Against Ad Hominem

The United States Senate is often referred to as “the world’s most deliberative body.” Unlike the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, the Senate is the body from which more is expected, where the more substantive debate is supposed to take place.

Senators, who originally were only men who had accomplished great things, are meant to hold themselves to a higher standard than their counterparts in “the people’s house.” From the House, nothing more is expected than a reflection of the people’s will. The Senate is where the elites are supposed to get together and discuss the ideas that are in front of them, rationally, without the rancor and animus that is often present in the House.

This distinction was mostly lost, as I’ve written previously in these pages (“Nobody Cares About Gun Control,” July 13, 2016), when the method for choosing senators was changed with the 17th amendment. No longer are senators high-minded individuals by design; they are the same as their colleagues in the House, just representing more people — and specifically because they represent more people, they are worse at it. (See “Fixing Big Government,” May 29, 2013.)

What has remained, however, are the rules that made this once distinct institution special. Last week, one senator ran afoul of those rules and was punished for it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, in her speech on the Senate floor opposing the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, read from several documents which impugned the character of then-Senator Sessions. These included a letter Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, had written in 1986, opposing his appointment to a federal judgeship, because of his history dealing with issues of race.

Her attempt to read that letter was cut short when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked “Rule 19,” a somewhat arcane Senate rule which states that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” With that, Warren was denied the ability to finish speaking on the matter.

To be clear, I do not know Jeff Sessions, and I have no way of knowing his heart. But that’s all irrelevant here. There is a reason why “Rule 19” exists, and a reason why Warren was rightfully silenced by McConnell.

When people debate ideas, and when people are genuinely interested in discussing those ideas and not just being perceived victors of debate, they won’t make arguments about their opponents’ character or intentions. They would consider the merits of the idea, not those of the person presenting it. That is the point of a “Rule 19,” and why ad hominem attacks — against the person rather than the idea — are disallowed from the Senate floor.

It’s instructive to apply the logic of Rule 19 and the benefits it seeks to confer on interactions which take place outside the Senate as well. I recently received an email from someone whose politics skew to the left, asserting that the actual reason behind a critical piece I had written about former President Obama must be my latent racism. I’m not sure how this insulting missive was supposed to convince me of anything but to ignore the sender.

Mind you, this letter writer does not know me and has no way of knowing my heart. But his being wrong in his ad hominem attack is not the biggest drawback of this approach. It’s that that is no way of getting to the truth.

But if truth isn’t the goal, it can be quite tempting to go the way of the ad hominem, and repeatedly. The political left has found it to be quite effective, impugning the motives and intentions of their political opponents for as long as anyone can remember.

But they’re starting to see the drawback there as well.

I remember the words of advice my Rebbi muvhak, Rav Meir Pincovics, shlita, told me before I got married many years ago. Among many wise words, he shared this tidbit about shalom bayis: “If you can’t allow for yourself to be wrong, you are never really right.”

I feel like we can paraphrase that here as well. If the left can’t allow for anyone who disagrees with their ideas not to be racist or bigoted, then nobody is ever really racist or bigoted. And even when people start popping up who say and do things which are indeed concerning, they suddenly find out that nobody takes their attacks on the character of people they disagree with seriously anymore, and they wonder why.

It most certainly is easy to win an argument — any argument — using an ad hominem attack. But the lessons of the left ought to remind us to ask ourselves one simple question the next time we find ourselves faced with that temptation.

At what cost?