For years the left has lobbed heavily charged rhetorical grenades at its opponents, calling those in its crosshairs racists, sexists, or bigots, often with professional consequences for the recipients of their incendiary attacks. Sometimes they employed clinical or therapeutic language to give their insults a patina of professional respectability, thus the imaginary terms “homophobia,” “transphobia,” and “Islamophobia.” But now they’re the groomers.
And boy, do they not like it. They’ve called the charges “baseless” and “unfounded.” They’ve tried to dismiss the allegations as nothing more than scare tactics. They’ve claimed that anti-grooming legislation and policies are (wait for it) homophobic and influenced by conspiracy theorist QAnon. They’ve doxxed journalists who have uncovered the pervasity of the perversity. They’ve even tried to argue, bizarrely, that conservatives would have called Jesus a groomer. And yet for all the sputtering, the groomer charge seems to be sticking, furthering what analysts are predicting to be a catastrophic midterm election for the Democratic Party.
It raises an interesting question: Are ad hominems ever justified? For the ad hominem is a logical fallacy. Instead of addressing someone’s argument or position, one person attacks the other person who is making the argument. Thus, for example, you offer an argument for the existence of God. I counter: “Well, of course you’d say that; you’re a Christian.” The argument has not been addressed. Yet is it always that simple?
There are examples aplenty for when a person’s character hurts his argument. A politician elected on defending family values, only to be uncovered as a philanderer, has seriously undermined his credibility and by extension his argument that family values matter. Another politician who urges tight restrictions during a pandemic to “stop the spread” only to flagrantly violate those restrictions risks no longer being taken seriously. And celebrities who demand aggressive, sacrificial steps to combat climate change but fly around the globe in private jets offer a perfect example of “rules for thee but not for me.”
Of course, hypocritical deeds alone don’t disprove an argument. But they certainly don’t help. The same can be said for anyone whose character or actions welcome censure. It is harder to respect your interlocutor or his arguments when you are aware of an egregious moral failing.
You might at this point acknowledge that hypocrisy and wickedness make a person less credible. But, you might counter, that doesn’t mean a person should cite or exploit such failings in a debate. Why not just focus on the actual arguments and evaluate them on their own strength, carefully considering the evidence? Aren’t ad hominems needless distractions, if not often unjust character assassinations?
This is what Ephraim Radner argues in a recent piece at First Things. “We should take more seriously the pernicious role of ridicule in our common life, not to mention in our personal behavior,” he writes. He cites the example of Germaine de Staël (1766–1817), whose detractor’s criticisms “descended into the personal, trading in vicious rumors and finally painting her as ugly, boorish, crude, and sexually repellant.” Most cruelly, argues Radner, those attacks weren’t even true, and had a damaging effect on the French intellectual’s reputation.
Ad hominems certainly can be cruel and unjust. They are often a diversionary tactic, obscuring bad arguments as the crowd is drawn away from the hard work of intellectual analysis and towards the sensational and provocative. Yet not all ad hominems are by nature mean-spirited or intended to destroy or distract. Sometimes they can even be part of the argument itself, or a means of emphasizing the problem with your interlocutor’s argument.
Many of the greatest rhetoricians in the Western tradition have made effective use of the ad hominem. The great British politician and orator Winston Churchill jokingly referred to Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.” More seriously, Churchhill in the 1930s called the Nazis “ruthless men, preaching a gospel of intolerance and racial pride, unrestrained by law, by parliament, or by public opinion,” and referred to communists in the post-war era as “wicked men.” Part of what was evil about fascists was not just their ideology, but them.
In our own American tradition, Teddy Roosevelt once referred to one Supreme Court justice as “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains,” and another time called politician William Jennings Bryan “a professional yodeler, a human trombone.” More recently, Ronald Reagan once quipped: “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” On another occasion he joked: “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”
Of course, some of the above are a bit more biting than the rest. But there are some general rules we can discern, ones that Hillsdale College Professor Matt Mehan in his reflections on the great rhetorician Thomas More has identified as permissible when it comes to ad hominems. First, they should originate in charity, not hatred. Those stemming from hate undermines republican government by vitiating the neighborliness and public trust required for civic collaboration. Those done in love, and ideally gentleness, exposes latent, or not-so-latent, problems with the argument and the person making them, especially when the two are interrelated.
Secondly, if an ad hominem is to be lodged, it must actually be true and verifiable. Otherwise the wielder of the weapon does so in bad faith, if not with malice. This would be in opposition to the cardinal virtue of justice, which gives to each his proper due. It is for this reason that liberal ad hominems that tag conservatives as guilty of transphobia or bigotry typically fail. It’s also often the case that many of them are made with obvious malice.
Let’s return to groomer. To say that there are philosophical and scientific reasons to believe one cannot change sex, and that doing so is an act of violence against oneself and one’s body is not necessarily motivated out of some irrational fear. Rather, it may be a concern that those who do are at war with themselves, and are damaging not only their own personhood but broader society. Such cases have been made by journalist Abigail Shrier in her recent book, Irreversible Damage, and Ryan T. Anderson in his 2018 book When Harry Became Sally. Moreover, this is an especially acute concern for young, vulnerable children, which even one Washington Post op-ed has recently acknowledged.
For this reason, the “groomer” charge, when employed as an ad hominem, can be appropriate. It remains a logical fallacy, though not always a rhetorical one. Anyone, be that person a teacher, government bureaucrat, or journalist, who thinks it acceptable to introduce sexual content, and especially themes of gender dysphoria, upon prepubescent children, is grooming those children to suffer all manner of sexual and gender dysfunction. That may not be their intention, but it is a frequent result, as a growing body of research indicates. Regardless of motives, those advocating such things are either groomers or aid and abet groomers.
Yes, the ad hominem is a logical fallacy. In innumerable cases of rational discussion, it can be inappropriate, distracting, and even vicious. But there are some cases, such as many in the public realm of politics, when the ad hominem becomes an effective if imperfect tool of discourse. In those circumstances, it must be circumscribed by charity and discernibly connected to the subject (and arguments) at hand, rather than employed for point-scoring purposes. In the case of the grooming charge, the shoe seems to fit.
Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press).