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Mormonism and apologetics/"ad hominem"/Case study/An attempt to discredit Hugh Nibley by accusing him of child abuse
A case study in "ad hominem": An attempt to discredit Hugh Nibley by accusing him of child abuse
Nibley's zealous involvement with the Smith papyri would later be blamed in a family tragedy.
—Robert K. Ritner
An ad hominem attack is one in which an irrelevant negative aspect of someone’s personality is used to undermine that person's position on an issue. It is not the same as an insult, nor is it the same as slander. To say that Edward is ugly is an insult, but it is not an ad hominem attack. To say that Edward is ugly and, therefore, that his views on quantum mechanics must be wrong is an ad hominem attack. To say that Edward beats his wife, when he in fact does not, is slander, but it is not an ad hominem attack. To say that Edward beats his wife and, therefore, that his views on impressionistic art are without vaue is an ad hominem attack. And, finally, to say that Edward has admitted that he knows nothing about the French Revolution and to suggest that his views on the French Revolution should therefore not be credited is not an ad hominem attack, because what he knows about the subject is certainly relevant to the value of his conclusions.
In the introduction to his 2013 translation of the Joseph Smith Papyri, Robert Ritner produces a classic insult of Hugh Nibley, repeats a slander of Hugh Nibley, and generates a true ad hominem attack on Hugh Nibley. In short, it is a textbook case of how not to honorably disagree with another’s ideas. In a footnote on page 5 of his book, Ritner attacks Hugh Nibley by mentioning accusations brought against Nibley by his daughter Martha Beck. He states that "Nibley's zealous involvement with the Smith papyri would later be blamed in a family tragedy." He then explains what the family tragedy was by quoting the description of Beck's accusation from FairMormon President Scott Gordon's review of her 2005 book Leaving the Saints, all the while ignoring the fact that Gordon makes a fairly good case for Martha’s accusations being false. The Gordon citation is:
- Beck accuses her father of putting on an Egyptian costume and ritually abusing her, something all seven of her siblings deny…. Martha claims (page 147) that her father dressed up as the Egyptian god Amut the Destroyer by putting on a costume with an alligator head and a lion’s body and molesting her between the ages of 5 and 7…. Martha blames the whole incident on the stress of having to defend the Book of Abraham when Nibley knew it was a fraud (ellipses in Ritner’s original).
First, this is a nasty insult, since there is pretty much nothing worse you can call someone in today’s society than “child molester.” Second, this is a vicious slander, as there is absolutely no credible evidence that substantiates Martha's claims.
But, finally, even if this if this accusation were true (which it most emphatically is not), its placement in the introduction of Ritner’s book is a textbook example of a particular kind of ad hominem attack called "poisoning the well," a rhetorical device in which adverse information about a person is presented to an audience first, with the intention of discrediting everything that the person has to say on the subject. Before engaging any of Nibley's scholarship on the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham, Ritner tries to pre-emptively attack Nibley's character by bringing up Martha’s accusations.
Let us be clear. Ritner’s book is not a biography of Hugh Nibley; it is a book about a translation from Egyptian. The only reason for bringing up the accusation against Nibley is to imply that his views on the translation should not be credited, because he was a child molester. (It also conveniently tars those who differ with Ritner--they are supporting the views of an alleged molester.)
This ad hominem attack by Ritner is especially ironic considering his own complaint that Nibley and other Mormons supposedly launched ad hominem attacks against the 1912 Egyptologists who had proffered comments on the Book of Abraham.:4–5 In fact, the Mormon responses to those Egyptologists have been almost entirely engagements of the arguments, pointing out how the experts disagreed with each other and suggesting why they might not know as much as they thought they did. You could argue that these attacks were insulting. You could even try to make a case for their being slanderous. But they were most emphatically not ad hominem.
- Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013), 5n12.
- Scott Gordon, "Leaving the Saints or Leaving Reality?" online at https://www.fairmormon.org/archive/publications/leaving-the-saints-or-leaving-reality, as cited by Ritner.
- Besides Scott Gordon's review of Martha Nibley's book, see also Boyd Peterson, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002), 400–401 n. 13; "As Things Stand at the Moment: Responding to Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints"; "Response to Leaving the Saints"; Boyd Jay Petersen, "Response to Leaving the Saints (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 217–251. off-site; Kent P. Jackson, "Leaving the Facts and the Faith (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 107–122. off-site; Gregory Taggart, "How Martha Wrote an Anti-Mormon Book (Using Her Father’s Handbook as Her Guide?) (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 123–170. off-site
- "Poisoning the well," at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_the_well.