In defense of ad hominem

So your friend posts some clever remark of Churchill’s, and you respond by pointing out that the dude was a piece of shit: racist, imperialist, elitist, etc. And your friend goes:

“People can be wrong about a thing and right about another.”

I say the following with all sincerity: This is brilliant. This is profound. It is a devastating reply, because it is unquestionably true. Nobody’s ideas are all perfect; therefore we cannot dismiss any given idea just because the person expressing it had other, bad ideas. If we held everyone to the standard of absolute moral purity, no one would pass, and we would reject everything ever said by anyone. This would be very detrimental to thought. It is vitally important that we be able to differentiate between the quality of an idea and its source.

However.

To understand what people mean by the words they say, it helps to look at other things they’ve said. This is an essential technique in philosophy, biography, political theory, literary criticism, etc. For example, when Churchill speaks of “success”, a better-rounded picture of what the dude understood by “success” lets us interpret his words with more specificity. Why should we care? Because, in the event that our idea of “success” differs to some degree from his, we should take his maxim with a proportionately large grain of salt. If it’s drastically different, we should be alert to the possibility that we’re being told something that, from our perspective, is either false or useless.

Let’s try another example. Wernher von Braun was a Nazi who invented the V-2 rocket, the technological forebear of modern rocketry. Rockets are not inherently evil (your mileage may vary). But as soon as von Braun opens his mouth to say one single thing about society, ethics, or even aesthetics, we would be remiss if we hid from consideration his Nazi past. Very often, the true statement “People can be wrong about a thing and right about another” is used to argue that history doesn’t matter, or that context doesn’t help us understand or judge anything.

This is related to the infamous Death of the Author. If the Author is Dead, then it doesn’t make sense to look to other texts with the “same” author to find clues about what’s being said in this one. Under the Dead Author hypothesis, a line is ripped from its context as soon as it’s put on the page, and there’s no use trying to glue the two back together. Lines thus unmoored travel light, with no baggage, and can come to mean anything, to any one, for any purpose.

All of this is very convenient for the un-Dead Author, who can no longer be held responsible for anything they say. “It’s rude of you to even ask about context – my business is my own. As for my repellent views on politics, minorities, women’s suffrage and so on, they have absolutely nothing to do with my series of popular children’s books. How could they? The Author of those books is Dead. Me, I, the person who kicks puppies for fun, didn’t write those things, they were just… written. They should stand alone, on their merits (but keep those royalty checks coming). It’s your weird trip if you want to read them alongside that islamophobic rant I posted on my blog a few months back – what a bizarre, arbitrary connection for you to make.”

The Author, in my opinion, if you haven’t guessed already, Lives. The Author is a line connecting every text they write. When there is room for interpretation in a text, it makes perfect sense to examine other points along the same line in our search for clarity. The same applies to politicians and famous wits. People can be wrong about a thing and right about another, yes. But unless we pay attention to both the right thing and the wrong thing (a decision motivated by the fact that these two ideas occupied the same mind), we’ll never notice the relations there are to find between them. The right/wrong schism is one we impose as external observers to suit our own ideological purposes – the individual in question doesn’t experience it at all. To them, their thought is an organic, if evolving, unity. When we decide a priori that there is no relation between a person’s “right” thoughts and their “wrong” ones, we lose the ability to discover anything in their thought that we didn’t bring to the table ourselves; that is, we lose the ability to learn. All we get is a reflection of our preexisting Manichaeism.

There are other defenses of “the ad hominem fallacy” – this one by Sam Kriss argues that only personal attacks can bring the high and mighty down to the obscene level of their crimes, and that high-minded talk of principles actually serves to whitewash those crimes’ monstrosity. I like that piece very much, but the defense I’m trying to make here is a little different. What it boils down to is this: unless we can talk about authorship, its context, its mistakes, and its sins, we will have a poor understanding of what people mean when they speak and why they mean it. The Dead Author hypothesis claims we shouldn’t care what anyone “meant”, but whenever we repeat what someone else said we do it for a reason. To the extent that our purpose and theirs align, it’s good to remind ourselves of the potential consequences of that shared train of thought. To the extent that our purposes diverge, we should be doubly mindful – both of the toxic assumptions we might be internalizing, and of the ways that dead person’s words might be using us to advance a project opposed to our own.

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