comment like that, please consider Martin Luther’s advice for dealing with one’s “neighbor”: we should “defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest ways.”

I admit that’s not always easy and I fail at it regularly, too. But it’s a goal worth striving for.

In short:

Please give me fellow fans the benefit of the doubt.

Don’t attribute ill will to others who disagree with your arguments.

Make sure that you really understand what someone is saying before you loose your cannons. It was frustrating to me that the most problematic comments in fostering a hostile atmosphere in the comment section yesterday had little or nothing to do with the actual claims made in the post.

Because I lost my temper, I stewed for hours after I closed the comments and became essentially unable to write. For me nowadays, that’s an unacceptable consequence. It was my fault, but there are conclusions I have to draw nonetheless.

When I’m writing exposition or argumentation, I really try hard to write thoughtfully. (Jokes are a different matter, as are reactions to news pieces or fantasy stuff — those things have different motivations.) Very seldom does an analytical post make it to publication without several hours of writing and contemplation. I don’t claim that my assertions are always correct, or that my argumentation or command of the evidence is ever perfect. If I’m aware that I don’t know something, I say so. If I make a claim that seems like to be controversial, I try to provide evidence for it. I count on readers for information and, as I say above, robust ad rem discussion.

Similarly, I think most people who comment here are trying to write as thoughtfully as they can. Given how many people have told me over the years that they feel the bar to participating here is high because the commentators are so well-informed, it seems likely that most people who make a comment on a serious / analytical post are not doing so lightly. (Again, jokes may be another matter.)

I personally make a really strong effort not to write in outrage or anger about matters that have to do with Richard Armitage or other members of the Armitage fandom. To some extent this strategy reflects my personality (I have a hard time with realizing that I’m angry or expressing it when I do), to some extent my conclusion that fan-on-fan policing (which can take on features of ad hominem) is both ineffective and destructive, and to some extent my awareness that while a lot’s at stake in some of our conversations in terms of our respective identity commitments, we’re also not talking about world hunger or punishment for war crimes here.

So, please: do all of us a favor and do the same. Don’t comment in outrage or apparent outrage, in ways that seem likely to draw others into strife — and then drag me into it when I have to moderate. Don’t cast aspersion at other fans, either ones here or other ones somewhere else who are doing things you don’t like.

Although I sometimes close comments on personal posts, as regards discussion of Richard Armitage, I’ve trusted people to get along in my absence, sometimes for days. But if I can’t push publish on a post and leave assuming that nothing too awful will happen in my absence, I will moderate every comment. That will be hard — maybe too hard — on discussion.

I’m very superstitious about this blog, because it was the vehicle for my return to life and writing and creativity after a long dead period. I can’t afford to self-censor in fear of what commentators will say, because that will kill the creativity. I don’t want to lose the capacity for mostly freewheeling discussions from which I learn a great deal.

In short, I have to trust you. Or I have to end my near-open comments policy.

Please go the Golden Rule one better. When in doubt, please treat fellow commentators with even more consideration than you expect to receive from them.


[Since absolutely none of this is negotiable on my side, comments are closed.]

~ by Servetus on June 20, 2013.

One Response to “Ad rem vs. ad hominem, and a further request from me”

  1. […] please be aware that the usual rule about avoiding ad hominem attack is in force — let’s talk about the topic, not about each other. NOT OK: “those […]


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