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.