The Bar-On Brief: Ad hominem attacks must be avoided in political debates

The Bar-On Brief: Ad hominem attacks must be avoided in political debates


President Donald Trump announced last week that he intends to use an executive order to get rid of birthright citizenship in the United States.

In other words, he wants to change the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, abolishing the law that all babies born in the United States are naturalized citizens.

Virtually all legal experts conclude that such an executive order would be unconstitutional.

But the president’s proposal opens the door to a necessary conversation: whether or not America should keep the policy of birthright citizenship. I don’t intend to answer that question here. Instead, I want to use the president’s comments to spark a conversation about why it is necessary to engage in premise-driven rather than ad hominem-based debates.

I have listened to several conversations and debates between “experts” on cable news networks, peers in college and friends from home attempting to answer the question.

In almost every case, defenders of birthright citizenship personally attacked their opponents and the president, most commonly characterizing them as racist.

Simply put, this is an ineffective tactic, because reactionary attacks can actually validate and substantiate the other side’s argument. A personal attack against an idea’s proponent shows a lack of confidence in attacking the idea itself, as if the attacker does not have anything substantial to critique and must resort to pure insult.

In any debate, especially one regarding public policy, it is crucial to be able to clearly articulate reasons in support of a position. Arguing in favor of a policy simply because that policy has always existed is a weak argument — just like arguing against the character of the policy’s opponents.

Trump’s proposal, then, has positive implications because it forces Americans to consider why they value birthright citizenship and strengthen their arguments in favor of it.

I think we owe him some gratitude for opening the door to this much-needed conversation. It allows us to reflect on an American ideal not previously considered precisely because we have taken birthright citizenship for granted. Because Trump brought this conversation to light, the American public is tasked with the responsibility of examining why birthright citizenship is fundamental to American society.

That said, just as it is crucial to be able to articulate an opinion and explain its underlying reasons, it is equally important to welcome debate against that position and open its premises to cross examination. Shielding a policy from debate and scrutiny puts its soundness into serious question and jeopardizes our ability to develop and solidify our opinions.

In the birthright citizenship conversation, and in any policy-centered debate, it is important to keep an open mind and allow for ideological changes.

Progress is made and consensus is reached through effective, open-minded debate. Therefore, a changing of the mind is not something to be ashamed of — on the contrary, it is something to be proud of.

Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore majoring in political science. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.