Thursday, November 27, 2008

Argumentum ad Hominem & Cultural relativism

As I review the feminist concepts from this past week, it seems that there is one determinant principle to this research model that dwarfs all others: the ad hominem argument. I would like to consider what exactly is an argumentum ad hominem, query if such an argument is valid when presenting a position, and finally illustrate this type of argument from the class discussion.

Argumentum ad hominem is a Latin phrase used in debate or rhetoric which literally translates "argument against the man." I did not make this up, nor did I intend the pun (as we shall see later). An ad hominem argument "consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim" (Wikipedia). Therefore when feminists state that a certain claim is made "because x is a male (white male, black male, et al)," they are using argumentum ad hominem in more ways than one. In the first place, it is a de facto statement categorizing a claim made by a male by nature as invalid because the author is a male. At the very least, this is circular reasoning. In the second place such an argument has never been considered valid, seeing that it is based on neither qualitative nor quantitative evidence or data. Because ad hominem arguments do not directly address the claim or proposition (only the author of the proposition), such arguments are falacies. As it relates to feminism, it is an a priori premise to validate the feminist paradigm and nothing more. Therefore, if this form of argument is invalid then any parts of feminism based upon it remain indeterminate and without either authority or authenticity.

Some may say that many positions hold to a priori premises and feminism is thus no worse or better than any other. That may be so, but if feminism's a priori premises (which ultimately disenfranchise one group and take away their voice) go unchallenged then several movements of the past that have proved less that egalitarian or humanitarian based upon similar a priori reasonings (19th treatment of Native Americans, social-darwinism, holocaust, slave trade, Darfur genocide) are given a pass. This makes for strange bed-fellows.

Let's consider a case in point from class. There was a brief discussion on the Muslim Hijab which somehow morphed into long hair on women in American holiness churches. When it was suggested that possibly the women under consideration (either Muslim or Holiness) chose to wear the associated head dress, it was stated that this was clearly oppression and that only a [white] male would make such a statement. Now that, my friends, is a classic example of an ad homimen argument, meaning this: since x male made the claim and y female said it was oppressive, then ipso facto the male was in error because he was a male. The behavior as relates to women's head dress had already been deemed oppressive (whatever that means), so any argument to the contrary, especially when made by a male, is therefore invalid. But where is the evidence? Is it possible that western culture is being read into either situation to deem it "oppressive," or is it possible that only certain women consider it such. I'm really having a hard time with the connotations of oppressive. Am I being told that a scarf is oppressive to the same extent as honor killing is? Everything with which one disagrees can not be considered "oppressive" just to bolster the quantative data on female oppression. Doesn't this sort of data manipulation parallel to the girl who cried "wolf?" Now for the rest of the story.

As regards the hijab in the Mulsim world. This head dress did not derive from 7th century Muslim males (which were, by the way, not white males), but rather from the wives of Muhammad. It seems that these gals were on the par with superstars and could not leave their houses to go shopping or to the bathroom without being thronged. Therefore these women (not men) decided to go incognito, and the hijab was created. Later on some folks though that if it was good enough for the wives of the prophet, it was good enough for the common folks. Thus it was an imitation of women's customs, not male dictates. How it may have evolved in the present is another narrative. The moral of the story is to be careful with the facts and not read western culture into every situation.

In the second example, it was stated that women who wore long hair in US holiness churches were oppressed. Now that is really peculiar considering the historical context from which it derives. Neither does a hair style seem so oppressive a the self-imposed female assessories of the past such as girdle, corset, eye-liner, high-heels, chokers, etc. (but I do admit that is my own perspective and would not want to participate in gladitorial games that requires such equipment). Cultures have their symbols: iPods, blue jeans, hats, and hair. Faith communities also have symbols: crosses, menorah's, and head coverings. Jewish men wear a tallit when praying. For many years, only males did this but now it is common to see women in synagogue wearing a prayer shawl. In Christian faith communities, it has been women who wore the head coverings. Could common men wear them: not usually! From whence does this custom derive? From white male oppression or from female customs of the east? Take your best guess, and then you can proceed. In the first century Roman empire, it was common for women to have long hair, to wear veils, and to have head dresses. In the church of Corinth, St. Paul addressed this matter. Not that the women failed to veil themselves (as female custom dictated), but that some of the men were apparently copying older Greek traditions of wearing long hair like the Greek warriors in the Trojan war (Iliad). It was apparently no longer customary to do such. St. Paul asks the folks, "what are your customs." He appealed to the common life of Roman citizens in formerly Greek regions. Life was hard enough without asking for a fight. Holiness churches drew their idea of long hair on women from the same passage of scripture (1 Corinthians 11), such was common in the early 20th century, it released those women from hats and veils, and it actually states that a woman's long hair empowered her (at least in that day). Again, we have considered oppression what another culture considers empowerment, because of a failure to recognize what anthropologist call cultural relativism. Western values are not the touchstones for all peoples.



Alan C.R. Mueller said...

You write: "In the first place, it is a de facto statement categorizing a claim made by a male by nature as invalid because the author is a male." I believe that this represents a cursory understanding of our readings, and I’d encourage you to delve deeper. I would simply say that feminist perspective would argue not that claims by male are invalid, rather simply made from the male perspective and therefore given the makeup of the world, incomplete. If you want to talk circular reasoning you can continue to make positivists claims and pretend as though men have not driven the positivist paradigm into prominence at the expense of women, all while supporting your way of thinking and arguments with additional positivist claims. Your concern that the feminist perspective will ultimately disenfranchise a group and "take away their voice" seems to demonstrate a general misunderstanding of the facts of our world. I'll give it to you in positivistic terms just to be friendly to your espoused way of thinking. Check out this site:

I'd encourage you to look at other sources. There is not a single country in the world where women are a majority of the highest executive body in government (from the State of the World Atlas, 2000 Penguin Books). In the US and Canada women make on average 50-69% of what men do. Almost all of Europe is in that category (though women do better in Finland, Denmark and Latvia, but worse in Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Greece (making less than 50%). SO now you're going to make an argument about how these statistics were gathered, and talk about how some women choose to stay home... etc. etc. But the reality is that women get less lucrative jobs than their male counterparts and even when working the same job make less money. This is WORLD-WIDE.

In terms of your commentary on the history of various dressings and hairstyles, I would say simply this. Though you may be able to trace origins of different traditions to times during which they were not instruments of oppression that can not make up for the vast amounts of oppression in the wake of those traditions. You information is of little use to women (many of whom I have known) who have been beaten for not conforming to one tradition or another. Would you take comfort in the history of a given tradition if a woman you cared for was a victim of violence for its sake? The fact that you are able to logically trace back the history of the hijab from the comfort of your computer indicates to me that you have not yet been killed for wearing or not wearing a certain garment. In the time it has taken me to draft this response one woman in the US has been beaten, and three have been raped. Also in that time 30 women in South Africa have been raped. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I am happy to risk this impending disenfranchisement that you imagine may be heading my way if the feminist perspective gains the traction necessary to curtail this kind of violence.

Dave Smith said...


Thanks for the response. I don't think that I denied that female oppression exists, matter of fact I allude to the evolution of head dress as another story all together. My argument is that males are not the sole inventors or perpetrators of female oppression (take the article on Multiple Annies as a case in point). In the second place the statement of a male does not de facto make it either incomplete (your generalization) or false. It is at least no more incomplete than the statement by a feminist or non-feminist female. From a constructivist ideology, wouldn't this just be another "truth?"

Feminist ideology, being a subset of critical theory must "otherize" someone, or some group. Critical theory demands a conflict thesis. As far as I can tell, the group that feminism "otherizes" is males in general, and white ones in particular. If I am mistaken, enlighten me.

On the other hand, I am not doubting anyone's narrative, though I feel no aversion to listening to multiple narratives. As a case in point, I had a conversation with a former holiness woman(it was actually uncut hair and not a relative long/short idea that was often promoted), and this lady told me that it was other women that both promoted the idea and frowned upon those who did not participate. This lady said she knew men in the movement that actually kept pictures of their wives before they had accepted the custom of uncut hair. There was never any violence used in compliance or non-compliance. I would not claim the same for the Muslim contest of the hijab, though I have heard interviews of western women who had the choice and opted for hijab. To be fair, I must take these narratives seriously.

I am not sure the relationship between the condition of women to the statement that they do not hold high positions? Are we really going to force women into an oligarchy or hierarchy for credibility? The capitalist free world of the 20th century does have examples of women in the highest office of the land: (Golda Meir, Israel and Margret Thatcher, Great Britain). Outside of the capitalist world, and inside the Muslim world and other totalitarian frameworks, I do not think we see the same. I need to rethink this concept.

I do not believe that either conflict thesis or constructivism will bring a solution to the feminist mystique (as Friedan denoted it in her book), I'm not even sure that feminism speaks for all women or all women's causes. If we use a constructivist ideology, how then do we know that any concept that feminism opposes is not just another truth? Conflict thesis and blame is not transformational, at least according to Kegan. On the other hand, a more objective ideology can accept that there are real abuses (not just different perspectives or other truths), better ways to do things, and non-attributive language that can take us far down the road to transformation.

By the way, I have been told that it is more dangerous to be a male than a female, and that the mortality rates of male infants are even higher than those of females. Do you think the data is skewed, and if not why is this so?

For duty and humanity,


marisa said...

Well-said, Alan. X male heard the argument of y female as an "argument against the man" because that's what was expected, not what was actually stated. This was not, nor will ever be my assumption. As Alan mentioned, the argument is not invalid, it is sorely incomplete.

Yes, some women are able to freely choose to wear a hijab and do so. To assume that ALL women wear it by choice is probably comforting to some, but it is the comfort of the oppressor. (I would say this about women or men.) The scarf itself is not oppressive; the punishment is. It is no secret that many women live under the threat of violence or death for refusing to adhere to dress codes or other restrictions. This is a basic human rights issue, not a question of cultural relevance. We are working in modern, not ancient history. I appreciate the perspective, but not at the expense of excusing the current manipulations of cultural customs for the purposes of control.

Dominant groups are oppressive when they refuse to acknowledge 1)their dominance, 2)the negative effects on others, and 3)their fear of losing power. They take comfort in the idea that there are a few who don't mind being oppressed or who don't feel the effects of the oppression. Oppressors are those who say "why can't we all just be people" without owning the societal privileges and persecutions that they bring to the table. The fear of losing is what keeps oppressors fighting to stay on top (and obliviously beating everyone else down.) Instead of collaboration, we have competition at its very worst.

Dave Smith said...

Hi Marisa

You state "Well-said, Alan. X male heard the argument of y female as an "argument against the man" because that's what was expected, not what was actually stated." In actuality, x male heard the agrument of y female as ad hominem because y female said audibly "you (or they, it may have been indirect) say that because you are a man." Even if the words were not used, but the cognitive basis reflects this prejudice, it is still ad hominem. The way to circumvent an ad hominem argument is address the phenomenon, not the person who questions or critiques. There is not a way that either males or females always address an issue in all cases. That a priori. The most that can be said is that some males expect x or some females expect x, based on y research. For example, we offer examples of women who chose and those who were forced. This addresses the phenomenon or case by case data. If we find that males oppressed females, we must ask what males or within what context. Oppression through forced wearing of hijab does not flow from western white males in capitalistic or democratic societies. Not only is the ad hominem agrumentum invaild, but generalization (males without a qualifier) is invalid. We would also need to clarify how females may oppress or assist in the oppression of other females in similar situations.

My point is that oppression can not be generalized. Oppression is universal and females are not exempt from being oppressors, domestic abuse, child abuse, and spousal abuse are cases in point. Certain persons oppress and are oppressors, not groups. A group ideology or blame would allow group punishment, and we all know where that can lead. Actions, oppressive or otherwise, are committed by individuals, not by collectives.