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The Broken Hut
Working my way up to a full-size building
Re: Ad Hominem 
26th-Mar-2007 09:13 am

Reg over at Raganwald has a post about ad hominem attacks in online discussions:

Ad Hominem observations are easy to spot. The most obvious is when a participant uses phrases like Lisp Weenie, Apple Fanboy, or Windows Apologist. Even when those phrases are not directly applied to a participant, their very use takes a discussion away from an objective comparison on merit.

While there it’s not very useful to have people use insults to win an argument, I don’t think either of the points made in his post were very effective.

For a start — are those even ad hominen attacks? The closest to an insult in that list is “Lisp Weenie”, which is more silly than effective. It’s like calling someone an academic in an attempt to win an argument. You’re essentially just admitting that the other person knows way more about the subject than you.

Fanboys abound on the internet, as they do in real life. I’m a Firefly fanboy, a Haskell fanboy, an Iain M Banks fanboy, a Mogwai fanboy. And I’m willing to argue the merits and flaws of all of these topics. The alternative is being universally undecided, which I don’t think is even possible. A programmer who claims to have no preferences — who would be as happy writing a web application in 8086 assembly as in Rails, say — is someone I have real difficulty believing. Or maybe they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

The very best thing to do is walk away. That takes real courage, but it is the very highest and purest response.

The second point I’d argue is related to the fact that these aren’t all that strong insults: is it worth walking away from a discussion because someone used a fallacious argument?

Sometimes it’s obvious that you’re getting nowhere, it’s true. If someone starts throwing around conspiracy theories and accusations of bigotry or corruption then there’s not much more to say. But (even on the internet) most discussions aren’t like that. So point out the fallacy and continue the discussion.

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