Personal attack

Lat. ad personam, Lat. persona referring to the actor’s mask, corresponding to the interactional face or social role of the person, not precisely to his or her personal identity.

The Latin label ad personam is also used to refer to personal attacks. Personal attacks can target all aspects of the person, public or private, including his or her human dignity. Such attacks flout the rules of politeness and all ethical prohibitions that protect the individual, as a unique human being.

The personal attack against the adversary is, in principle, quite distinct from the ad hominem attack. The latter refers to a marked contradiction found between the positions taken by the opponent and his or hers beliefs or behavior, whereas personal attack bypasses the opponent’s positions, smearing the opponent in order to devalue the argument itself. Nonetheless the label ad hominem is frequently used to refer to personal attacks.

1. Open and covered attacks 

Insult is the simplest form of attack ad personam: “Sir, you are only a badly educated dishonest person!”. Open personal attack can be a very efficient strategy to undermine the debate and avoid the substantial issue. The opponent will be upset, he or she will lose track of the argument and will finally resort in turn to personal attacks and insults. Third parties will then be tempted to leave the arguers to their fight, or to simply enjoy the show.

The personal attack may invoke the opponent’s private life: “you’d better take care of your children!” said to an opponent whose children are badly behaved, is a personal attack which many would consider extremely offensive. In a debate, such a personal attack might be brought in more subtly by introducing the issue of family policy, emphasizing the need for parents to give priority to their children’s education, without openly mentioning the opponent’s circumstances. The rumor and the media will explain the innuendos.

He cannot rule his family, and he pretends to rule Syldavia!

2. Degree of relevance of the attack 

Personal attacks may be more or less relevant to the issue at stake. Consider the negative descriptions of the adversary made in the context of the argumentative question, “Should we wage war against Syldavia?”:

S1       — We must take military action against Syldavia!
S2_1   — Shut your mouth, stupid warmonger!
S2_2   — Please, stop this bullshit!
S2_3   — Poor fool, manipulated by the media!
S2_4   — Poor you, last week you couldn’t even locate Syldavia on the map!

Considering the available context, S2_1 and S2_2 are unprovoked and irrelevant attacks against the person. That is to say that they have very little relevance to the argumentative question. But in case S2_3, nothing is clear; S2 is certainly wrong in calling the opponent names, but he/she does provides an argument invalidating S1 for his or her lack of basic geopolitical knowledge. If we apply the principle “no argumentation without information”, the attack is certainly not irrelevant. A distinction must be made between calling a sensible upright citizen a fool, and calling a fool a fool. But if this were the case, all slurs and attacks would be reinterpreted as well-suited literal or metaphorical descriptions of the person; hence the general prohibition of insults.