Debates are part of democracy and science.
Debating an issue can happen on at least two levels. There is the fact level. And then there’s deflecting and evading, which avoids the issues of fact but can be very persuasive when the audience doesn’t realize what the speaker is doing (and even sometimes if a supportive audience does realize it).
Websites on logical fallacies contain lists of ways that speakers can get us to ignore facts and be persuaded by illogical points or irrelevant factors. Or sometimes an interviewee may grab at these fallacies like lifelines to escape being caught in a misstatement or to survive a struggle to answer an unwanted question.
Knowing the fallacies can help us to identify valid arguments, to get to the facts, and to root out cases of deflection and evasion. Among multiple fallacies commonly relied upon in politics is the ad hominem fallacy, which includes name-calling.
One recent case was when Mike Pompeo accused the news media of being “unhinged” and in a "quest to hurt President Trump and this administration” (Dibble, 2020). This statement came after Pompeo prematurely ended an interview during apparently difficult questions about Ukraine from NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly. President Trump more regularly uses a name-calling approach, as multiple articles and even educational videos demonstrate.
On the other side, there was the case of Hillary Clinton calling half of Trump supporters “deplorables,” “racist,” and “homophobic.” She prefaced her statement by saying “to just be grossly generalistic,” but generalizing is another fallacy that such a preface cannot undo (Reilly, 2016). Pompeo’s statement about the news media was also a generalization. Of course, name-calling and smearing have occurred during the impeachment trial as well.
But the ad hominem fallacy isn’t limited to name-calling. Stephen Colbert regularly makes fun of politicians’ appearances, especially but not limited to Republicans (Henderson, 2019). Colbert is a comedian, but in some ways, Colbert’s show is also a political-news outlet that engages in debate.
I need to note that sometimes a politician or speaker might engage in fallacies not because the truth would be damaging but because the fallacies would win over or satisfy even more viewers or because the fallacies might be the quickest or most instinctual way to save face or derive pleasure in the moment. In the case of Colbert, it might be about getting laughs (not that such a goal necessarily excuses the behavior, if you disapprove of the behavior).
When Name-Calling May Be Relevant
Sometimes name-calling is not irrelevant. When a speaker is conveying an opinion, the character or political leanings of the speaker may be relevant. If the publication Christianity Today were truly run by leftist progressives (not true and not that anything is inherently wrong with being a leftist progressive), then calling them leftist progressives would be relevant if the editorial conveyed an opinion that Trump should be removed from office. If, however, the editorial also stated documented facts, then calling them a political name would be less relevant.
Similarly, if the speaker is criticizing a political adversary for bad behavior (that did take place) but the speaker didn’t care when his/her own political side committed the same behavior in the past, then it seems relevant to call the speaker a hypocrite. Or perhaps the speaker is defending his/her current party leader for a bad behavior that the speaker criticized in a political opponent years before. Calling this speaker a hypocrite does not change the reality that the bad behavior took place twice (before and now). But it seems fair to raise the point that, in the context of public relations or public discourse, the public criticism or defense of a wrongdoer may be occurring because of political loyalties and not really facts or principles.
It’s not just a political thing to attack someone’s character or dispositions to try to persuade an audience or win an argument. Unfortunately, and ironically, it can happen in scientific debates as well, though probably much less often.
For example, consider research on media violence. Although watching violence in TV and movies and playing violent video games increase aggression for the average young participant (not necessarily every young participant and not necessarily to great degree), there are still a few academic holdouts who try to debate the issue. Although this minority of researchers try to provide data to support their arguments, they also sometimes accuse the majority of “being driven by ideological values, dogma, or a moral crusade rather than by data” (Stalder, 2018).
This issue of the majority’s values, even if there were researchers in the majority who did hold such values, is beside the point when there are literally hundreds of studies that support the causal link between media violence and human aggression (not that all aggression is caused by media violence).
Some scientists have been sliding into personal-attack territory amidst some failed attempts to replicate big results. In one highly publicized case, Simone Schnall found an interesting result which Brent Donnellan and his students failed to replicate. Donnellan used arguably mocking language to criticize Schnall, in response to which Daniel Gilbert called Donnellan and team “shameless little bullies” and “second stringers” (Bartlett, 2014). To Donnellan’s credit, he later apologized for some of his word choices. I’m not sure if Gilbert ever did.
Unlike most high-profile political examples, these science examples are not as straightforward in illustrating the ad hominem fallacy because these insults were accompanied by some engagement with facts and research methods (not that such engagement justified the insulting parts).
If you like that speakers on your political side are good at name-calling, that is of course your call to make. If you find Stephen Colbert diverting, sure, diversions can be fun and necessary. If you are driven to defend someone and a verbal insult leaks out of you along the way, most of us would understand. But if you want to minimize biases or maximize learning facts or have a better chance at reducing political divisiveness, then keep your eye out for fallacies in both your own thinking and even in leaders whom you generally trust.
Tom Bartlett, “Replication Crisis in Psychology Research Turns Ugly and Odd,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2014, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Replication-Crisis-in/147301.
Madison Dibble, “NPR Reporter Claims There Is a ‘Chain of Emails’ Confirming Pompeo Knew Interview Would Touch on Ukraine,” Washington Examiner, January 26, 2020, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/npr-reporter-claims-there-is-a-….
Cydney Henderson, “Stephen Colbert Rips Eric Trump - and His Appearance - in Scathing 'Late Show' Monologue,” USA Today, July 18, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2019/07/18/stephen-colb….
Katie Reilly, “Read Hillary Clinton's 'Basket of Deplorables' Remarks About Donald Trump Supporters,” Time, September 10, 2016, https://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcri….
Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).