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Wasn't I taught that ad hominem argument is bad debating?

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I am eternally grateful that I was schooled at a time when such subjects as English Grammar, Latin, and Logic were considered to be an essential part of everyone's education.

As an engineer, I have spent my whole working life dealing with technical questions which are amenable to rigorous solution but my early education has given me some tools to participate in the non-technical aspects of our society.

One of the lessons which has remained with me for all these years, is that ad hominem argument, that is attacking the speaker's personal character rather than the content of his speech, is high on the list of bad arguments.

There are other errors of good debating which irritate me when I hear them in the public discourse but ad hominem arguments have come to be the mainstay of our political life.

Listening to the Parliament used to be an opportunity to hear some real arguments for and against various propositions. The standing orders of the house required members to speak without reading from a script. Only people with some ability to participate in debate were encouraged to stand for parliament. While the two party system has aligned members to one side or the other of most questions, there have been notable examples of independent-minded members digging out aspects of bad government and having wrongs against ordinary people righted despite the majority view that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Today it is all different. The truth and good debating are no longer required in our parliament.

The most pernicious characteristic of parliamentary "debate" is now ad hominem argument. The modern argument against any proposition is now an attack on the proposer. Any minor incident in someone past life has become a telling point in a debate about an issue even when the incident has absolutely no relevance to the question at hand.

While we suffer from media censorship and we are probably getting a slanted view, it seems that all parliamentary debate is either one member reading from a prepared script to a house which is almost empty or it is a battle of insults flung across the chamber like rotten tomatoes at a street rally.

This failure of reasoned debate seems to be universal. Watching the coverage of the upcoming Presidential election in the USA is not far removed from watching two professional wrestlers being interviewed before a fight. No it's worse than that because it is so calculated and so devious. Who would have imagined that one candidate would have someone, apparently unconnected with his campaign, publicly, to millions of people via paid television advertisement, cast damning and unproven aspersions on the bravery in war of the other candidate. Sadly both sides of that election debate seem to have been infected with the "ad hominem bug" and sadly our own two aspiring Prime Ministers are using much the same tactics in the current election "debate" in Australia.

I am amazed that a candidate who, in his own campaign in the election which won him office, kept the exposition of the details of his tax policy until the end of his campaign, now argues that his opponent is a coward because he is doing the same.

We urgently need reform of our political processes before the whole body politic is totally and permanently infected with the "ad hominem bug" and our democracy decays into a mindless media contest of who can tell the most acceptable "stories".

I promised that I wouldn't ever end a discussion of today's world on a pessimistic note. Please read "The world isn't going to hell in a basket, is it?" to discover how I believe it will all turn out!

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Created: 28.08.2004 and last revised 05.11.2004
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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