Friday, September 22, 2017

Know Your Propaganda – Smear Tactics – Ad Hominem and Poisoning the Well

Imagine a person who wants to convince an audience that a certain point or perspective is true. How might they do it? What methods could they use? Most people might take the facts of a situation and present them in the most straight forward and objective way possible. However, some tend to use other methods.

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Suppose the first person meets another individual with an opposing opinion and still wants the audience to believe their own opinion despite the validity of the second. The first person could stick to their facts, or alternatively, they could demonize the character of the opposition to dissuade the audience from listening to the opposing perspective. This may seem underhanded, and in many ways, it is. However, some individuals still choose to use this method to convince their audience to agree with them.

Refutation by Character

The above example depicts a fallacy known as ad hominem. This method relates to the other fallacy of interest for this article, but before we get into those details, let's get an understanding of the method of ad hominem or personal attack.  Here is the website, Logically Fallacious, with the definition.

Ad Homenid Attacks

(also known as:  personal abuse, personal attacks, abusive fallacy, damning the source, name calling, needling [form of], refutation by character)

Description: Attacking the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself, when the attack on the person is completely irrelevant to the argument the person is making.

Logical Form:Person 1 is claiming Y.
Person 1 is a moron.
Therefore, Y is not true.

Example #1:My opponent suggests that lowering taxes will be a good idea -- this is coming from a woman who eats a pint of Ben and Jerry’s each night!

Explanation: The fact that the woman loves her ice cream, has nothing to do with the lowering of taxes, and therefore, is irrelevant to the argument.  Ad hominem attacks are usually made out of desperation when one cannot find a decent counter argument.

Example #2:Tony wants us to believe that the origin of life was an “accident”.  Tony is a godless SOB who has spent more time in jail than in church, so the only information we should consider from him is the best way to make license plates.

Explanation: Tony may be a godless SOB.  Perhaps he did spend more time in the joint than in church, but all this is irrelevant to his argument or truth of his claim as to the origin of life.

Exception: When the attack on the person is relevant to the argument, it is not a fallacy.  In our first example, if the issue being debated was the elimination of taxes only on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, then pointing out her eating habits would be strong evidence of a conflict of interest.

Tip: When others verbally attack you, take it as a compliment to the quality of your argument.  It is usually a sign of desperation on their part.

Variation: Needling is attempting to make the other person angry, taking attention off of the argument and perhaps even making the other person look foolish.

Many of us have seen this fallacy used on a regular basis either in school, or in other casual social situations. Two people may have a disagreement and one decides to win the dispute by any means necessary. They choose to divert from the topic in question and instead, they begin to put down the person they are arguing with.

Preemptive Attack

The above method of fallacy is one of the more common tactics used in personal attack propaganda. In most political races, both opponents typically use this method to convince their audience to ignore the position of the other party. Logically speaking, there is no value to this technique of convincing. However, the act of smearing others does create the illusion of superiority of one argument over another. Unfortunately, despite the fact that this tactic is well-known, some audience members will still fall for it.
So what is the difference between the ad hominem attack and the our other fallacy of interest, poisoning the well? It's actually pretty simple. Let's look at the definition.

Poisoning the Well

(also known as: discrediting, smear tactics)

Description: To commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent.  That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable, or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.

Logical Form:Adverse information (be it true or false) about person 1 is presented.
Therefore, the claim(s) of person 1 will be false.

Example #1:Tim: Boss, you heard my side of the story why I think Bill should be fired and not me.  Now, I am sure Bill is going to come to you with some pathetic attempt to weasel out of this lie that he has created.

Explanation: Tim is poisoning the well by priming his boss by attacking Bill’s character, and setting up any defense Bill might present as “pathetic”.  Tim is committing the fallacy here, but if the boss were to accept Tim’s advice about Bill, she, too, would be committing the fallacy.

Example #2:I hope I presented my argument clearly.  Now, my opponent will attempt to refute my argument by his own fallacious, incoherent, illogical version of history.

Explanation: Not a very nice setup for the opponent.  As an audience member, if you allow any of this “poison” to affect how you evaluate the opponent’s argument, you are guilty of fallacious reasoning.

Exception: Remember that if a person states facts relevant to the argument, it is not an ad hominem attack.  In the first example, if the other “poison” were left out, no fallacy would be committed.

Tim: Boss, you heard my side of the story why I think Bill should be fired and not me.  Now, I am sure Bill is going to come to you with his side of the story, but please keep in mind that we have two witnesses to the event who both agree that Bill was the one who told the client that she had ugly children.

In truth, the ad hominem attack is very similar to the tactic of poisoning the well. Both of these tactics involve detracting from the actual subject of discussion or debate and underhandedly convincing audience to ignore the opposition. In short, the tactic of poisoning the well is a preemptive version of ad hominem.

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Often times, the tactic of poisoning the well is coupled together with other fallacies—either with ad hominem or other methods.  Take this example. A skilled propagandist may claim that an opposing party engages in some questionable activity and that this activity alone is reason for dismissing the perspective of the opponent altogether. Though this situation may not always make sense, it is often used by manipulators, questionable politicians, and anyone who puts ethics aside in order to win the approval of others.

Hybrid Tactics

Suppose this is a political debate we are dealing with and the skilled manipulator mentioned above not only wants to devalue the position of their opponent, but they want to delegitimize any counter argument their opponent may have. This is where poisoning the well might be combined with another fallacy for extra effect.

Supposed a skilled manipulator—we'll say a politician in this case—wants to avoid being exposed for a prostitution scandal they were involved in years ago. In order to avoid being exposed, the questionable politician may claim that their opponent makes wild allegations and concocts stories as a trick to win political races. The questionable politician may even say something like, “My opponent is so untrustworthy, it's sad. Anytime he is about to be exposed, he makes the wild claim that his would-be exposer was partying with prostitutes.”
The skilled manipulator may do this so that if and when the truth comes out about their wild parties, the audience will be less likely to listen to the true exposure and remain loyal to the views of the manipulator. In this way, the manipulator has actually created a straw man out of the true accusations against themselves and used this straw man to strengthen their own fallacy of poisoning of the well.

Applied Smear Tactics

There is one important characteristics within all propaganda that is important for us to remember. This is particularly true when it comes to the tactics discussed above. That is propaganda is not an end. It is a means to a particular end. Yes, it is the means to communicate either a half truth or a completely false statement to an audience, but historically there is typically another end to these deliberate acts of deception. Let's look at a few.

Smear tactics can be used against an individual, a social group, or an entire ethnic group. Prior to the Holocaust of 1940, there was a focused campaign in German media to demonize and degrade the image of people of Jewish heritage (among other ethnic groups). It was intended by the Nazi party that these people hold the worst image possible in the minds of the German people so that the plan of systematic imprisonment and execution of the Jews and other minorities met as little public resistance as possible.

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The ethnic smear campaign against Jewish people plaid a key role in ensuring that the Holocaust was successfully completed. It was not allowed to be completed. However, this did not save the lives of the millions that died, and it was propaganda that primed the minds of German citizens for apathy and ignorance of the horrors that were taking place all around them. This is not to demonize the German people, as all people—in one way or another—have been manipulated by propaganda and smear tactics of some kind. These are age-old tactics and are still commonly used today within established media (particularly in the U.S.).

These same methods could be seen prior to and during the African Slave trade, Native American genocide, the Vietnam War, the post-9/11 demonetization of Middle Eastern countries. Every one of these instances ad hominem throughout history preceded a campaign of war, murder, exploitation, or some other atrocity.

Whether the target is an ethnic group, whether it is women (or men), the poor, or those who hold a certain political view, the methods of ad hominem and poisoning the well tend to remain the same over time. The group being targeted is typically portrayed as inferior, dangerous, unintelligent, irresponsible, burdensome and ultimately worthy of an early death. To put it simply, there is very little positive benefit to smear tactics whether they are against an individual or against a group. For those who believe in the equality of all people, these attacks must be adamantly opposed, in my view.

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Like all fallacies, these tactics of propaganda can be difficult to realize unless we become skilled at noticing and acknowledging them as the logical flaws they are. As we become more aware of them, we teach ourselves to rely upon more responsible means of communication. And ultimately, by become realizing the difference between responsible and irresponsible communication, we can help make this world a safer place to live for all people.

Thanks for reading.

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1 comment:

  1. thanking you benjamin, david and all the others involved, u will be honored by this planet's inhabitants and it's future for fighting for our destiny. i am a south african adapite,and the only hope we have against the daily threat of genocide from the adamites is when the backing of our government by the forces you are fighting, fall apart. the our beautiful country and all other countries will have love and peace, as it was intended.we solute you !