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?)