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Columns Justice Perspective

Whatboutism, Ad hominem, and Strawmen and how to avoid them


Later this month, both major political parties will be having their nominating “conventions.” Although they will be a vastly different kind of convention because of Covid-19 accommodations, these conventions will signal the beginning of election season in earnest.

And with election season, you can be sure that the rhetoric, discussions, arguments and downright nastiness will begin as well. In response to the divisive and disruptive dialogue that always seems to accompany political discourse these days, the U.S. bishops through their “We Are Salt and Light” campaign have created some materials called “Civilize It 2020.”

These materials contain suggestions and reflections for how to “civilize” our political conversations and even have a pledge that you can take to uphold your intention to be more aligned with Gospel values in our political conversations. (A link to the pledge appears at the end of this column).

Here is the challenge: “We are called to bring the best of ourselves and our faith to the public square – and yet today, many shy away from such involvement because our national and local conversations are filled with vitriol and harsh language, often directed at people themselves.”

They go on to say that Civilize It is about making room in your heart for those with whom you disagree. It is a non-partisan call to focus on the dignity of all people, even when we disagree, and to put faith in action by bearing witness to a better way forward.

Part of creating a more civil dialogue is to refrain from using logical fallacies and poor arguments rather than actually listening to the other person to gain a deeper understanding. It also requires us to call the other person on their use of those same fallacies in order to create understanding in both directions.

Three of the most common fallacies are “whataboutism,” ad hominem arguments, and creating strawmen. “Whataboutism” responds to criticism about a candidate or a policy not by answering the criticism, but by pointing to another candidate or policy to deflect the real issue. For example, someone might say, “The U.S. should never have a policy that condones torture,” and someone might respond that, “Other countries use torture much more than the U.S. does!” The response does not answer the criticism, and so the conversation comes to a halt.

Then there is an “ad hominem” argument, which means, “toward the person.” It is an attack on a person’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument. Someone may make a compelling case for a more equitable tax system, and someone else may question whether we should believe anything from a person who lives in a big house and drives a fancy car. As the Civilize It pledge points out, “When personal attacks replace honest debate, no one wins. This kind of attack, no matter the reason, only serves to further divide our communities. As Catholics, we must model a better way.”

The third fallacy is creating a “strawman,” misrepresenting an argument to make it easier to attack. A person might say that she supports school lunches for poor children, and someone would respond that she wants to take money away from hard-working citizens and give it away to lazy ones. And thus the conversation ends.

Pope Francis reminds us: “May you be sowers of hope, builders of bridges and agents of dialogue and harmony.” As we approach this election season, let us pledge to do our best to enhance the dialogue and to Civilize It!

You can find the Civilize It pledge (and share it with others!) at: http://www.wearesaltandlight.org/civilize-it.

Deacon Don is the Diocesan Director for Catholic Relief Services, and can be reached at deacondon@gmail.com.