Internet discussions often follow a predictable pattern. Mike Godwin observed that they inevitably seek out the lower ground of Nazi comparisons. Long before that, however, they descend through argumentum ad hominem, which is a way of saying “personal attacks” in Latin so you look smarter than the jerk you’re accusing of using them.
There should be an Internet Law (“law” as in “description of the inevitable”, rather than “imposition of the will of the state”), similar to Godwin’s Law, that says that whoever lets their emotions get the better of them and resorts to argumentum ad hominem automatically loses the debate. Perhaps there already is such a rule, but the trouble is that people have a hard time recognizing argumentum ad hominem. How many times have you seen a discussion like this?:
1337dood: Your idiotic ad hominem attacks carry no weight with me.
ieatbrainz: Ad hominem?!! Look who’s talking, calling me an idiot. I wasn’t attacking you personally, it’s what you *SAID* that I called stupid.
1337dood: Obviously you know nothing about logical argument. You’re just a sad and angry troll.
ieatbrainz: Well you’re just a self-important douchebag.
Both of our conversationalists have descended into personal attacks, while accusing each other of that offense. Obviously, we need a simpler guideline. I propose the URA Rule:
Any statement containing the phrase “you are a” (or its equivalent) marks the end of reasonable discussion.
If what follows “you are a” is less than complimentary, then we have an argumentum ad hominem. If it is neutral, then it is still a distraction from reasonable argument — perhaps it’s seeking to analyze the reasons why someone might pursue a line of thought, but it’s focusing on the speaker rather than the ideas under discussion. Even if it’s praise (e.g. “you are a god of philosophy”), we have left the debate hall and entered the temple of personality.
I call it the URA Rule instead of the “You Are A” Rule, for three reasons:
- It’s more concise, memorable, and easier to type
- It uses textese, so it fits the milieu of the phenomenon it describes
- It’s a TLA
- If you don’t like it, you’re just a pedant.
EDIT: Chad Perrin pointed out that personal attacks per se do not constitute argumentum ad hominem, but only if they are used as part of the argument. He’s right, but I still think they’re a distraction from reasonable argument.
The other side of the coin is when someone thinks you’re attacking them, when in fact you’re really attacking their argument. You can use this rule conversely in that case: you didn’t say “you are a” (or the equivalent).