A Pet Peeve

A pet peeve is a minor annoyance that one identifies as being particularly infuriating. It’s your “pet,” because you find it more maddening than most of the people around you. In fact, most of the people around you are not be bothered by it in the least. On the contrary, they embrace it as a positive thing—as an obvious good. Which drives you mad.

The term “pet peeve” first appeared in English around 1919. It is derived from the fourteenth-century word “peevish,” which means “ornery or ill-tempered.”

We all have pet peeves. I have several. But I’m going to regale you with just one of mine today.

Recently I was in an online discussion with someone regarding Israel’s recent conflict with the terrorist organization Hamas. She was wanting to understand the background to the conflict and how the situation had gotten to where it was today. I had recently read a good summary of the history of the conflict and so shared the link. She responded with, “Oh, I won’t read that. I don’t trust anything he writes.”

I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was “Oh, so you’re an irrational idiot.” But instead, I simply searched for the same historical summary written by someone that I knew would better match her politics. It wasn’t the time to give her an introductory course in logical reasoning and research methodologies.

My online acquaintance was not behaving or thinking in a way that is out of the ordinary. Most people approach life the same way she does, and without a second thought.

But is it rational for people to refuse to look at, listen to, or read what comes from a person on account of their politics? Or their religion? Or because of the organization they belong to? Or because they appeared on a program they don’t like? Or on a television network they disapprove of? Or because of where they live? Or on account of their ethnicity? Or their nationality? Is it okay to prejudge what someone has to say without ever hearing what they say, and rejecting what they say simply because of who they are?

Sure, it’s normal. Sure it’s natural. Sure it’s common to think like that. But it’s fundamentally illogical and irrational.

Because they’re deciding—before ever hearing an argument or statement—that someone is wrong because of who they are, rather than because of what they said.

When we refuse to listen to what people say because we don’t like them for whatever reason, we are saying that their words are untrue just because they happened to come out of their mouth.

Rejecting someone’s words because of who they are falls under a class of logical fallacies that are termed fallacies of relevance. That is, they are arguments that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. They are a distraction that keeps people from looking at the facts. And they are incredibly common in politics, advertising and just about everywhere. Their prevalence makes them no less annoying and idiotic. To reject what someone says simply because of who they are is to fall victim to what is called an “argumentum ad hominem.” That’s Latin for “an attack on the person.”

There are two basic types of these “ad hominem” arguments: abusive and circumstantial.

An abusive ad hominem argument is one where the person is attacked over what he said simply because of who he is. An example would be to argue against Adolph Hitler’s comment that “today, the sun is out and there is not a cloud in the sky” simply because he is Adolph Hitler.

After all, who he is—a psychopathic Nazi—has no bearing on whether the sun is shining or whether there is a cloud in the sky. If you disagree with him, you have to do so because it is, in fact raining. That he is Adolph Hitler has no bearing on the truth or falsity of his weather report.

The other sort of ad hominem argument is the circumstantial ad hominem. For instance when a Congressman stands up in front of a crowd and comments, “Two plus two is four.” If you stand up and yell, “You can’t listen to anything that man says, he’s anti-union.” Then your assertion is invalid. Two plus two are still four, no matter if he’s pro or anti-union, no matter if he is a fascist or a communist.

If your argument against what someone writes or says, or if your refusal to listen, comes down to simply an attack on the individual, without marshalling any facts or data, then you are guilty of faulty thinking and the only thing you have demonstrated is that you need to take a good course in logic.

Our best bet is to be skeptical of everyone—not just those we don’t like for whatever reason. In fact, we should be most skeptical of those we like and those we agree with. Why? Because our all too human tendency is to pay more attention to arguments which support our point of view while discounting those that don’t. Logic and the scientific method are useful counters to our tendency to only notice what confirms our biases and pre-existing beliefs.

The essence of the scientific method is to attempt to disprove a theory. That’s why falsifiability is so critical. The longer we go without being able to disprove something, the more confidence we can have in a theory.

But in any case, we should always try to be as skeptical of what those we agree with say as we are with those we disagree with. On a practical level, this means we should spend some time reading and listening to those we disagree with, not just those who say what we like. Don’t just surround yourself with yes-men.

Send to Kindle

About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *