Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chickenhawk: Thoughts on Catholics and Ad Hominem Attacks Aimed at Silencing Opponents


Before I begin, let me just say that in writing this article, I don’t intend to defend or promote any specific candidate or their position. Indeed, I hope to write something that would remain true if it was read fifty years from now. My concern is that many people who are using this argument seem to be unaware of the fact that it can be used to attack other positions as well. Thus the Catholic who uses it to attack a political view they dislike may find himself “hoisted by their own petard” when someone uses the same argument against a moral teaching of the Church. Then this person would end up looking like they support a double standard.

To avoid such problems, we need to be consistent and ethical in how we speak out or blog against something we oppose on moral grounds. If we behave inconsistently, somebody will notice and even if they don’t call us out, they will notice and assume we behave hypocritically.

The Current Misbehavior

One of the common attacks that happen when Catholics debate the current slate of people campaigning for nomination is an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem [literally meaning “to the person”] happens where, instead of refuting an argument, the person attacks the individual who makes the argument. There are many different ways one can attack the person who argues, but they all are guilty of the same thing—attacking the individual does not actually refute what was said, even if it succeeds in makes the person look foolish.

Ad hominem 2

During election years we see statements appear which are designed to attack people who hold a position contrary to what the attacking individual supports. This year is no different. In this current election cycle, this argument I’ve noticed is an attack on the person who favors strong military action against ISIS. The argument is that because Candidate A did not serve in the military, he is not qualified to advocate a position of strong military action. Rhetoric portrays them as casually sending men off to their deaths, not caring about what happens to them. The problem is, calling a candidate a Chickenhawk (defined as a person who speaks out in support of war, yet has avoided active military service) does not demonstrate that the candidate’s position is wrong. It only demonstrates that the person attacking disapproves of the position. But who is to say that the disapproval is true? Slapping a label on a candidate is not a refutation of his position. 

This argument is an enthymeme (an argument with a hidden but assumed premise). It assumes a premise that only people who served in the military are qualified to decide in favor taking military action. It then takes the fact that Candidate A did not serve in the military to disqualify him from holding his position on military strategy. That’s a bad argument to make for several reasons.

Flaws With the Argument Are Apparent

One problem is, this argument does not address the question of whether a lack of military experience disqualifies or whether having experience qualifies someone to decide in favor of military action. One of the obvious responses is to contrast Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. FDR was not in the military.[1] Hitler was. So to use the “chickenhawk” argument, FDR was not qualified to make a decision committing troops to combat, while Hitler was qualified. But history shows that this is absurd. So we can see that military service or its lack is not, by itself an indicator of whether a decision to use troops is justified.

A second problem is that this argument can be used to target anyone who holds a position that is disliked. For example, consider all the people who target pro-lifers by saying that men can’t become pregnant, therefore they shouldn’t condemn abortion. Or the people who say that Priests are celibate, therefore they shouldn’t condemn contraception. Just like the “chickenhawk” ad hominem, the intent of this kind of attack is to embarrass and exclude a person who holds Position X by saying he has no right to take a position contrary to the preferred one on account of one aspect of his life he cannot change whether through circumstances of birth or through events in life.  

A third problem is that it overlooks the possibility of change of views over time. A person who chose not to join the military for whatever reason is not locked into the views they held when they were 20 for the rest of their lives. For example, I was an idiot at 20 and my views have been substantially modified since then. Others may have behaved in a way they now regret. I would not make a blanket claim that all people regret their past. But neither can we assume that these people are deliberately being hypocritical. 

A fourth problem is we can reverse it. If a person who did not go into the military has no right to advocate an aggressive military response, then it logically follows he also has no right to oppose military action. In other words, we might as well make America like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers [2] where only veterans can be citizens. We might as well forbid men to have pro-abortion views and celibate clergy to have pro-contraception views. In other words, the argument is only applied in a partisan manner to silence people we disagree with, never to determine what is true.


Again, I don’t write this to defend any candidate or their position. I write this to encourage people to recognize that this argument is not one used to determine the truth. It’s used to try to turn people against a view the arguer dislikes by attacking the person who supports the disliked view. It’s basically a cheap shot. We need to stop using. If we want to lead people to embrace a certain view, we should use reasoned discussion as to why our view is correct and the opposing view is wrong. We should not use cheap shots aimed at embarrassing the opponent.

So I would encourage my fellow Catholics to stop using this form of attack. It’s fallacious, it’s unjust and it is one which can be used to attack our own beliefs. Instead, let us show why their position is wrong—not with rhetorical tricks, but with truth, leading by example to show that we seek to live what is true and good.




[1] We have had (to the best of my knowledge) twelve Presidents who never served in the Military: Adams, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Cleveland, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Clinton, and Obama. If one excludes presidents who were in the military but never served in combat, the number increases.

[2] The movie was pretty brainless, but the book did at least raise some interesting questions about why we don’t take our citizenship more seriously. No idea if that was Heinlein’s intent, but that was the result for me.

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