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The ad hominem delusion that infects our public debate

To build effective arguments, we need logos and ethos to underpin political discourse.

We like to believe we're a culture of tolerance and understanding. We're in the land of ideas.

Mercifully – at least in Australia – the days of being imprisoned for disagreeing with those in power are long gone. Also gone is the risk of torture and inquisition, the fear and hushed tones of dissident thought, the clandestine press and underground resistance movements. Now we live in a world of freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of choice, of love, of cult and association – but, do we really?

In Parliament, every strident right-winger is a bigot, every contrary left-winger a naive bleeding heart. In the media, conservative measures are "cruel" and progressive strategies are the "devil's work". In our schools, conservative Christian families are backward, stone-age embodiments of discrimination and intolerance, and Muslim families are rife with gender discrimination and child abuse.

The language that surrounds our critical account of the world is persistently subjective – an appeal to emotions. The first reaction to any argument is moral indignation. Financial policies, for example, are seldom assessed for their economic viability; rather, they are pre-emptively judged against our noble, if abstract, concepts of "compassion". Social policies are subjected to "tolerance tests" rather than judged on the quality of the argument or their potential to actually address a problem.

Philosophers may argue, and some surely do, that subjective appeal is an intrinsically human tendency, but this narrowing of the public debate can only result in the ad hominem delusion.

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Ethical judgments focus on the arguer – the speaker. By attacking our interlocutor – ad hominem – we attack their character. We brand them shallow, stubborn, intolerant, cruel or dishonest (words that frequently punctuate parliamentary "debate") instead of examining and refuting the premise, evidence and conclusions of the arguments.

Aristotle introduced the three-fold scheme of persuasion – rhetoric – as comprising ethos (character), logos (logic and sound argument) and pathos (emotional appeal). The problem with ad hominem is that it never goes beyond pathos: moral judgments are used to elicit audience anger, outrage or disdain for the opponent. Logos is completely foregone and the speaker's ethos is founded on a logical fallacy only as strong as the audience's sympathy.

Illustration: Susannah Bishop

Illustration: Susannah Bishop

The ad hominem delusion is an unsubstantiated claim in itself. By judging the character of an opponent, we are judging their motives, but motives are subjective and unmeasurable. How, for instance, can a "cruel tax increase" be judged "cruel"? We may well claim that the increase is under-researched or omits income assessments; we may characterise the increase as having an inaccurate estimation of public benefit, of evident bias in consultation or of shortcomings in financial analysis. But our "cruelty" is our opponent's "sustainable" or "realistic". The argument becomes stranded in a battle of emotive terms rather than progressing through a constructive debate.

For more effective, relevant and adequate policy to be devised and implemented, we must start changing our debating culture – start focusing on ideas, solutions, research and evidence – and demand media and politicians follow suit. We need to shift our persuasion techniques from "ad hominem" to "ad argumentum": addressing the argument. Our analysis must stop focusing on our politicians, representatives, allies or opponents and turn rather to ideas, substantiation, evidence, analysis and true, constructive consultation.

It is laudable that pathos – compassion and loyalty – guides our identification of problems, but to build compelling, relevant and effective arguments, we need logos and ethos to underpin the political discourse. We need the structure and coherence of logos and the consistency, credibility and authority of ethos.

Every strident right-winger is a bigot, every contrary left-winger a naive bleeding heart.

Susannah Bishop is a writer, editor and polyglot, and an expert in the grammar of Latin and ancient Greek. John Preston is a former adviser to prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and delivers writing workshops to the public sector. He and his colleagues blog on writing and public policy at ethoscrs.com.au/agora.