Body Slamming

The Ad Hominem Fallacy and How to Respond to It

Before the 2016 election, John Pavlovitz penned an open letter to the GOP on his "Stuff That Needs to Be Said" blog. The piece was republished at the Huffington Post under the title, "White, Conservative, Christian Friends—I Wish You Really Were Pro-Life." Following is an excerpt, slightly paraphrased, of what he wrote:

You tell me that you're voting for Donald Trump for one reason: because you're pro-life. Life, you say, is the ultimate deal-breaker for you. I wish that were true. I actually don't believe you're pro-life. No, you're pro-straight, white, Christian fetuses. From where I'm standing, it seems as though "Life," for you, comprises a very narrow demographic—one that bears a striking resemblance to you.

Any compassion you proclaim really has a nine-month expiration date, as if life begins at conception but ends upon leaving the birth canal. The completion of that third trimester is actually the shelf-life of your passionate regard for much of the living.

He then laid out a laundry list of left-leaning political-social issues that, from where he was "standing," indicated that people who don't vote like him not only don't care about human life, but are mean, cold, white supremacist hypocrites. Again, paraphrasing Pavlovitz:

If that life you say you so treasure one day converts to Islam, you label it dangerous and deny it open worship.

If it comes out as LGBTQ, you condemn its soul, bully it, and drive it to suicide.

If that life needs health care, you're suddenly empty of empathy and low on generosity.

The list went on and on. "I wish you were pro-life, my friend," he concluded; "I really do. I wish all human beings mattered as much to you as Caucasian embryos do . . . that you actually gave more of a damn about them."

A Bullying Tactic

Pavlovitz is an activist, left-leaning pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his harangue here is an elaborate example of the argumentum ad hominem, or the ad hominem fallacy. It's often called an ad hominem attack because it reduces to an attack on a person, rather than a reasoned response to an idea. Ad hominem is Latin for "to the person" or "to the man." In one fell swoop, an ad hominem attack bullies its opponent and tries to change the subject.

In Pavlovitz's case, he impugned the character of an entire voting bloc (how pastoral of him), but nowhere did he engage with the argument at the heart of the pro-life position—that an unborn baby is an innocent human being and that it is wrong to kill it.

Other common examples of the ad hominem fallacy include the knee-jerk charges that pro-life advocates hate women, that traditional marriage proponents are bigots, and that people who speak up for children's right to their mother and father hate gays. Ditto for pretty much any epithet ending in "-ophobe." Ad hominem attacks carry emotional force because people don't like to be criticized or called names.

Pavlovitz's highhanded screed is demonstrably false on multiple levels, but the smart way to respond to an ad hominem attack is to not respond to the criticism but to point out the rhetorical foul for what it is and then return the conversation to the point at hand. Call it out just as you might call out a body slam on the basketball court, and don't let the offender get away with it.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #61, Summer 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo |


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