This week in English Composition II we focused on “ad hominem.”
To start, students defined ad hominem:
An attack on a person’s characteristics, ones they sometimes have little control over, like physical appearance, rather than the position they are taking.
For this lesson I though it important to bring the discussion further with: how do our current modes of communication contribute to ad hominem attacks? That brought us to a brief exploration of post-humanism: specifically our communications through technological spaces.
Students were asked how technology, communication technology in particular, has made us approach our relationships with other human beings. We talked about how some theorists argue we are cyborgs now, hooked up with extensions: email, social media, vlogs, blogs, online picture albums, Google searches which precede us prior to any formal, human introduction.
Without the pressure of answering to someone face to face, sometimes it is easier to say things online. What is the impact?
Song: Gary Numan (Tubeway Army) “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”
Students reacted to “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” with a variety of insights. They noticed the choice of ‘Friends’ in quotes. What kind of “friends” are we talking about here? Are our friends online really our friends, or do friendships require more?
I pointed out the history in the song: when the song came out in the late 1970’s, people were first starting to consider how technology would change the way we interact with each other–how technology would alter our entire reality. Gray Numan as his anxious stage persona with the pancake makeup and tech color pallate, moving only slightly (along with his band members) to the repetitive, mechanical sounds presents a social commentary close to our current reality. Numan also presents the issue of technological isolationism (“Now I’m alone/ Now I can think for myself/ About little deals and issues/ And things that/ I just don’t understand/ Like a white lie that night/ Or a sly touch at times/ I don’t think it meant anything to you”): paranoia, loneliness.
Visual Art: Robert Hren “Caricature of Donald Trump”
Hren has a series of these caricatures. One of my students pointed out the image of Obama by Hren gives him large ears, which my student attributed to Obama’s good listening skills. We talked about the photo realism present in this caricature and how much it differs from a cartoonish drawing you might get down the shore. Here we see Trump has a giant mouth that looks like a wind tunnel, lips chapped from talking too much, hair whipped around from the force, and tiny eyes because he doesn’t see beyond his own world view. Hren’s art combines ad hominem with other forms of critique and the result is valuable.
Reading: Michael Eric Dyson, “The Ghost of Cornel West”
From our pre-lecture notes:
Ad hominem is one of the most popular logical fallacies meaning “against the person.” It occurs in many public arguments, and it can be hard to distinguish when someone is deploying it versus when a true criticism is highlighted.
In “The Ghost of Cornel West” Dyson argues that Cornel West, another prominent public intellectual and Dyson’s longtime colleague and friend, has suspect moral character.
How does Dyson do this? Use specific examples from the text.
You may stop reading the text when you have written down 5.
What are some recent articles that use ad hominem to discredit a person? Are they completely facile? Could they be construed as useful? Explain.
Dyson’s article was published at a publication he serves as contributing editor. His article is 23 pages long and looks to be editing lite. He criticizes West based on West’s issues with President Obama. West, after supporting Obama during his campaign, felt he was used by the campaign to gain followers until Obama was elected and became just another neoliberal president. Dyson claims this makes West less of a scholar, worse, less trustworthy in the Black community. He cites things like West’s gapped front teeth and Southern preacher style without actually addressing West’s concerns about the American presidency.
We discussed “rage posting” and online feuds, digital identity, and determining credibility.
This was an exciting discussion. Ultimately, students determined Dyson was looking for some of the energy given to West to be given his way. Students considered whether or not Dyson was paid to write the article by someone who wanted to slander West. Another student asked why West didn’t sue for libel. This brought us to another discussion: a student asked why, if West was saying slanderous things about Obama, was he not “sued by the government?” We then discussed that citizens are ALWAYS permitted to criticize the president. Anything else is fascism. This question concerned me because I worry Trump is making impressionable young citizens think they are not supposed to critique the president. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For a thesis building activity, I asked students to pick an element of Dyson’s prose to argue against. Our lesson built on the idea we touched on last week: just because it’s published doesn’t mean it’s infallible.