The Relevance of the Irrelevant: Ad Hominem Politics

The rhetoric coming out of this winter’s campaign season has been a playground for my argumentation classes. Political discourse offers some of the best opportunities for studying things like how arguers tailor their arguments to specific audiences, whether sympathetic or hostile; how they employ Aristotle’s famous appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos; and especially how they repeatedly commit brazen rhetorical fallacies.

Under the microscope of rigorous analysis, almost any argument is going to reveal blemishes, and it’s no surprise that political arguments are some of the ugliest around. We spent one class examining Donald Trump’s presidential announcement address alongside Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University. Another day we compared Hillary Clinton’s announcement ad to this Chevy SUV commercial. Scare tactics, appeals to pity, faulty analogies. But, to complicate the dichotomy separating “strategies” from “fallacies,” there’s an often troubling distinction to be observed between responsible arguments and effective ones—arguments that achieve their intended ends no matter the means. If Donald Trump intentionally and successfully fires up a crowd of supporters by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists,” can we really judge his rhetorical choice “bad,” under the circumstances, as much as it appalls us? These are the gray areas I try to explore with my students, and where political arguments seem happiest to reside.

A few days ago, I had these discussions in mind when I read a Jezebel article in which the writer, attempting to track down a raunchy rumor about Ted Cruz as a Princeton student, talks with a series of people who knew the Cruz then. The draw of the piece, despite some gestures at even-handedness, is seeing what dirt people had to dish on the guy who’s begun to overtake Trump in many liberals’ assessment of the scariest Republican candidate for president. That’s certainly why I clicked on the article, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Cruz we find here is described, among other better things, as cruel, socially and romantically inept, aloof, obnoxious—“‘a huge asshole’ and ‘a nightmare of a human being,’” according to his first-year roommate. In one upsetting anecdote Cruz makes a peer cry by calling her mother a whore for having an abortion. In another, he’s locked out of his dormitory naked; this one’s unconfirmed, but hilariously the article goes on to quote several student newspaper pieces in which Cruz argues against locked entryways.

As much as I gloried in every insult and jab thrown at Cruz, ultimately a part of me—the argumentation instructor—couldn’t help questioning the relevance, value, and integrity of such an assault on a candidate’s character, especially considering that the memories and anecdotes doing the assaulting are older now than their subject was then. I had a similar reaction just this morning, reading a Daily Kos report called, “A neurologist wrote an article trying to explain why Ted Cruz’s face is so bothersome.” “[F]or some reason, and you know what I’m talking about,” this one goes, “there is a certain bizarro-world je ne sais quoi about Senator Cruz.” Which is about as productive in evaluating Cruz’s potential as president as observing the movement patterns of his eyebrows. Sure, we’re hoping for scientific proof of Cruz’s insincerity or depravity. And yes, it just feels good to make fun of his face! But is this really the type of argumentation—the type of thinking—we need to be putting toward electing our next leader? “Try blocking his face and just looking at his eyes,” one commenter suggests. “He has the cold, dead, soulless eyes that you see in a spitting cobra or a shark or a rattlesnake or a serial killer.”

The obvious point is that articles like these highlight the slippery nature of the “ad hominem”—it’s another of those fallacies that teases the distinction between validity and effectiveness. Shouldn’t Ted Cruz’s face or remarks he made in college be irrelevant to his candidacy in 2016? This was the conclusion I felt compelled to draw when I first read the two articles above. Then again, the refrain that we need more political discourse that bears down on “the issues,” while possibly true, is as clichéd as personal attacks themselves—and can even be leveled as a smear.

But what if these ad hominem criticisms aren’t irrelevant? Not just because they’re so seductively effective, but because of a less obvious complexity to which this particular fallacy calls attention.

What complicates things, to me, is the ambiguously hybrid nature of the figure of the politician itself, part person and part position. Politicians are arguments embodied, bodies subject to rhetorical analysis—for better or worse, bodies that can sometimes mirror those arguments. The same adjectives we might use to describe Bernie Sanders’s hair—unconventional, untouched, or authentic—apply also to his positions. But while Sanders’s hair is a calculated rhetorical strategy, Ted Cruz’s face, which he was born with, isn’t. And at what point are some of the even potentially legitimate arguments we make against Hillary Clinton’s positions simultaneously coded, sexist arguments against her person?

Politicians are representatives of the people in all the ways that word can mean. In a more traditional argumentative environment—an article, a classroom—we might like to partition an arguer’s ideas off from their character or appearance. But in politics these things are less separable. We’re not simply voting on policies and ideas, we’re voting on a single person to sit behind a desk in the Oval Office. Do we have to like that person or want to look at them in order for them to do a good job as President? A glance at the arguments we’re making this campaign season suggests that answering that question isn’t as simple as we might at first think.

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