A week spent with Evgeny Morozov (in reading, I should add) has led me to consider how useful the ad hominem attack is in critical debate. I know – but please bear with me. This is firstly not an attack on Morozov, and as I have never (nor would I think I ever would) had any contact with Evgeny Morozov, then I have no reason to attack him ad hominem. A criticism frequently made of Morozov though is that he is quick to go to ad hominem attacks himself, and this was the first of three “events” that made me dwell on the idea of the ad hominem in the last week. The other two were: the revealing of the name of the tweeter Old Holborn, and a remarkable twitter conversation I witnessed on Friday afternoon. I’ll deal with these two cases before I return with a partial review of To Save Everything, Click Here and my final thoughts on ad hominem as a technique.
Firstly, we are always instructed (and I have instructed) that ad hominem attacks are a logical fallacy, and worse an admission of weak argument or lost argument if one has to resort to personal attacks over the substance of one’s argument. I’ve always accepted this, but also had both an odd respect for the ad hominem and a weird belief that in particular circumstances its fine to use this technique. What circumstance you may ask? When you have so completely pwned the object of your derision; then, the personal insult can work nicely as a kick to the ribs when the person is down, figuratively speaking. This is, of course, indicative of my immaturity and liking for vicarious violence, and should not be seen as anything else or a valid and respectable way to behave. The case of Old Holborn – a vicious, right-wing troll – is one ad hominem I could do without. After many years of trolling in the name of “free speech”, this repugnant individual attacked the memory of the 96 Hillsborough victims this week, again trotting out the discredited and ancient, Sun-fuelled lies of Liverpool fans being at fault. This was reported to the Police, and the troll has apparently now been caught. Boo Hoo. Free speech enthusiasts and “libertarians” are of course up in arms, aghast at the idea that this man should be prosecuted for merely causing offence when the sacred cow of free speech is threatened by his silencing. Debates on free speech are notoriously thorny and caustic, and I do not advocate censorship – but I do advocate the thorough kicking (through legal means or otherwise) of pathetic keyboard warriors that deliberately set out to offend, and offer nothing for free speech at all – unless the trotting out of discredited lies is now a pillar of the right to free speech? If so, then …. no, better not go there. You see, I was just about to conflate all Thatcher sympathisers with comatose vegetables, but that would be an offensive LIE and not free speech. Hope that helps. I found the whole affair interesting (and wholly depressing) for 2 reasons: one, free speech apparently overrides the ad hominem and two, if this should not have been censored why should tweets about Fabrice Muamba have been? Let me be clear: I have no sympathy for the “man” who racially abused Muamba on Twitter as he lay clinically dead on the pitch at White Hart Lane, and was in agreement with the outright disgust and condemnation of the individual. I also thought the prison sentence fair. Frankly, similar treatment for Old Holborn would also be fair given his long history of racist tweets concerning Muslims and Islam, again defended by his right to “free speech”. In the Old Holborn case, there have been many (inevitably Guido Fawkes followers) that have jumped to his defence. So, is the logical fallacy overcome if one is using the technique to defend free speech? Well, no.
The second event was highly amusing, and had me in stitches. It involved two people I admire, one that I know and admire greatly, the other that I do not know but who’s work I respect and enjoy. Dr David Berry (admission: my PhD supervisor) and Professor Tim Morton were involved in a bizarre Twitter exchange on Friday afternoon (UK time) that had me in stitches in the University Library. I will not go into it too much, but it reminded me of this in its pace and odd turn:
It really did get out of hand fast, and I won’t repeat it for respect for the two individuals involved, here. I’m not sure if I missed something, but there seemed to be a rapid descent into something that could be construed as ad hominem attacks. However, I may have missed something (maybe private messages or a tweet that was erased or not in my timeline). I must admit again, it was pretty funny. I respect both men, so I’ll say no more on the matter, and it was cleared up very quickly (I think) – the motto, no ad hominem in academia! Seems fine to me (at least in public).
Or so you’d think, because Morozov has been accused of this type of behaviour frequently. My thoughts on this become a little more clouded when I consider my favourite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, a man never far from ad hominem attacks on just about anybody or anything he didn’t like: women, utilitarianism, various religions etc… Why can Nietzsche do it, and others cannot? Well, Nietzsche had a style that in itself may have lent itself to this kind of pithy putdown, and Nietzsche was (for me) at his best when being destructive. His positive philosophy is never as effective as his negative attacks in my view. This helps lead into a review of Morozov, who has been accused by others (I’m thinking of Tim Wu here, whose excellent review can be read here) of having no positive response to his criticisms of Internet culture and use. In short, Morozov makes two claims about Internet enthusiasts that make claims that the Internet is a solution to many of the problems of democracy, capitalism and other -isms: internet-centrism and solutionism. Internet-centrism is the notion that these people take the internet to be a thing (an actual thing), which Morozov disagrees with vehemently. Such a view is mistaken because i) it’s not a thing and ii) ascribing the internet the identity and properties of a thing is to give room to the possibility that the internet can, in itself, be a solution to problems. As the internet is not a “thing” (as an entity that can be discussed) then it cannot be the solution to these problems (apologies for the oversimplification, but that is the gist). I’m pretty amused at this to be honest, as this view of the internet – if followed – would also mean that there is no point in talking about many things: Wales, society (as pointed out by Cory Doctorow), Christianity etc. The internet does exist as a thing as it is discussed, used, explained and used to explain and is clearly a phenomena in our world that people encounter. Just a very weird idea, and completely at odds with my own view of things as entities that phenomenally exist in the world and orient people in particular ways – which the internet does, as Morozov implies throughout.
The problem of solutionism that Morozov raises is something I found myself much more sympathetic to in the book. I do agree (and I may well be wrong, but hell, that is no crime) that there are intractable problems in human existence, and the internet is not going to help to solve those any more than voodoo or sticking knitting needles in the eyes of strangers would solve them. However, I can see where the accusations of the ad hominem attacks come from here (although they are nothing compared to Morozov’s twitter exchanges) and they are pretty unnecessary smears, especially when Morozov attacks ideas that are clearly flawed and do not require the rhetorical flourish of a slight on the intelligence of the other person. Like I said, I am sympathetic to some of the examples made here, and to some of the criticisms of solutionism. However, I also think that criticising solutionism itself as a position that uses the internet to solve problems is very problematic. The internet has solved problems which could not have been solved otherwise: talking to loved ones around the world for free, with video interfacing, was not something I recall prior to Skype (an inventive mind could go on for hours here, but I’m getting bored). Morozov is not wrong (in my mind) to identify solutionism as an attitude or mindset, but I fail to see the problem in the application of that mindset to many problems. The internet may not solve the problems of democracy, but what will? People perhaps? Those that claim the internet can maybe want to rethink their claims, but to cast all solutions aside seems odd in itself.
I’ve heard other, more stringent critiques of this book. Morozov as proto-George Soros amongst other things. I think students may benefit from the whistle-stop tour of modern Philosophy of Technology included in the work, and in engaging with the arguments presented. I ended up agreeing with little, but not by any means thinking of the work as a waste of my time or a wasted opportunity – hell, it will provoke a lot more debate than most works will. As for the ad hominem attacks, its pretty clear that people don’t like Morozov using them, and my opinion is that his arguments are not widely accepted enough to take the “I’ve won, now I’ll kick you when you’re down, b*tch” stance of the ad hominem warrior. Still, I kind of like the style. Much more than hiding behind free speech to cause deliberate offence when you’ve already lost (or never had) an argument. Sadly, it looks like my opportunity to use this rhetorical flourish/logical fallacy will have to remain with trolling Cardiff City fans on Twitter, and academia will have to be conducted with a more noble and mature tone – unless I rule, then watch me go.