Whatever Happened to the Playful Ad Hominem?


Few things excited or engaged my mind as a child as much as Buckley’s playful ad hominem attacks, launched regularly at his guests on Firing Line.  The debates concerned heavy issues, but somehow the surprise verbal assaults elevated the conversation—gave life, verve, and a different sort of seriousness to the event.  When Buckley was at the top of his form his jibes could simultaneously expose, by subtle and indirect means, a serious critique in the position of his opponent and foster trust and an emotional bond among the participants.  For the audience, it was a competition of ideas and cleverness, and it had the great virtue of helping us think about serious matters in a way that opened up ways of thinking more complex and less literal.

I experienced other forms of playful ad hominem attacks when I was a child, from one uncle saying to another “how is it that you get uglier every time I see you?” to rather subtle statements concerning racial differences at pick-up basketball games in my largely black community.  I cannot imagine witnessing the latter example these days and the former is much more rare in my experience, as though the joking attack is no longer a means of expressing affection.

But it is at the intersection of intellectual and political conversation where I most miss the adroit use of playful ad hominem jibes.  From my narrow experience, the antagonists are more prone to a deadening seriousness and literalness, rendering the conversation lifeless.  It is reasonable to believe that I am seeing a change where this is none or that I’m applying an unusually high standard (found on Firing Line but not found generally at the time) that makes comparisons with contemporary debates inappropriate.  Be that as it may, a little subtle ad hominem attack might make me love political debate again.

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