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Red Herring and Abusive Ad Hominem

by Hans Bluedorn

I don't know about you, but every time I listen to the news, some senator, from the state of whatever, comes on just long enough to say some wise sounding sound bite about the current presidential trial and what it is "really all about." I find it interesting how Americans aren't able to digest lengthy logical arguments. People seem to "turn off" after the first couple sentences. Have you ever noticed that the guy with the catchiest phrase, never mind whether it makes sense or not, gets a second and a half segment on the news?

Here is a sound bite that gets played over and over in different forms:

"This trial is just about partisan politics." Did you notice how the subject has been cleverly changed from talking about whether the man is guilty or not, into whether the prosecutors have proper motives? Also, did you notice how the argument attacked the opponent's person instead of his argument? This statement is so logically unsound that it takes two fallacies to cover it.

Red Herring and Abusive Ad Hominem.

Red Herring is the informal fallacy where a cleverly disguised irrelevant statement is interjected into an argument in order to move the subject into a more combative arena. Its purpose is to confuse the issue and change the subject.

Abusive Ad Hominem (in itself a kind of Red Herring) is where the person proposing an argument, is discredited – not the argument itself. The argument is ignored in favor of a more juicy target, the man.

What is wrong with both of these reasonings? We are not arguing about what the possible motives of the men trying to remove the president from office could be. We are arguing about whether the president committed perjury. The prosecutors could have the most evil of intentions, but that doesn't mean we should throw out their arguments.

John 7:24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.

How should we respond to this fallacy? If the trial were really ONLY about partisan politics, then it would be very easy to find the man innocent, wouldn't it? Then why aren't you doing just that, instead of putting the prosecutors on trial? (Is it because, in fact, YOUR DEFENSE of him is only about partisan politics, and if you do NOT introduce the idea of partisan politics, then YOU are likely to LOSE?) But really, the possibility of partisan politics is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the man is innocent or guilty of impeachable offences. So to dwell on the issue of partisanship is to be led off the right trail by the distractive odor of a red herring.

Copyright January 22, 1999, all rights reserved. 9069 views


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