The ad hominem virus may be contagious. Having killed FARMS, it has apparently jumped to FAIR. At least that's what I take away from a recent post at the FAIR Blog, "It's a Matter of Relevance." Let's vary the metaphor a bit: FARMS has driven off a cliff. FAIR walks up to the edge, surveys the wreckage below, and announces: "Let's jump." Alas, just when we need the sort of practical apologetics that FAIR has pursued so successfully over the years, they post a spirited defense of attackogetics. This is very discouraging.
First, let's talk about the FARMS Review. It published many helpful book reviews over the years, along with articles, essays, and lively editorial commentary. The Review defended what you might call standard LDS truth claims, although one could read in the Review different views about what those claims are and how they should be defended. For some, simply rebutting unsupported assertions and poor arguments was enough. For others, investigating those who authored books and articles critical of LDS truth claims was also required. While this tactic was used in relatively few articles or reviews, it somewhat unfairly came to characterize the FARMS approach. Unfair, perhaps, but not unforeseeable or even unexpected. That's what editors are for: to prevent the publication of articles or material within otherwise publishable articles that will damage the reputation of the journal. A different approach to editing might have led to a different outcome for the Review.
That's not to say it's all the editor's fault. Twenty-three years as editor means you did a lot of things right for a long time. In light of recent events, I finally queued up the long Dan Peterson interview at Mormon Stories and listened to all four episodes, which I would recommend to any reader. Dr. Peterson is bright and engaging, a friendly scholar of the ancient Middle East who also enjoys writing for a general audience as well as exchanging comments in a variety of online forums. And let's remember not all scholars are interested in writing for a general audience or interacting with folks like you and me. Peterson's interest in a general audience may explain the rather wide open approach the FARMS Review took to the field of Mormon Studies. Rather than trying to become just another professional journal, the editor considered articles authored by non-scholars as well as those written by the usual collection of grad students and PhDs. If the quality and content were there, he published them. That is a vote of confidence in the broader Mormon Studies community. So if it turns out that the personal stuff rather than BYU politics sank the FARMS Review ... well, everyone makes mistakes. Hindsight is 20-20, but unlike Merlin we don't live in reverse.
Well, maybe not 20-20. Not everyone learns from experience. FAIR hosts a large website and an annual conference, all devoted to practical apologetics, somewhat in contrast to the more theoretical approach taken by the FARMS Review. (Peterson used similar terms in the Mormon Stories interview to distinguish between what FARMS did and what FAIR does.) Because the focus at the FAIR website has been on responding to particular questions or issues more than responding to books or articles by specific critics, FAIR posts and publications have largely avoided the personal investigations that, as noted above, rather unfairly came to characterize the FARMS approach. So why is FAIR now gearing up for ad hominem pieces, the reasonable inference to make when they post a 3000-word defense of that approach?
What is an ad hominem argument? As the term is generally used, it means trying to refute an opponent's argument by pointing out flaws in his character or person rather than his argument. There are two problems with this approach. First, bad people can make good arguments, so it ineffective. Second, outside politics most people regard attacking a speaker rather than the speaker's arguments to be bad form, so the use of ad hominem often discredits the one using it rather than the intended target. More generally, the use of ad hominem tactics is often a signal that the one employing it in fact has no good responses to the speaker's arguments, hence the resort to attacking the speaker.
So why does FAIR suddenly think this is a good idea??? Appealing to legal standards of relevance or the technical definition of the ad hominem logical fallacy does nothing to counter the general points made in the prior paragraph explaining why the use of ad hominem is both ineffective and counterproductive. The author admits as much in the post (bold text added):
Except with very good friends, it is considered tactless and discourteous to suggest that someone’s views are a reflection of his or her background, prejudices, or psychic needs. We stick to the reasoned arguments advanced, even if privately we think those arguments are shallow rationalizations. The need to behave this way in scholarly discussion is obvious, as are the costs of violating the rule. But if, as historians of an ongoing discussion, we believe that the protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors, what kind of historians would we be if we suppressed this perception? (Of course, the perception might be wrong, but that is quite another issue.)
The backtracking in the second half of the quote is the problem. Simply believing an LDS critic is disingenuous or has a hidden agenda is not enough to justify the tactic — LDS apologists think almost all critics are disingenuous and have hidden agendas! So what kind of historian or apologist would suppress such a perception? A professional historian. A responsible apologist. Let's hope FAIR comes to its senses and continues to publish helpful and informed practical apologetics as it has done for almost two decades.