An ad hominem attack uses irrelevant information in an attempt to discredit someone’s opinion or argument.
Ad hominem occurs when someone argues that another is wrong due to unrelated information, appearance, or their perception of that person.
An ad hominem attack is negative, utilizing irrelevant information, such as someone’s attractiveness, religion, activities, and more, in order to suggest that their course of action or argument is wrong. The cited information has no real bearing on the issue at hand. A person’s character is not relevant when it comes to whether or not someone is right or wrong, creating a very negative connotation around the use of the device.
Explore Ad Hominem
Definition and Explanation of Ad Hominem
An ad hominem argument is one made in bad faith. The person making it using (what they view as) negative information about another to suggest that this person is wrong or misguided. This information has nothing to do with someone’s arguments or opinion. Instead, it is used to try to convince others not to listen to them. Someone might remind the crowd about another’s physical appearance, political beliefs, etc. when the argument has nothing to do with those topics. These arguments can be heard and seen in everyday life, in politics, in the media, and in the court.
Examples of Ad Hominem
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
In this famed and commonly read play, Miller makes use of ad hominem through the treatment of the women in the story and the arguments the other characters make against them. The young girls accused of witchcraft in the story are subject to personal insults. These culminate in the community using irrelevant information to judge them and convince the broader public.
There is a good example, interestingly enough, in the treatment of the character of John Proctor, who is seeking to defend the girls from their fate. His honesty and moral compass are questioned when other characters, specifically Cheever, bring up the fact that he has been spotted plowing on Sunday rather than spending it in church. They use this innocent act as a way to attack Proctor’s attempts at sorting out the truth.
Othello by William Shakespeare
As is the case with most literary devices, there is a good example within Shakespeare’s oeuvre. In Othello, Othello, a Black general in a white society, falls in love with Desdemona, a white woman. Rather than accept that their love is real, Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, is determined that Othello must be using magic to force her to love him. Here are some lines from Brabantio’s ad hominem argument:
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err.
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures powerful o’er the blood
Or with some dram, conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her.
The Scarlett Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne
In this novel, it’s easy to find examples of ad hominem arguments in regard to the widespread opinion of Hester Prynne. She’s challenged in regard to her character, trying to convince others that she’s an unfit mother, incapable of raising her own child. It should be noted that in the time period that this novel is written, and the society in which it takes place, greatly valued the reasoning presented against Prynne.
Types of Ad Hominem
With abusive ad hominem arguments, one person attacks another in regard to personal traits. These attacks are meant to invalidate whatever argument the latter is presenting or an opinion they hold.
Ad hominem circumstantial arguments raise questions in regard to the bias of someone making an argument.
Meaning “you too,” Tu quoque occurs when someone spots hypocrisy. One person might use a tu quoque ad hominem argument in order to call out hypocrisy when one person suggests a course of action to another. For example, someone who loves eating fast food telling someone else to stop eating it.
Guilt by Association
Guilt by association occurs when one person makes the same argument as another, who is viewed in a bad light. That negativity is transferred from person two to person one, and their argument falls into the same bad light.
Ad Feminam targets women specifically. It invalidates something a woman says or does by using stereotypical arguments in regard to women. In this attack, a woman only says what she says or acts the way she does because she’s a woman.
Why Do Writers Use Ad Hominem?
Writers use ad hominem to emphasize how characters are influenced by outside factors. Such is the case with John Proctor in The Crucible and the many innocent actions that condemn the young women accused of witchcraft. The technique is meant to provoke an emotional response in the reader as they react to the fairness, or deceitfulness, of how the argument is applied. Ad hominem discourse, arguments, and conversations reach all types of content and situations. Writers can easily insert any kind of prejudice in order to influence other characters. It should be noted that this technique often provokes a negative response in readers. Someone who makes an ad hominem attack is likely not going to be the hero.
Related Literary Terms
- Argument: a piece of literature is a statement, towards the beginning of a work, that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Bandwagon: a persuasive style of writing that is used to convince readers of an argument or make them understand a certain perspective.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Watch: The Ad Hominem Fallacy
- Listen: What is an Ad Hominem Attack?
- Read: The Crucible by Arthur Miller