The title comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus is selecting his disciples. Philip has been selected and goes to recruit Nathanael.
Philip says, “We have found the one that Moses and the Prophets wrote about. He is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip answered, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).
Philip thought nothing good could come out of Nazareth so he was not really interested. Messiah’s had come and gone, and if this man was truly the Messiah, he would not come from that grubby little village! Anyone and anything from there is bound be bad.
The response of Nathanael is typical of the responses made by people today. He judges the person and not what the person is saying. In logic, this is the ad hominem fallacy. From Latin, it means “against the man/person.”
This fallacy usually takes the form of attacking a person’s character, gender, race, and political or religious views in an attempt to discredit their argument. Usually, or at least many times, the goal of an ad hominem attack is to undermine the argument of someone without actually having to engage with it. This is why our society is so polarized; no one is listening to what the other person is saying or trying to understand what is being said.
Instead of attentive listening, we are thinking of how we can rebut this person, not on the basis of his or her argument, but based upon our putting a label on the other person as if he or she represents all people who hold that viewpoint. We “know” what “they” believe and we are against “them” because we are right and they are wrong.
We see good examples of ad hominem attacks in presidential debates. A candidate will make a point, and instead of dealing with the point made, the opponent will bring up extraneous elements, such as days missed in attending Congress, or voting records, or some financial situation that can be exploited and misconstrued by the audience. The general public never gets a clear idea of the political issues and the position of various candidates on those issues.
A more subtle form of ad hominem argument is found in the media. Writers and announcers will refer to “the liberal” organization or “the religious right” and similar descriptors that have nothing to do with the matter being reported. Gender or ethnic background are used as descriptors. It is really bad if the person is a woman or an ethnic minority. In other words, whatever viewpoints are expressed, nothing good comes out of Nazareth.
Is the validity of an idea determined by what kind of person is presenting the idea? Are the ideas of Democrats or Republicans wrong because of their political position? Do women think illogically? Is the Pope wrong because he is a Catholic? Are African Americans and Latinos less intelligent than white Americans? These are some common stereotypes that drive people to their conclusions, rather than sound thinking.
Ideas are just ideas. In themselves, ideas are neutral. Not all ideas are equal; some ideas are better than others because of their basis and logical organization.
We need to learn how to evaluate a point of view by its strengths and weaknesses and not by who represents a point of view. If we “come, and see,” we might be surprised that Nazareth has some pretty smart people.