Politicians will do anything to avoid answering a question directly. They use a multitude of avoidance tactics in their rhetoric, including red herring fallacy. But what does this term actually mean and how can we use it to master everyday conversations?
Red herring fallacy occurs when someone deliberately introduces an irrelevant subject into a discussion in order to divert the other person’s attention. In essence, red herring fallacy is a form of changing the topic of conversation for personal gain. It’s an extremely common tactic in debating and political discourse. It may also be referred to as ‘smoke-screening’, ‘sidetracking’, ‘hair-splitting’ or ‘digression.’
The name ‘red herring fallacy’ originates from training hunting dogs. In order to build up a hunting dog’s skill for following a scent, people used to throw a pungent smoked herring (which is a reddish-brown colour) across the path of a group of bloodhounds. The aim was to divert the dog’s attention and ward them off from tracking a fox’s scent. This is also we get the phrase to ‘throw someone off the scent.’
How politicians use the red herring fallacy to win arguments
Red herring fallacy is an important tool for high-profile individuals across the world. For example, an interviewer is grilling a movie star about a reported affair with a co-star. Instead of trying to rebuke the claims, the actor may choose to derail the conversation by introducing a totally different topic. Perhaps they bring up their next project in the pipeline or box office sales. It can be anything as long as it’s not related to the topic of the affair. Whilst most reporters will be familiar with this technique, they should take the hint that the actor is not going to divulge any information. Thus, they will swiftly change the line of questioning or risk jeopardizing the interview.
Politics is another arena where the use of red herring fallacy is rampant. Political figures mainly use it to avoid scandal and to mislead the general public. Interviews with President Trump provide a wealth of examples of red herring fallacy in action.
For instance, when the president was being questioned about the degrading comments he made about women to Billy Bush in 2005, Trump responded with
“It’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.”
Instead of addressing his degrading comments about women, Trump changes the topic to ISIS. It seems obvious and almost ridiculous when it’s on paper, but in the moment it’s an effective tactic. By choosing a sensitive topic like ISIS, Trump knows he will be able to capture his audience’s attention and avoid the subject in question.
How can you utilise red herring fallacy in everyday conversation?
The use of red herring fallacy isn’t reserved for movie stars and politicians. You can use it in everyday conversations to great effect.
For example, your partner comes home and asks you to take the rubbish out. You’ve had a really long day and don’t want to go outside into the cold. Instead of potentially starting an argument by refusing to do it, you change the topic of conversation in hope of avoiding the task. It’s probably safer to be less obvious than President Trump and not choose a topic that’s wildly off-piste.
For example, you can bring up the terrible effects of plastics that are in our oceans at the moment. Then suggest you watch a documentary on the subject that happens to be on TV that night.
However, if you are guilty of using red herring fallacy a lot, then you’re partner might clock on and not let you get away from the subject. So it is best to save the technique for when you really want to swing something in your favour.
How can you avoid falling prey to red herring fallacy in everyday conversation?
In simply being aware of red herring fallacy, you are less likely to fall for it in conversation. However, masters of red herring fallacy may artfully weave it into discourse without you realising it. If you find yourself within a debate and suspect that the use of the technique is likely, then make sure you listen really carefully to your opponent’s argument before responding. Repeat and paraphrase what the person before you has said before you state your case.
The reason to use red herring fallacy can be summarised by this quote by Harry S. Truman,
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
Whilst this is true, don’t rely solely on the use of a red herring fallacy too frequently or people will start to see through the tactic. There is a multitude of techniques you can use in debates and red herring fallacy is just one.
Sometimes, being direct and to the point is your best weapon in conversation.
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