Ad hominem (against the individual), my friends!


Influencing people through demagogy is as old as democracy and each propagandist toolkit has a definite place for demagogy techniques. Propastop begins with a series of stories that asks everyone to deal with one technique.

Argumentum ad hominem, argument against the individual

The demagogy technique in which instead of a subjective argument, the opponent is personally attacked, in Latin it is termed argumentum ad hominem, argument against the individual. Instead of substantive argumentation, this technique attacks the opponent personally, consequently diverting attention from any uncomfortable subjects.

Can you recognize this technique? We will present nine different statements in three sections. All are demagogic and manipulative in one way or another. Do you recognize which ones are examples of the use of argumentum ad hominem? Mark your opinion and check the results with the correct answers given at the end of the story. If you like, share your results in the comments section of the Propastop Facebook page. All of these examples are from the Debating Society’s textbook.

Demagogy is defined as deliberately making false arguments to mislead the listener or the reader. Demagogy can be seen in public discussions, in emotional speeches as well as ordinary everyday conversations. Sometimes people use it completely inadvertently although mostly still consciously.

Various authors have described dozens of demagogy techniques. Ülo Vooglaid, a Tartu University professor emeritus has been one of the most involved in the demagogy of Estonia. He presents as many as 111 different forms of demagogy in a five part series of articles entitled „ the ethics of management and governance“.

Demagogy is becoming essential wherever there is a political struggle for votes. We also come across different forms of demagogy on a daily basis. Vooglaid states that politicians to present their perceptions, encourage the audience, sway, irritate or seduce, to spread their beliefs, to justify their actions and intentions, to repel opponents, and to conceal the background of their actions etc., use demagogy.

The Estonian Debating Society introduces 15 different demagogy techniques in its textbook. In broad terms, they can all be divided into three groups: playing on incomplete logic, playing on inadequate knowledge and playing on emotional reactions. Although the conscious use of demagogy to prove a point is unethical, it does not in itself mean that the proven point was wrong – it is simply presented through flawed logic.

 Correct answers
Argumentum ad hominem is used in the claims of 1.,3. and 7.

  1. is an example of the use of argumentum ad baculum, the use of intimidation
  2. is an example of argumentum ad misericordiam, an appeal to emotion, usually pity or empathy.
  3. is tautology, an assertion that is true in every possible interpretation.
  4. is an example of wrong interpretation (non sequitur),
  5. is an example of a quick generalization where a single example is generalized to a whole group or vice versa,
  6. Instead of arguing, the argument refers to connections that are also bad for the opponent (tu quoque), sometimes called whataboutism.

However, knowing the exact names of different demagogy techniques is not the most important thing. Different authors and schools will define the terms in their own way. Demagogic techniques are simply the use of faulty logic, that can be recognized without knowing the names of the particular techniques.

Vooglaid believes that demagogy is dangerous in many ways, although often necessary – sometimes you can only use demagogy against hardened demagogues. Therefore, you should make yourself familiar with the topic.