The Doubter’s Companion: Ad Hominem

Ad Hominem: The obverse of hero worship. Both indicate an unwillingness to deal with content.

Public figures have complained for decades about the growing tendency to judge them by violent personal attacks, often aimed at their private lives. But as public actors have chosen to assume Heroic guises—whether majestic, saintlike, martyred, romantic or touching—so those they attempt to seduce have reacted with personalized integral vilification.

There is nothing new about such ad hominem attacks. They were widely used for political purposes in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If public figures paid a little more attention to history, they would know that their predecessors led a much rougher life. Today they are protected by concentrated media ownership, the obsession of the large professional elites with respectable public behavior and, in most countries, overly strict libel laws. Given that ours is a management-oriented society, we give far too much importance to the smoothness of public discourse and fear serious open verbal conflict.

Contemporary ad hominem resembles that of an earlier period—the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was a society of courtiers constantly in pursuit of meaningless power. Court life was measured by personal details—orgasms, medals, gloves, cleavages, and titles. Ad hominem fed the endless appetite for gossip which filled the salons and occupied the days of those caught up in the complex structures of the state. These were powerless people living by irrelevant criticisms in the shadow of false human gods—the absolute monarchs. That such detached ad hominem attacks have returned with a vengeance in the late twentieth century suggests that we have also returned to the courtier-based society of the great palaces, which have been transformed into the great professions and the great organizations of the public and private sector.

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

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