Poisoning the Well: Freedom of Speech without Consequences

The other night I listened to a clip from a Sarah Palin speech where she said we had to “hold the press accountable when they’re making things up and not telling the truth.”  In another speech, she says, “They talk down to us. Especially here in the heartland. Oh, man. They think that, if we were just smart enough, we’d be able to understand their policies.”

Before that, I listened to Dr. Laura tell the networks that she wants to “take back” her Second-Amendment Rights to free speech that have been “hijacked” by the likes of Media Matters. This, after she machine-gunned an African American caller into her show with the ‘N’ word.

One of the things I try to do on a regular basis is review logical fallacies and try to identify what it is that I sense is going on in even up-beat sorts of rhetoric. When I consider the tactics that these two women are employing, it occurs to me that some sort of poisoning the well, among other fallacies (such as ad hominem),  is occurring.

In both cases of these ladies, they point to a medium or a media outlet and accuse them of telling lies or distorting their positions when these media attempt to contrast what these ladies are saying with other facts. In the case of the “look down on us” statement, what implication is the audience left with about Palin’s detractors that doesn’t affect whatever filters the audience members have for processing any criticisms of her?

The tactic is to pre-characterize your opponent’s rhetorical options in a way that kills their strength even in logical, cogent argumentation; then that leaves you, the perpetrator of poisoning the well, standing as the righteous victim of (pre-characterized) malicious and desperate attacks.

John Casey (of The NonSequitur) puts it much better than I:

This inoculates the extremist (who really is an extremist in these cases) from legitimate criticism (1) because the opponent is allegedly going ad hominem [opting to use ad hominem] and is therefore desperate and (2) because the opponent’s argument has been disqualified in advance — has been pre-distorted so in a sense “pre-strawmanned” or “pre-hollowmanned.”

[Where straw man is distorting a given position & attacking the distortion, hollow man is inventing a position, attributing it to your opponent, then & attacking the invention. Argumentum ad hominem is focusing on something about your opponent — a characteristic or belief —  and using that as an argument for or against a premise, rather than arguing to the strength or weakness of the premise itself.  In this case, attacking someone’s character — lying, hijacking civil rights — is done to poison your ability to evaluate premises presented by these people in advance of your even hearing them.]

Reporter Michael Joseph Gross of the Vanity Fair article “Sarah Palin: The Sound and the Fury” muses on the affect of what appears to be a building up the audience’s self confidence (the ‘they look down on us’ tactic), “Or, does it seed self-doubt and rancor among her partisans, and encourage them to see everyone else as malign?”

So, say you are a believer in Palin, then if someone in the press (or elsewhere) is disagreeing with her, it’s probably a lie or they’re insulting  us.

Similarly with Dr. Laura, in the context of taking back her second-amendment rights from the likes of Media Matters, she demonstrates a fear of exposure.  Apparently, she wants to be able to say anything she wants any way she wants without having to worry that someone is going to hold what she says to light, thereby exposing her in an unflattering way.  (I, by just saying this, have become a hijacker of her civil rights. I am an Enemy of the State.) By saying Media Matters has “hijacked her Second-Amendment rights,” she seems to imply that she is intimidated by the fear that they will trash her (thereby scaring her into not exercising her right).  The next step in characterizing MM as hijackers of civil rights might be to cast them as commie pinkos or something currently en vogue as the enemy of people like her and Palin.

(Careful Ron! You’re in danger of the slippery-slope fallacy here, sliding into ad-hominem territory. Actually, it may not be as slippery-slope as one might first imagine. When a faction claims that it is “patriotic” and does only “patriotic” things, what is the implication of those who work against these “patriots”? That they’re not, and they are working against patriotism.  In Cognitive or Psycho- Linguistics, this is called “framing.”  Re: the Maine GOP platform.  I’ve just posted a reply to a post on another blog for reference here.  Remember, slander can be done clearly and unambiguously by contrast to something else. (See “implicature” on Wikipedia.)

I would disagree with a generalized statement that people that distort in advance are extremists out of desperation. I don’t think Palin is desperate.  She and her cohorts poison the well as a function of their normal course of operation.  To do this when you’re not desperate is more about dishonesty: creating a mental context for your audience that is less about telling the truth and more about insulation from the consequences of telling non-truths or distortions.

Why would one have to distort another’s position if one’s position is righteous?  Or maybe it’s a false sense of righteousness that provokes this poisoning the well with reasoning like: “I’m justified in using any tactic against an evil enemy — the ends justify the means…oh, and you’re too stupid for me to care about the soundness of the arguments I intend you to swallow or agree with.”  (Who is looking down on whom?)

9 Responses

  1. A friend of mine on Facebook replies:

    It looks as though in the last sentence you create your own Straw Man. What is your solution to the problem? I was expecting a call to action but instead you insult the reader. I would have spent two paragraphs telling the reader that truth in advertising laws should extend to poliitcal campaigns and cited John Kerry as an example. One reason he lost against George Bush because Bush implied that Kerry’s Vietnam credentials were false. After the election we found out that Kerry’s credentials were legit but then it was too late. The other option might have been to call for legislation in politcal campaign advertising because it would require all parties to base their platform on facts and that in turn would create a more informed voter.

    My Reply:

    The topic wasn’t really about Palin or Dr. Laura — it was about “poisoning the well” fallacious argumentation. The two ladies just happen to be examples. So I wasn’t arguing against their premises as much as illustrating how poisoning the well works. The truth is I wasn’t considering a solution to poisoning the well beyond lamenting the lack of honesty in the tactic.

    About the last sentence, I think you missed the sarcasm. It seems to me that if you have an audience, and you attempt to “poison the well” with them, that is a dishonest tactic that apparently does not care about the integrity of the message you are professing; and you want to avoid having your message fairly evaluated by the same audience. If you really respected the intelligence of your audience, you would not stoop so low as to attempt to bias them against any argument a detractor or even someone interested in truth might make. So, the sentence starting “I’m justified in …” is a dramatization of the attitude underlying the tactic of poisoning the well more than a distortion of a political premise.

    I really like your call to action, though. A lot. I’ll glue your comment into the Comment area of the blog for others to reference. I like what you’re saying: why shouldn’t truth-in-advertising laws be extended to something that is so important to society?! It seems hypocritical to hold advertisers of products to a different (higher) standard than advertisers of ideas that affect society as much if not more than a meat patty. It also seems that libel is practiced regularly, especially in the example of deliberately distorting Kerry’s credentials. Yet we allow it because it’s in the political domain?

    Since this exchange, I have edited the last sentence, putting quotes around the sarcasm and adding some clarification.

  2. […] Blind faith and willful stupidity.  And she cultivates this. […]

  3. Predictably, Palin has attempted to insulate repercussions, consequences, and responsibility for irresponsible use of speech. “Vigorous debate” does not involve militaristic, disparaging, or demagogic presentation except as consistent with the debater or perspective.

    Debate involves focus on the issues; the frame one uses to present one’s perspective on the issues is one’s choice.

    Re: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41036993/ns/politics-more_politics/

  4. For the student of logic, here are some educational examples of poisoning the well, remembering that it is a pre-emptive ad hominem, “a logical boobytrap set by the poisoner to tempt the unwary audience into committing an ad hominem fallacy.”

    Poisoning the well is the provision of any information that may produce a biased result. (Wiki)

    1. How naturally he talks! you would think he was in his senses.
    2. Only an ignoramus would disagree with fluoridating water.
    3. He has been proven to be a liar numerous times, so don’t believe anything he tells you.
    4. When listening to what my opponents have to say, keep in mind that they don’t really have safety of this country as their first priority.
    5. Voting against this [spending bill] is voting against our troops.
    6. The Mayor’s a very good talker. Yes, talk he can do . . . and do very well. But when it comes time for action, that’s a different matter.
    7. That’s my stance on funding the public education system, and anyone who disagrees with me hates children.
    8. Of course you’d argue that affirmative action is a bad thing. You’re white.
  5. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/25/the-ways-of-silencing/

    As Klemperer writes in “The Language of the Third Reich,” propaganda “changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence … it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures in its poison.” When writing these words, Klemperer was thinking of the incessant use of the term “heroisch” (“heroic”) to justify the military adventures of the National Socialist state. Obviously, the mechanism described by Klemperer is not used for such odious purposes today. Nevertheless, there has been a similar appropriation of the term “freedom” in American political discourse.

    On point …

    Silencing is by no means limited to its target. The Fox channel engages in silencing when it describes itself as “fair and balanced” to an audience that is perfectly aware that it is neither. The effect is to suggest that there is no such thing as fair and balanced — that there is no possibility of balanced news, only propaganda. The result is the silencing of every news organ, by suggesting a generalized gross insincerity.


    Any time one claims that a certain speech attempt is not an attempt to assert the truth, but rather an attempt to undermine trust in another party, one is undermining trust. So this is a general worry one could raise with any charge of silencing. Secondly, one is only engaging in an attempt to silence if one is insincere in one’s assertions — if one is attempting primarily to silence, rather than to assert the truth.

  6. […] They continue to define the straw man by establishing themselves as the guardians of the principles that need to be taught to the upcoming generations and to teach those generations to be vigilant against those who might erode their beliefs. But in setting themselves up as the judges of what “undermines” the principles and the knowledge of the principles, they imply that those who do not agree are the usurpers. (See similar: Poisoning the Well: Freedom of Speech without Consequences.) […]

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proslepsis

    Paralipsis (παράλειψις), also spelled paraleipsis or paralepsis, and known also as praeteritio, preterition, cataphasis (κατάφασις), antiphrasis (ἀντίφρασις), or parasiopesis (παρασιώπησις), is a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer invokes a subject by denying that it should be invoked. As such, it can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony. Paralipsis is usually employed to make a subversive ad hominem attack.

    The device is typically used to distance the speaker from unfair claims, while still bringing them up. For instance, a politician might say, “I don’t even want to talk about the allegations that my opponent is a drunk.” A political advertisement may say, “Vote for Smith for sober leadership”, implying that Jones, his opponent, is an irresponsible drunk.

  8. Another definition of “poisoning the well”:

    This is a form of ad hominem similar to the genetic fallacy, wherein your opponent attempts to weaken your argument with points that are true, but which are extraneous to the current argument. Specifically, poisoning the well typically occurs when a person is connected in only a superficial way, to an unsavory person or cause. A great example can be heard by listening to Sean Hannity, an ABC political pundit, who can’t help but throw in every supposed Clinton scandal (proven or unproven) into every discussion about Clinton, or bring up unpopular person Barack Obama may have once briefly passed in a hallway.

    ~ editthis.info/logic/Informal_Fallacies

  9. Buddy Smith, American Family Association’s executive vice president, told the AFA that customers who do business with stores that have the stickers in their windows “are agreeing with these businesses that Christians no longer have the freedom to live out the dictates of their Christian faith and conscience.”

    In light of Arizona and Mississippi’s “religious liberty” protection laws and the followup argument that the people who then don’t do business with you if you refuse business to gay people are infringing on your religious rights to act in accordance with your beliefs, [“Anti-gay group: buying from stores that don’t discriminate is bullying Christians”], I offer this:

    I find it especially interesting that most people who subscribe to the anti-gay agenda (however nobly it is couched) seem also to subscribe to the free-market, small-govt, no-regulation, economy-über-alles platforms. The market can do no wrong. It rewards and punishes based on the purest “will of the people”: where to spend their money.

    Understand this: you are free to believe and act as you will. So are we. Just because you attach “religion” to it does not mandate that the rest of us fall in lock-step with you. We disagree with you and your practice, and we have a RIGHT (free speech and all) to show it.

    It astounds me that this tribe of Christians is so willing to override all other civil liberties and rights by elevating “freedom of religion” above all others. I find it a joke that they do this when all other liberties are what gives freedom of religion any possibility of happening. And I find it scarey that they don’t see the tyranny in their conformist tactics and attitudes. They don’t want tyranny unless it’s their own brand.

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