Apologetical Weapons: It’s Not About You

I have noticed that our adversaries often mistake our critique of their notions as ad hominem condemnation of them as persons. They then react defensively, levying just the sort of vicious ad hominem attacks they say they abhor. This mystifies me.

The difference between a condemnation of a person and a critique of his acts has long been acutely obvious to me, and critically important. I have always tried to avoid any hint of personal condemnation. That has not stopped many, many interlocutors from responding to my critiques of their statements, ideas, or acts as if I had attacked them personally.

I suppose it’s because few people have been trained to take criticism. I got trained hard in that discipline by my creative writing teacher in high school. She was brilliant, and only very few kids got into her creative writing class. On the first day of class she informed us that the format would be that we would sit in a circle, and in each session two or three students would read aloud a poem or essay or story they had written and handed out. Then, the rest of the students – and the teacher – would rip it to shreds. “This will hurt you horribly at first,” she said, “because we cannot help but feel as though our creative work is an extension of ourselves. And so it is. But you must learn to view your work critically if you are ever to make it any better, and there is no way to do that unless you participate in its criticism. Your critics here in the class are your friends. The work they do in criticizing your work is evidence of their respect for you as a person. They are not injuring you; they are educating you.”

The first few times my work was criticized, it did indeed hurt. Especially because I greatly admired the other kids in the class, thought myself lucky to be with them, and desperately wanted them to like me. But after about three iterations, it began to be fun. The criticism was *so helpful.*

The training continued in philosophy classes in college. Then, years later, Lawrence Auster started in on me. It was all wonderful.

All of us in my high school creative writing seminar ended up liking each other tremendously, by the way. The interchange in that class forged bonds of trust between us, because every time one of us offered up a piece of work for criticism, we were extending a huge trust to our classmates, making ourselves terrifically vulnerable to them. So we all treated each other in that vulnerability as we would want to be treated: carefully, charitably. All of us did this with all of us. So we actually got quite close. It was great.

Why then do our adversaries so often mistake our philosophical rejoinders as personal attacks, and then respond in kind?

Almost no one outside of sports (including martial arts) and the arts is taught these days how to take criticism. I suppose most people don’t get training in how to criticize, either. Lots of them engage in personal destruction, rather than constructive criticism. They fight.

My spiritual director says that this is because they are thinking with their emotions. They feel hurt by something you do or say, then go straight from hurt to anger. He says that it’s much less painful to be angry than it is to be hurt. If you can stay with the hurt, and just express that, then you don’t get into a fight, but rather forestall it. And he says that the best way to stay with the hurt is to pray.

I have found that prayer does keep things in perspective. It helps me stay charitable – as the critics in my high school creative writing class were so charitable to me. But then, not many people are taught how to pray these days, either.

Then again, people get attached to their pet notions in very like the same way that I was attached to each of my poems or essays when, trembling, I handed copies of them around to my classmates for their critical review. Having invested time and effort, care and thought in a notion, they cannot but feel that it is proper to them (the way that their property or their hair is), and therefore an aspect of their personal substance.

That may all be true. If so, it would not conflict with a deeper, darker explanation: those who perpetrate ad hominem attacks in what they mistake to be their own defense are projecting. They interpret critiques of their notions as attacks on their persons on account of the fact that they themselves have dialectical recourse only to the rhetoric of personal destruction; so that ad hominem is their personal stock in trade, the only tool in their shed.

The apologetical weapon, then, is this: slowly, in a low tone, and with falling inflection, preface your critique of an adversary’s notion by saying something like the following:

That’s an interesting idea, but I’m worried about it. Not about you; about the idea. Here’s what I’m worried about, help me out here: …

Then just slowly, softly state your objection. It is hard to interpret a critique as an attack when it is delivered reflectively, softly, quietly: with low, slow, falling intonation. It helps to struggle for words a bit. That will engage your adversary in trying to help you understand, rather than in being defensive.

What often ensues, I have found, is that in trying to help you understand, your adversary will explain that, in effect, he shares your basic views of the world. He wants to sell you on the idea; so he will try to couch it in terms that he thinks you might find amenable. But this forces him to figure out how to do that. And that forces him to take those terms seriously, and to work with them a bit. Often, a fair degree of cognitive dissonance is the result. He finds his position *can’t* be expressed in the terms of your view of things. But having already taken that view seriously enough to try to work within it, he can’t just dismiss it as crazy; he’s already implicitly taken it to be reasonable.

That will catch him in the horns of a dilemma: either your view of things is a reasonable perspective of a reasonable and agreeable fellow, and thus must have some merit – meaning that his own view of things might stand in need of emendation – or else, he must decide to condemn you, despite your evident reasonableness and agreeability. But the latter horn will be less attractive to him, the more he has invested in explaining himself to you in terms that he thinks you can understand.

He wants to convince you. But to do that, he must first inhabit your world, at least a bit, so as to be able to speak your language, at least a bit. And that cannot but call his own world and language into question, at least implicitly.

It will really push him if you respond by expressing a contradiction in what he has said, as innocently as possible: “So what you are saying is x, but also not x?”

It’s a little thing, to be sure. But little things add up.

14 thoughts on “Apologetical Weapons: It’s Not About You

  1. Pingback: Apologetical Weapons: It’s Not About You | Reaction Times

  2. All criticism is ultimately ad hominem because finding fault with the work implies finding fault with the worker. In the case of you writing class, there was an assumption that the worker could become less faulty if his faults were pointed out to him, but finding fault with the work was still finding fault with the worker at the time he produced the work. We must “learn to take criticism” because we know that criticism of our work is criticism of ourselves. “Taking it personally” is natural because criticism naturally is personal. Disconnecting ourselves from our work is a useful artifice, by which I mean fiction.

    This only touches on what we might call craftsmanship, but an intellectual work often embodies the moral and intellectual properties of the worker who made it. I say often rather than always because I suppose an evil man might produce a sound mathematical proof. But it is hard to see that the sadism of a sadist would not color the poetry of said sadist.

    There is a sort of debating society fiction that good and intelligent men can espouse ideas that are wicked and stupid. This is all very well for debating societies, but reality says that when two informed men disagree, one of them must be a fool or a knave. One of them must suffer from an epistemological defect.

    Many good and intelligent men suffer from the defect of tediousness. In fact, I daresay that most of them do. And tediousness is actually associated with some other excellent qualities, such as thoroughness and sober-mindedness. But if I told you to skip a lecture because the lecturer was tedious, I think you would accept this ad hominem argument. You would probably accept the argument if I communicated it by pointing out a personal habit of the lecturer that is highly suggestive of tediousness–say an overly fastidious attention to diet or garrulous hypochondria.

    • While not disagreeing with the gist of any of what you have said – it all rings true – I’m going to go all Medieval on it and draw a fine distinction.

      A defect in a man’s work that originates in him does indeed arise from some defect or other in him. But a defect in a man is a failure to be what he is by nature and essentially and so properly intended to be, and thus ought rightly to be (were there no such moral valence to personal errors, no one would care about them, either in himself or others). So, to notice to a man a defect in his work is to inform him how he has not quite carried into his acts, and so into his own actual being, all that he might be, and is meant properly to be. It is to notice, not how his essential being is bad, but how for one reason or another he has not quite fully expressed that essential being. Thus to criticize a man’s mistakes in his works is to tell him how he could be and act more properly himself. It is to tell him how he might enlarge and intensify his self, with all sorts of consequent effects that would probably be rather nice for him.

      Who would not enjoy, e.g., being a good writer more than being a bad?

      Mastery is one of the most pleasant feelings possible to us. To seek out the teaching of a master is to seek the correction of defects that can lead a novice to mastery.

      So I would distinguish between criticism of acts and attacks upon actors. It is constructive of an agent to criticize his acts. To attack an agent is to destroy him. The latter is ad hominem, properly so called. The former is in its effects pro hominem.

      • This sounds a bit like the distinction the ancient Greeks made between an ethical portrait of a man (a portrait of his essence) and a pathetic portrait (a portrait of some accidental state or condition). If I understand these concepts correctly, we are justified in attacking a man and his works as pathetic, but should never despair and assert that he is essentially pathetic. Following this line, we might say that decadence is identification with one’s pathos, and that a decadent society is one where pathetic people are exalted and praised for identifying with their pathos.

        Critics are good at pointing out failures of art, but not so good at recognizing failures of criticism. I would say that any criticism that does not improve the art or the artist is failed criticism. I’ve read many authors who lament the fact that their critics seldom say anything helpful, and I’ve read critics who say that is not their responsibility. I think the authors are right on this score.

      • It sounds *exactly* like that distinction. And, yes, modern society in its latter day decadence has fallen into celebrating people who identify with their pathos – with their suffering – and who moan and groan about it publicly, rather than transcending it, or bearing it nobly, or both. Suffering is deplorable, to be sure, but everybody gets a share in it, and more than they should like. It is nothing special to suffer; it is common and ordinary to suffer. It is extraordinary, and honorable, to suffer nobly, stoically, worshipfully.

  3. I have noticed that our adversaries often mistake our critique of their notions as ad hominem condemnation of them as persons.

    Often such notions are self-expressions; cherished beliefs are an intrinsic part of their self-identity. Attack or critique against these therefore consist (unintended) prima facie attacks on their persons, ie personal attacks.

    A defect in a man’s work that originates in him does indeed arise from some defect or other in him.

    Correction of notions not only implies that the other party is deficient in some respect, but that you are superior that respect. The act of simultaneous denigration and self-elevation can be too much to bear.

    • Good advice I was given was to break bread with the other party: to show that you are not a threat and intend no threat.

  4. Critiquing someone else’s notion elevates yourself vis a vis him in a certain respect, which is especially intolerable when they feel self-superior in that very respect.

    • Breaking bread is indeed a universal social solvent. Commensality is almost always ipso facto good fellowship, and tends immediately to community. Ditto for sharing wine. [Thus, the elements of the Eucharist. All that’s missing is some meat. But then, the doctrine of Transubstantiation heals that lack …]

      This being why people throw the aforementioned parties and feasts.

      This being also the reason that consequential deals of all sorts – weddings, in particular – are celebrated, and indeed sealed, with feasting and drinking, with the fatted calf and many libations raised to the goddess Fortuna, who is the Angel of Providence.

      The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, that is the fulcrum and wellspring of all the heavens (including our Midgard), is the culmination and end of all the mundane works of that goddess, who is as it were the foam on the wave of the Lógos.

      Then again, inviting someone to dine with you is almost always in effect to invite him to share in the culture and so the cult that have generated the prosperity that enables you in the first place to such generosity. His acceptance of the invitation is implicitly an agreement to do in Rome as the Romans do, and so to ostend implicitly at least a modicum of honor to the gods of the Romans. This is why Paul warned against eating at pagan tables; to do so was to share in the fruit of pagan sacrifices to idols (all ancient table meats were leftovers of the gods to whom sacrifice had been earlier made – our table grace is a valuable and salutary relic of that tradition) who were in all probability almost certainly idols – i.e., demons. To eat at a pagan table was then to eat the body of a pagan god – of a demon, in all likelihood – and, so, to join his body with yours, and vice versa.

      Not good.

      You are exactly right that the moderns our adversaries tend to confuse their ideas – which of course like ours can change with experience – with their own essential nature and character, and so interpret a challenge to their notions as a dire threat to their very existence (rather than a welcome bit of possibly useful information that, insofar as it is useful, is corrective and so redounds to the benefit of that existence). Especially so, given how incoherent, inconsistent, and therefore weak modernism is. When at some deep level you know your position is pathetically weak, and indeed indefensible in the final analysis, your outer bulwarks against any threats thereto are bound to be quite formidable. In such a dire circumstance, you must at the first appearance of any threat mount a considerable show of dangerous vigor.

      Among other things, modernism involves a rejection of discrimination per se, so that such modernist confusion should not I suppose be so surprising.

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 07/21/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  6. I recently read Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton and was delighted to read of the great friendship with Bernard Shaw that existed all through the subject’s life, despite their huge, publicly expressed, differences in worldview. While Chesterton’s affection was what I would have expected, Shaw’s was a pleasant surprise for me. In consequence, my estimate of him as a man has greatly risen and I also might be less dismissive of his ideas.

    • To tell the truth, I rather feel the same way toward our faithful, long time Leftist commenter a.morphous. I take his ideas a lot more seriously than I would had we not been contending with each other so long, and on the whole so amicably. It is not that uncommon for me these days when reading some book or other and encountering a notion of which I rather approve to think, “gosh, that sounds like something that would interest a.morphous.” I just finished a whole book that I think was getting at much of what he likes to try to get at, and while I found it mostly and deeply wrongheaded and self-refuting, there were some great nuggets in it about the unconscious and intersubjectivity.

      It’s a good thing, and prudent, and on the whole quite admirable, to read the arguments of your intellectual adversaries. On that score, a.morphous is way ahead of me. He reads the Orthosphere, for Pete’s sake, and comments here at length, and bravely. I am not sure I could bring myself to spend time at a leftist site. So – if we overlook my immersion in Leftist media, etc., which of course is the stupid jejune wing of the leftist faction – his knowledge of his adversaries is actually much better than mine is of mine.

  7. People feeling personally attacked when their ideas or tastes are criticized is, apart from what has been discussed, a matter of internal vs external source of identity.
    Most people select a mix of opinions and tastes from the buffet that the mainstream system offers, to create the image that they want to project for the rest (external source of identity). Now, the success or failure of this external identity relies exclusively on consensus, i.e. what others think of it and whether they accept it. There is nothing to back it but the acceptance of society. Any contrary opinion is a threat to that acceptance and therefore to the identity itself. My point, in summary, is that those people ARE their ideas and opinions.

    • Yes. So far as they yet know, anyway. They can’t distinguish between their persons and their opinions because they have no clear sense of the former. They don’t know who they are. All they know is who the crowd thinks they are. Or rather, who they would like the crowd to think they are.

      The deepest human fear is of death. Next in line is the fear of rejection, of ostracism (which for most of man’s history has been tantamount to a death sentence). People who have mastery of some practical skill tend in my experience to feel less fearful about both death and ostracism. Mastery of any sort is a type of self-mastery; which is to say, that it is a type of individuation. The individuated man, the master, is not so dependent upon the herd for his sustenance. So he can distinguish between his person and the accidents of his opinions. He can, that is to say, have real opinions that are his own.


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