The jerky hominem

In his perfectly reasonable essay about the Internet (a topic crying out for an extended treatment in the New Yorker), Adam Gopnik says

But if reading a lot of novels gave you exceptional empathy university English departments should be filled with the most compassionate and generous-minded of souls, and, so far, they are not.
Ideals, philosophies, abstractions always fail - then what? Gopnik's point is clever but not, on further thought, true at all. We don't say that the jerkiness of some English professors proves that the novel doesn't build empathy. We say, "The jerky ones aren't doing it right." Similarly, the abuses of corrupt rabbis, priests, and imams - or the jerkiness of many religious people - serve to convince no one (except perhaps Christopher Hitchens) that religion is untrue by virtue of that fact. The abusers and the religious asshats aren't doing religion right, is what we say.

I often think of the ad hominem argument as one against a particular hominem, but sometimes, it turns out, you can make it against a group. Since all groups have human frailties, you can always point at a group and say, "Look! It contains twits!" Unfortunately for human beings, that proves nothing at all.

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