As you’re no doubt aware, an ad hominem attack is fallacious where the person making the argument is attacked instead of the argument itself. When addressing an argument, you need to deal with the premises and logic that lead to the conclusion, not the person presenting those premises and logic. However, if one of the premises is an appeal to authority (“Joe is a scientific expert, and Joe says this scientific proposition is true, therefore it is true”) then an ad hominem attack can be justified because it is attacking one of the premises (Joe’s authority). Again though, the relevant aspect of the authority must be attacked – you could attack Joe’s scientific expertise, but attacking his marital status would be irrelevant. This brings me to a very common attack made on autistic people, when they express a positive opinion about autism.
A classic example can be seen in the particularly controversial Amanda Baggs, who does not see autism is an inherently negative thing – rather as a difference – despite it having a severe impact on her daily life. You can see her most well-known video on Youtube here. There are a lot of ways one can attack her opinions and attitudes towards autism. One of the more extreme ways is to attack the idea that she even has autism: To attack the diagnosis. This attack is potentially valid, because she purports to speak from experience, so if you can attack the experience aspect of her “argument”, then the ad hominem is going to the appeal to authority, and so is not (inherently at least) fallacious.
However, unless you can definitely disprove someone’s diagnosis of autism (which is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible), then attacking the diagnosis is not a good or worthwhile argument. (Although I must say, some people have done a remarkably intensive job of trying to prove Amanda Baggs doesn’t have autism.) It is also a particularly cruel attack; denying someone’s life experiences, and calling them a liar who is harming genuinely afflicted people, is rather extreme. It is always going to be a better approach to deal with the other premises and logic that make up their argument. (For example, attacking the choice to live off government assistance and other people’s daily help while “sinking into autism”, instead of working towards the ability to live independently as much as possible.)
This style of attack – attacking the diagnosis instead of the argument – is also commonly used against people with Aspergers or high functioning autism, especially when they argue that autism is “difference” rather than “disability” (you’ll find plenty of examples in the comments sections of blogs about autism). The attack often takes one of two forms. Either “you don’t really have autism” or “Aspergers isn’t really autism” (therefore you can’t speak on behalf of autistic people who are genuinely suffering). The first of those attacks, as mentioned previously, is difficult or impossible to prove, and the second is quite simply false (and is going to be “even more” false if /when the new diagnostic criteria get rid of the term Aspergers altogether, folding it into the word “autism”).
When people speak from their own experience of autism, and the opinions they share about autism don’t match our own, the better starting point is to remind such people (and ourselves) that autism is a spectrum disorder, with enormous variations in quality of life and autism’s impact on their lives. Yes, autism can affect how the world is interacted with and understood in some very similar ways across the entirety of the spectrum, but how big an impact that has on an individual’s life, and whether it affects what they personally choose to do with their life, still differs. One person on the spectrum simply cannot speak for all people on the spectrum, because of such individual differences. Their personal experiences though can provide insights, understanding, awareness.
These debates about one person with a disability trying to speak on behalf of all people with that disability, are not unique to the autism community. The attack on the word “disability” – preferring to refer to it as “difference” – is also common. A good example is the ongoing debate within the deaf community, where some attack others for encouraging and using cochlear implants that allow people in their community to hear better. There will always be debates about whether something is a disability or a difference, with one side saying the other is unenlightened and trying to murder-by-cure, with the other side fighting back just as strongly for the freedom, independence, and quality of life that is otherwise restricted by the condition. We need to accept the presence of that ongoing dialogue, and be open to the range of voices who want to add to it – whether speaking as a person with autism, or indeed a person without autism (not having autism doesn’t mean your opinions and insights about autism are invalid or irrelevant either).
It’s hard not to be emotional when debating autism, especially when children and their futures are involved. When people get emotional, they resort to ad hominems very quickly. And ad hominem attacks usually feed return ad hominem attacks. It can get ugly pretty quickly. These debates are important though. Trying to focus on the structure of the arguments put forward – the premises, the logic – is the respectful, and stronger, approach. Being aware of the fact you’re making an ad hominem attack – and understanding when such an attack is actually justified (because yes, it sometimes is) – is a good starting point.
Please note that the point of this piece is not to attack Amanda Baggs, or the deaf community, or indeed any one other than those who wrongfully use ad hominem attacks in debates about disabilities versus difference. My primary aim is to talk about the use and misuse of ad hominem. The examples I use are just that – examples – from what I’ve encountered over the years. Do feel free to correct, clarify or disagree with anything I’ve said here though.