Misusing the Awesome Power of Latin and Other Rhetorical Abuses: Part One of A Primer

Gentle Readers,

Being, as I said, gentle and well-brought up, you are probably acquainted with Latin solely as a force for good in the world. You scan the headlines, pursing your lips over news of nuclear proliferation and gang violence; “These sorts of things wouldn’t happen,” you say “Were Latin more widely taught in schools.” And you are indeed correct.

Where you err is in thinking that Latin is only a force for good, that its awesome power cannot be twisted to evil by Sauron, the Sackville Bagginses, and other creature of major and minor maleficence. Horribile dictu, it can.

This happens most often in argument.

A: You really believe that  children born out of wedlock should be denied baptism? That is disturbing, and I think I would like to talk to someone else now.


A: [Overwhelmed by Awesome Power of Latin, henceforth abbreviated to APL.] I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Tell me more.

Unlike sharks, heart attacks, and aging, misuse of the APL can be largely deflected by knowledge.

Here, Gentle Reader [henceforth abbreviated to GR ] are the tools necessary to defend yourself.

The Big One: Ad Hominem

Ad hominem means, roughly, against the man. It refers to the attempt to falsify a man’s argument on the basis of some deficiency in his character, person, or credentials.

A says that the sun is made of butter. B says, no it’s not, because you were kicked out of the Royal Astronomy Society years ago for plagiarism. C says, no it’s not; and indeed you must be a lady of very limited education to think so. D says, no it’s not, and is this what we pay our school taxes for, you asinine bag of cloth-headed ignorance, you lumpy brained twittering pile of motile, verbal, sentient inferiority?

Who used the ad hominem? Only B.

C simply extrapolated or surmised something about the character of A from the content of her opinions.

Ad hominem: not x because you are y.

Surmise: not x, and you must be y.

Part of the reason the two get mixed is that when someone is actually shocked, horrified, or amused enough to express their surmises to an opponent, she has often ceased to find the argument worth engaging. Thus, she does not bother to offer evidence as to why the sun is demonstrably not made of butter (alas, I’d be making pie with moon-flour right now) along with her surmises on the education of her interlocutor.

The surmise can be right or wrong, but it is not a logical fallacy.

Often, we express these extrapolations in order to censure: to convey the message that not all opinions will be tolerated equally in this society; that there will be consequences for publicizing and disseminating them.

[We pause here for obligatory first amendment fanboy rage. Yes, I am both the physical and moral model for the bad guy in V for Vendetta. No, I don’t perform at parties.]

If you try to censure, GR, if you suggest that you might look askance on theologianswho deny the bodily resurrection of Christ or lawyers who question the necessity of affirmative consent, you will probably encounter howls of outrage.

Ad hominem, the wolves will cry! Suppression of free inquiry! JUST ASKING QUESTIONS, the howls will grow louder, and then PLAYING DEVIL’s ADVOCATE, they will almost sob, and then they will whisper the kicker: you can’t judge me for an opinion!

You have violated one of the basic norms of intellectual engagement; you have sinned against Reason, and he will exact a terrible revenge. You, GR, have broken the rules.

But this is a silly, made-up rule that you don’t have to obey. There is no self-evident reason why the pursuit of truth demands in all cases a totally disembodied, nonaffective field on which the social sphere of duty, accountability, and tradition must not impinge. People who assume, or insist, that nothing they say will be linked to their actual character are asking that you take on faith what they foist on you in the name of rationality; or worse, demanding that you donate your precious time and suspend the normal functioning of judgement and conscience in order to create an intellectual playground in which they can romp.

If someone suggests that families on welfare have no right to reproduce themselves, then hides behind ad hominem when you react, he’s not only wrong, he’s cowardly. He’s demanding that he receive immunity from what most people, often including his interlocutor, cannot be protected: the real, human consequences attending his ideas.

This doesn’t mean you should extrapolate and censure away willy-nilly. Censure has its own awesome power, and misuse of it is the real reason no one asks Torquemada to dinner these days. Censure and surmise can be patronizing, cruel, wildly contexually innappropriate, mistaken and ill-judged, needlessly harsh, well-executed, poorly executed, and everything else. I myself have gotten a marvelous close-up view at the range of condescending, intrusive, boundary crossing, and factually wrong surmises people will cook up for a young lady of decided opinions.

But if you want to censure the censurion, you have to do it on grounds of cruelty, intrusiveness, etc. You have to let in the social realm, where humans behave badly to each other as humans, not as members of a debate team. Crying ad hominem here means ostensibly sealing of the conversation off from social and moral scrutiny, while simultaneously gaining the upper hand as the disinterested and therefore more morally pure and reliable guardian of the sanctity of argument. It’s trying to have your cake and eat it too, and it’s not cool.

Using “ad hominem!” as a general moral slur is a bad idea, but even genuine ad hominem arguments aren’t always illegitimate. Arguments against the man are useless in deductive reasoning. You can’t prove the Pythagorean theorem wrong by reminding us that Pythagoras was a big weirdo, so it’s a waste of everyone’s time to try. But not all problems require deductive reasoning, not all problems can be solved by deductive reasoning, and probably fewer than ten percent of the arguments people actually engage in are deductive–many scientific controversies, for example, depend on inductive or abductive thought.

If I see that some reporter has seen fit to ask Roman Polanski for his special thoughts on sex and gender*, I am not going to sit around puzzling how to parse and debate them.

“Whose opinions on sex and gender are worth listening to?” I think to myself. “Hmmmm. Maybe….NOT the child rapist’s?”

Part of this reaction revolves around whom we should set up as an authority, regardless of his opinions. But I also think, given what I know about Roman Polanski, humans, and sex, that his opinions are probably corrupt and wrong.

This ad hominem is an epistemic shortcut based on inductive reasoning, and a useful one. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but it’s very foolish to go around telling time by stopped clocks.

So if B was an ad hominem, was a surmise or extrapolation, what was D?

Ah, my friends, D is my favorite. D is invective. Invective falls under the APL, even if conducted in English (but really, it’s so much more fun in Latin), because Cicero, if he did not actually invent it, is certainly its king. I can’t find my Pro Caelio, but go read it, if you’ve the stomach. Strong stuff.

Invective is even less likely than censure to make friends and influence people, which is perhaps why Cicero ended up with his head and hands nailed to the rostra. The only time to use invective is when you are not trying to persuade or convince, but signal your total disapprobation of and rupture with the offending party. If someone tries to scare you with it, you can chuck it right back with a clear conscience.

A recent commenter flung invective to the effect that I just wanted to be free of the Church’s spiritual shackles to better pursue my Cosmo lifestyle, by which she presumably did not mean Get That Summer Glow Without Tanning or Find Out If He’s Into You In Three Foolproof Steps.

Had she gone into more detail about exactly which wanton appetites I was desperate to gratify, and how, it might have been interesting–unless you really commit yourself to invective, it generally falls flat.

Well, GR, we’ve covered most direct misuses of the APL, and wandered wildly off-topic once or twice along the way.

Tomorrow: Related Rhetorical Abuses

*Yup, this actually happened.


2 thoughts on “Misusing the Awesome Power of Latin and Other Rhetorical Abuses: Part One of A Primer

    • Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
      illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
      plus quam se atque suos amavit omnes,
      nunc in quadriviis et angiportis
      glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.

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