The ad hominem is one of the easiest and more mindless methods of attacks against someone with whom you disagree.
Apparently I don’t want a government-run healthcare system because I want the elderly to die. Apparently I dislike taxation because I’m selfish. The apparent reason why I don’t approve of Barack Obama is only because he’s black. I apparently hate war because I’m a pansy. Apparently I don’t like government regulation because I want Big Oil to pollute people’s drinking water.
Do you see the absurdity of those statements? But why do people do it?
It’s easier to justify your own position if your opponent is evil. If you believe that someone is motivated by racism, then of course their stance is going to be wrong—you being the non-racist have the righteous argument.
If you are a person who resorts to these sorts of attacks, I have to ask you a question: Do you have any friends or family members who take these positions that you are so quick to attack? And are they mostly good people or are they as evil as your attacks suggest?
We all know people who have different opinions from our own but we don’t necessarily consider them to be evil people (if you do, then you need to reconsider why you would associate with them in the first place). No, we know that they have good intentions yet are incorrect in their logic or thinking. Let’s apply that to everyone we debate.
When you enter a debate with someone, assume that they want what’s best for people just like you do. If they truly do have immoral motivations, you’ll probably figure that out soon enough. But in the meantime, try to figure out the actual mechanics of their views. There’s a pretty good chance that you both want the same end and the source of the disagreement is how to get there. Listen to their point of view and do your best to illustrate why their solution would not get them to where they think it will. And keep an open mind for yourself, you might actually find out that you are wrong.
That brings up an important point. If you are truly trying to find truth, admitting that you are wrong or saying “Okay, I’ll give you that point” shows that you do have some intellectual honesty and care more about trying to find a solution rather than boosting your own ego. It can also make the other person more comfortable in admitting error themselves.
So please, make the effort to start eliminating some of those ad hominem attacks from your debate repertoire. I’m by no means perfect with it and I’ll admit to painting with too broad of a brush at times. You’ll be amazed at how well you can get along with people with whom you think you have no common ground if you just give them the same respect you would expect to be given to you.