Name-calling: What It Says About Us, and Why It Hurts Us

Disagree with someone’s viewpoint? Call them a Liberal pinko, or narrow-minded, or a bigot. If you really want to close the deal, boom, Nazi! That will show them, right? That will shut down their dumb ideas with some pizzazz!

Well, it might make us feel good to get that off our chest, but unfortunately, it does nothing—nothing at all!—to show why our viewpoint is correct. Throwing down the name-calling grenade certainly won’t win you the other person’s respect or get you any closer to persuading them, either. Least of all, it won’t score you a win in the argument. So what did you accomplish? You labeled someone. That’s about the grand total of it. Congratulations.

Name-calling grenades and the ad hominem fallacy, by Eduardo Suastegui

Here’s the problem. A person can be a bigot, and they can also be making a valid point. For instance, a bigot can point at the sky in the middle of a sunny day and claim it’s blue. You may hate the idea because you love the color green. And the claim is coming from a bigot, so why not slap them down and walk away?

Hmm. Because the fact that they’re a bigot does not change the color of the sky. OK, so maybe it makes you doubt their word a little more, but you can still look up and see, yup, it’s blue. What did you do there? Well, you (a) showed willingness to consider their point of view and (b) examined and tested whether their claim had merit. None of that had anything to do with their bigotry and everything to do with confronting and assessing an opponent’s views on the merits.

For those of you in the know, what we’ve described here goes by the name of the ad hominem fallacy. Infamous as it is, I continue to behold in amazement how often it occurs in everyday argumentation, often by very smart, educated people. Like the other day, when someone claimed that a certain group’s “blind hate” drove their views on a certain controversial topic. Not taking issue with the topic, I first asked if the person could substantiate this people group’s blindness as root cause for their views. You know what I got? Crickets. Apparently the claim about that group’s blindness had been made, well, blindly. I didn’t bother to follow up with questions about the hate part. But it sure is a lot easier to call someone blind and hateful than to examine and assess how they arrived at their views. Unfortunately, convenient shorthand and sound logic don’t usually land on opposite sides of an equal sign.

More unfortunate, perhaps, this “technique” may let you bomb the conversation without the need for you to defend and substantiate your own views. It may seem easy. It might even feel like success. But in effect it might glaringly shout to the world that you have no foundation for what you believe.

[Critical Thinking @ WikiSpaces]

Yet, the fundamental problem with name-calling isn’t purely about a classical logic flaw. It has more to do with how it lets us reduce and demean someone we disagree with so that we can dismiss them out of hand. Rather than understanding, appreciating—even while still disagreeing—another human being, we reduce them to a pejorative label. Rather than working to resolve and reconcile differences wherever possible, we shut down discussion up front. Rather than learning through the process of dealing with the issue—because, you know, we may not know or understand everything—we keep on going with our own views, bulldozing all others. That may seem easier than actually having sound arguments and rationale for your own views, but it will seldom yield a productive way forward.

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