Lesson #1: The Red Herring
In any debate of ideas, it’s necessary to stay on-topic, otherwise you’ll never get to any understanding whatsoever. A tactic sometimes used by individuals in an argument is to shift the subject matter in an attempt to make the argument easier on them. The Red Herring logical fallacy happens when one debater mentions an idea, then the opponent pivots in an attempt to make that argument about something else.
It’s flawed logic (well, really it isn’t logic at all) and it’s a sign of a weak position.
For example, leading up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump, in a televised debate with Hillary Clinton, was asked about the statements he’d made that were caught on tape. When moderator, Anderson Cooper, asked if Mr. Trump understood that his comments about grabbing women’s genitals were comments about sexual assault, Mr. Trump first said that it was “locker room talk,” but then said that he was going to defeat ISIS. “Defeating ISIS” was off-topic. It’s a pivot away from one idea to an idea the speaker would rather discuss.
When this happens, if you’d like to respond, you need to insist that the conversation pivot back to the issue at hand. Do NOT begin discussing ISIS in this case.
Here are a few things you could try:
1. Play the “I’m just innocently trying to learn” game. —- “I’m confused, but interested in your thoughts. So, does this all mean you do or you do not understand that you were bragging about sexual assault?”
2. Find common ground and let your opponent win just a little—- “I agree that ISIS is a very big concern, but I would still like to know if you understand that your comments were about sexual assault.”
3. Play dumb (this one works particularly well if you’re already being spoken to as though you are actually an idiot)—- “Hmm… I don’t understand. When asked about sexual assault, how does defeating ISIS figure in to that? I’m so silly. I don’t get it. Haha.”
4. This is dangerous territory and I don’t necessarily recommend it because it may lead to a fight rather than and argument, but call the speaker out—- “Excuse me, sir, but I think we’ve gotten off-topic here. Let’s get back to the question of whether you understood your words to be about sexual assault or not.” *note the use of “we” since there are two people in the debate. Sure YOU didn’t go off-topic, but “we” is gentler when we’re trying to have a rational and civil discussion.
This is my Masterclass (my version of it, anyway, but mine’s FREE, y’all!).
This “Masterclass” I built was the product of my weariness from missing my “on duty” job as an English teacher in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic ripped our profession from us. Check back soon for more!
Next up: when someone makes an argument personal…