Over the past few weeks, the Conservative government has been introducing a flurry of bills that they have absolutely no intention of passing.
Many of the bills, which include motions to sentence certain criminals to life without the possibility of parole and to ban women from wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, have been labelled as potentially unconstitutional by legal observers and rights groups. But that’s besides the point.
The Conservatives are betting on two things: first, that these bills will be popular with their base, and second, that they can slur the Liberals and NDP for opposing these motions. As the CBC puts it, “who wants to run an election campaign arguing against tough sentences for murders and rapists?”
To claim that opponents of their measure are sympathetic to vicious criminals is a classic example of an ad hominem attack. If you’ve never heard of it, the ad hominem is an attack on the arguer rather than on their argument, an attempt to discredit the speaker rather than refute the speech. Ad hominems are common on schoolyards everywhere – like for instance, “What do you know about sports? You’re just a girl!” or, “Nobody cares what you think anyway, you dummy!”
Which sound pretty obvious. But I still remember watching George W Bush gravely intone in a speech to Congress days after 9/11 that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” to wild thunderous applause. Now, that’s barely one step removed from “If you don’t agree with me, you’re clearly an idiot”, but I don’t remember the New York Times calling him out on that one.
Now, an attack on your opponent’s character is to some extent fair game in politics. After all, a politician’s integrity and honesty and trustworthiness are important to people, and when politicians fail to live up to their claims, calling them out is entirely appropriate. What makes for an egregious ad hominem attack is an attempt to avoid the substance of an argument by smearing your opponent – by in effect saying that they aren’t worth listening to. (For the logically inclined, all of the examples I’m gonna discuss in this post are subtypes of the ad hominem fallacy, the fallacy of guilt by association.)
The motivation behind ad hominem attacks is to discredit a person or party or point of view, so the rhetoric deployed to that end can often get pretty nasty. Last week, U of T professor Dr. Faisal Moola tweeted his support of Tim Hortons’ decision to pull Enbridge-sponsored ads from their restaurants following public pressure. (If you missed this whole controversy, it was, with apologies to John Oliver, the most Canadian scandal imaginable – a feud about ads for a tar sands pipeline company in a beloved national coffee-and-donuts chain. This timeline is really thorough, and this fantastic episode of Canadaland delves into how the backlash to the backlash was engineered by a handful of Conservative Party operatives.)
Within minutes of Moola’s tweet being noticed by the King of the Trolls, Ezra Levant, he found himself inundated with responses:
The ecology scientist, who doubles as the David Suzuki Foundation’s Director General of Ontario and Northern Canada, was slammed with more than 1,300 tweets. Critics called him anti-Canadian, foreign funded, and an Arab with obvious Middle Eastern oil connections. Some told him to “get out of my country” and “fall down a set of stairs.”
“I was being vilified as, ‘you have no credibility to speak about this issue’, because you are an Arab. You come from a country that benefits from conflict oil. You are a threat to the country, to the country’s economy and such,” he said…
The digital attacks against him began shortly after Ezra Levant tweeted a mobile-phone screen grab of Moola’s profile and brown-skinned photo, and transmitted them to tens of thousands of followers.
“Another U.S.-funded anti-oil troll pressured @timhortons was this lobbyist, Faisal Moola of @DavidSuzukiFDN,” Levant wrote.
I strongly encourage you to click through and read the whole article if you’re interested in how the Conservative spin machine gets its message out.
The obvious function of these attacks, for conservative supporters, is to other those who condemned Enbridge so thoroughly that any examination of their actual arguments or views become unnecessary. “Foreigners” (whether US-funded or Arab or both) and people who are “anti-Canada” are, in this world-view, obviously wrong about any issue you care to mention.
This is a key insight into the ad hominem attack – if you delegitimize the person making the argument enough, then to your supporters, their argument becomes literally irrelevant. And in this case, it was obviously effective – Levant was able to mobilize over thirteen hundred of his followers on the basis of one well-worded inflammatory tweet.
Something I’ve noticed about ad hominem attacks over the years is that they are way less noticeable when they’re being used against people or groups we don’t like. (Bonus points if you noticed that I totally slurred Levant using exactly the same term, “troll”, that he used to vilify Moola – I’ll bet his usage stood out way more.) For some reason, we seem blind to insults against our enemies, but are shocked when they’re deployed against groups that we’re sympathetic to. So, for instance, this one is pretty glaringly obvious to me:
Canada’s public safety minister cranked up the rhetoric in question period Tuesday, accusing the opposition of supporting “terrorist organizations.”
New Democrat MP Peter Julian brought up a “shocking” new report from Voices-Voix, a non-partisan coalition of more than 200 organizations, that condemned “abuses of parliamentary rules” and “intimidation of public servants.”[…]
Steven Blaney responded by attacking Voices-Voix’s credibility and, by extension, opposition parties, too.
“Why are the NDP and Liberals siding with terrorist organizations and organizations that are supporting them?” asked Blaney.
Blaney continued by saying that, unlike the al-Qaeda affiliates that are the NDP and Liberal Party, “We will stand up for democracy and for the right of Canadians; we will stand up for them and protect Canadians.”
What Blaney is referring to is IRFAN-Canada, an organization providing humanitarian relief in Gaza which is one of the 200+ organizations in the coalition which makes up Voices-Voix. As I documented here, IRFAN was declared a terrorist organization by the Canadian government a few years back because, the CRA alleges, IRFAN was funding organization which were associated with Hamas (the legally elected government of Gaza and, according to the Canadian government, a terrorist organization).
So Steven Blaney is saying that because the Opposition is talking about a report prepared by a coalition which contains one member which the government alleges (but hasn’t proved in court) has in the past given money to groups which are associated with a government-declared terrorist organization, then therefore the NDP and Liberals are “siding with terrorist organizations”.
Not only is that patently absurd, it’s a seriously heavy thing to say. Blaney, after all, has been one of the government’s main cheerleaders on Bill C-51, which makes it a crime punishable by five years in prison to support terrorism. In such a climate of overhyped terror fear, calling your opponents terrorist sympathizers is a serious allegation.
It also completely and effectively distracts from the serious and well-documented charges made in the Voices-Voix report:
“Dissenting and diverse voices within the public sector are being silenced,” reads a section of the 66-page report.
“Parliamentary processes are being misused and abused,” it continued, “Parliamentarians and civil servants are being vilified or fired for publicly disagreeing with government policy.”
The report authors cite examples of dozens of charities they say have been defunded after the government deemed them “too political” for its tastes.
So regardless of how absurd and incendiary the allegation is, it’s effective. Instead of government ministers being quoted defending their practices when it comes to the use of power to silence their ideological opponents, which is never a good thing, instead you get headlines like this HuffPo gem:
Public Safety Minister Accuses Liberals, NDP Of ‘Siding With Terrorists’
Which is (a) clickbait, plain and simple, and (b) recklessly irresponsible journalism. The story here is that a broad coalition of advocacy groups is accusing the government of using a variety of strategies, including withholding funding, CRA audits, and dismissal of public officials, to push an ideological agenda and silence dissenting voices. Making your headline Blaney’s transparently bogus and fallacious claim is not only misleading, it enables the Conservative Party to avoid serious conversations about the actual story.
But not all ad hominem attacks are so easy to spot. Take Thomas Mulcair’s speech this past week at the Toronto Economic Club, a gathering of Bay Street’s elite.
Mulcair was on Bay Street to try to win over the financial crowd, talking up the NDP’s fiscal responsibility and running away from its socialist past. And former Ontario premier Bob Rae, though he wasn’t present, was the elephant in the gilded-ceilinged room. Mulcair’s gotta know that without support from Canada’s financial elite, an NDP government in Ottawa would be just as doomed as Rae’s was in Toronto twenty-five years ago.
[W]ithin months Mr. Rae’s government faced an unrelenting, brutal four-year onslaught that was unprecedented in Canadian history.
The attacks came from all sides. It is no exaggeration to say hysterical fear-mongering and sabotage was the order of the day. Launched within the very first year of the new government, the attackers included every manner of business big and small, both Canadian and American-owned, almost all private media, the police (especially in Toronto), landlords and lobbying/government relations firms. Their goal was clear, and they had the money and power to achieve it…
And after the new finance minister’s very first meeting with the banking community , a bank vice-president told him, in the presence of an aide: “Nice speech, Mr. Minister, but we’re going to kill you.” And they did. [my emphasis]
So Mulcair was speaking to a potentially hostile crowd. How to win them over?
How about by demonizing a guy his audience clearly didn’t like?
With Ontarians skittish about NDP governments after the 1990-95 administration of ex-premier Bob Rae, Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister under then premier Jean Charest, strived to allay their concerns.
“I come from the school of Tommy Douglas who balanced 17 budgets in a row while he ushered in medicare,” he said.
“Or Roy Romonow, who rescued Saskatchewan from bankruptcy with prudent fiscal management — or Manitoba’s Gary Doer, who has the best track record of any premier in the modern era for balanced budgets,” said Mulcair.
“And you don’t have to take our word for it. The federal Department of Finance’s own reports show that NDP governments are the best at balancing the books when in office.” he said.
With that, he took a shot at Rae, who later jumped to the federal Grits after abandoning the NDP.
“There was one exception — but he turned out to be a Liberal.”
Hahaha! Get it? Because if you’re a Liberal then you’re bad!
Here, as with the Levant and Blaney examples, we see the deployment of name-calling to avoid dealing with the substance of issues. (On the bright side, “Liberal” is considered an insult these days!) The fact of the matter is, Rae’s deficits made sense. Check out this Rabble discussion:
[Mulcair] echoes similar, previous critiques of the Rae government by others like Brian Topp and Andrea Horwath.
The problem is that, while there are a great many things that lefties can and should be critical of Rae’s capitulationist regime, the fact that it chose to place services and jobs ahead of balancing the budget during the economic downturn of the early 90s is absolutely not one of them.
Rae’s choice on this front was completely correct both from an economic and human point-of-view. It was a decision identical in its thinking to the demands for greater stimulus spending that led to the ill-fated coalition agreement between Jack Layton and Stephane Dion.
In fact it is the same reasoning that lies behind Mulcair’s own finance critic’s criticism of the Conservative government’s fixation on deficit reduction.
It is a basic part of Keynesian, progressive or social democratic economic thinking that tries to not fight recessions on the backs of the people and to stimulate recovery through spending and it stands in stark contrast to neo-liberal ideas around austerity.
In the context of the time Rae was right to do what he did on this front.
What Mulcair is doing with his nose-thumbing at Bob Rae in front of the very same people who openly threatened to kill Rae’s government is signalling that he’s not gonna be one of those lefty leaders. No sirree! He’s gonna be reasonable! The epithet “Liberal” here is acting as a kind of code for “unreliable”, or “not one of us” – much as it functions in contemporary American political discussions.
But pivotally, he distanced himself from the Rae days with a quip that made the reporters in the room chuckle and evaded entirely any discussion of how far to the right the NDP has moved over the past few decades.
This is the main function of the ad hominem attack – to distract, to change the tone or focus of a conversation, to avoid discussing what’s quite often a central issue. For all intents and purposes, Mulcair was essentially calling Bob Rae a terrorist. Or a poopy-pants. The content of his insult doesn’t matter – what matters is delegitimizing the person and ignoring their arguments
Which is the connecting thread in all of these examples. The semantic content of the insult is ultimately irrelevant – the point is merely to convince your audience that your opponent is simply not worth listening to. Their arguments are irrelevant because they’re obviously wrong. This is often achieved, as in the examples we’ve looked at here, by deploying a loaded term which others your opponent – whether it’s foreigner or terrorist or Liberal doesn’t matter much, as long as it positions your opponent as a member of a group your audience considers to be suspicious, unsupportable, or even evil. If that is accomplished, you don’t need to expend any effort at all on attacking your opponent’s positions, because they are by definition suspicious/unsupportable/evil.
Now, it looks as though this strategy will be a centrepiece of the Conservatives’ election campaign. This shouldn’t be surprising – it worked well the last few times around, when they effectively demonized and delegitimized first Stephan Dion and then Michael Ignatieff, rendering the Liberals’ campaigns completely ineffective. And it seems that Mulcair isn’t averse to throwing a few elbows when it suits his purposes.
So keep your eyes wide open and suspend your judgement when you hear a personal attack on a politician. And remember, the ad hominem attack is a double-edged sword – when you notice it, you know that the person making it is desperately trying to avoid talking about something. In these discussions, it’s what goes unsaid which is often most interesting.