An African leader dispatches troops to the border of a neighboring country. A critic who happens to be a white U.S. citizen says, "That man's a militaristic bully!"

One of the African leaders' supporters then replies, "You're just racist."

It sounds like a simple ad hominem attack, unless we reword it like this:

If you're white and you think Leader X has a problem, then you must be racist.

  • Bulverism -- diagnosing an error that may or may not actually exist, especially if this involves classifying the speaker instead of addressing the argument.
    – user9166
    Jan 7 '19 at 23:58
  • Playing the race card, and it not a fallacy. If the idea is that one uses faulty reasoning to infer racism from meager evidence that is not how it works. It is much more primal and visceral, the us vs the Other, the base survival instinct of a herd animal.
    – Conifold
    Jan 7 '19 at 23:58
  • @Conifold Surely you are aware that things that are often correct can still be falacies.
    – user9166
    Jan 8 '19 at 0:02
  • @Conifold Yes, this is a classic example of playing the race card. I wasn't sure if it could also qualify as a fallacy or not. I'll check out bulverism, too. Jan 8 '19 at 0:23
  • @jobermark Just as incorrect or reprehensible things can be not fallacies, like this one. The tendency to use "fallacy" as a single boo word for mistakes, cognitive biases, bad judgements, etc., is, unfortunately, pervasive. However, fallacy, even informal, must work through, at least attempted, reasoning. This one does not.
    – Conifold
    Jan 8 '19 at 0:23

So there is some combination of three different things going on here. This is ad hominem in that the label is personal and irrelevant, it is Buverism in that it diagnoses the argument, and it is ad baculum control in invoking the personal consequences of arguing as if they were an argument themselves.

Even thus rephrased, the statement is obviously still ad-hominem. It calls out an attribute of the speaker as an insult instead of addressing the argument. Whether you presume or deduce racism is present is irrelevant. One can be racist and correct.

But this is a subcategory of ad-hominem so common it deserves a name. So C.S. Lewis gave it one. Its special feature is that uses that identity as a diagnosis of a flaw in the argument that may not exist. Lewis' original example is "You only say that because you are a man". (He invokes the mythical Mr. Bulver's mother as a stereotype of women who invoke the notion of men as lacking empathy on almost any occasion to diagnose his father as not being able to understand the issue at hand because of his gender.)

Lewis realized that Bulverism can exist without an ad-hominem launching pad, relying on an appeal to authority, the "fallacy-naming fallacy" or some other basis for the spurious diagnosis. So it is a separate fallacy. But it always has to exist in a combined form, and this particular combination is really common.

There is also a threat implicit in some categorizations. The risk of being identified as an atheist or a heretic used to shut up people about issues touching theology. Reagan's press secretary notoriously tried to shut down questions about the spread of AIDS by implying anyone who cared about the issue was gay... This is the personal form of 'ad baculum' -- 'arguing with a stick', which goes beyond a mere 'ad hominem' argument. It ends a potentially valid line of argument by raising a personal real or psychological threat against the person making it or those around them. Nowadays, being marked as racist or sexist can be used ad baculum, and that may be what is intended here.

There is a sense in which political moves like this belong more to rhetoric than logic, and do not pretend to be arguments. But by my standards this is not just rhetoric, because it controls the acceptable responses and shapes the logic of the argument.


Bo Bennett lists what he calls a "pseudo-logical fallacy" the following which may describe both sides in the argument:

Needling: Attempting to make the other person angry, especially by continual criticism or questioning. In previous editions, I had this listed as a form of the ad hominem fallacy. However, it is more of a tactic and not an error in reasoning.

In the example provided one side says, "That man's a militaristic bully!". The other side says, "You're just racist."

Both sides could be viewed as needling the other. They want to make the other side angry. When someone gets angry they may make a mistake.

Is needling someone a logical fallacy? Bennett apparently doesn't think so because he lists needlling as a pseudo-logical fallacy. He gives the following criteria for a logical fallacy:

  1. It must be an error in reasoning, not a factual error.
  2. It must be commonly applied to an argument either in the form of the argument or the interpretation of the argument.
  3. It must be deceptive in that it often fools the average adult.

Whether someone is a militaristic bully or a racist may be merely a factual error and not an error in reasoning. So, needling fails to meet the first of these criteria regardless of its value as a rhetorical device to make the other side angry.

Bennett may be wrong about these three criteria and I may be wrong about identifying the pseudo-logical fallacy of needling as what characterizes the dialogue. However, prior to identifying a name for an alleged fallacy one needs to apply a set of criteria justifying that a dialogue is actually fallacious.

Bo Bennett, "Pseudo-Logical Fallacies" Logically Fallacious https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/6/Pseudo-Logical-Fallacies

  • Needling does not direct the flow of the argument (as does more direct use of ad hominem). So if that is the intent, it is not even a pseudo-logical fallacy, it is just an underhanded rhetorical technique. No one is deceived, they are just annoyed.
    – user9166
    Jan 8 '19 at 17:41
  • @jobermark I view both sides as engaging in a rhetorical technique of needling the other. It does not reach the level of logical fallacy. I agree: they are not deceived, just annoyed with each other. Jan 8 '19 at 21:46

Automatic stereotyping

This is a case of automatic stereotyping. What is happening is that membership of a category [African leader using troops] is sufficient to evoke the judgment that a member of that category possesses all the attributes of a militaristic bully. On the other side, membership of another category [white U.S. citizen] is sufficient to evoke the judgment that a member of that category possesses all the attributes of a racist, specifically an anti-black racist.

We all stereotype to an extent; and stereotypes can be accurate. These two aren't.

Ad hominem applies but is asymmetrical and does not cover the full example

The accusation against the white U.S. citizen is ad hominem but the white U.S. citizen has makes no ad hominem accusation against the African leaders' supporter, who may not even be black. The U.S. citizen is the target of ad hominem but not the supporter.

But the full example is covered by automatic stereotyping

The full example is covered by automatic stereotyping without reference to ad hominem even if ad hominem can be inserted.


Term 'automatic stereotyping' - but not analysis - taken from Mahzarin R. Banaji and Curtis D. Hardin, 'Automatic Stereotyping', Psychological Science, Vol. 7, No. 3 (May, 1996), pp. 136-141.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.