Created By: AGroupie on May 18, 2011 Last Edited By: AGroupie on May 26, 2011

Poisoning The Well

Using ad hominem attacks preemptively to discredit someone or their views

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For New Media Tropes, Logic Tropes, Logical Fallacies, Fora, Blogs. Needs work here - this is NOT the final draft!

Occasionally the Jerkass Has a Point. Dumbass Has a Point, too. Even Hitler may have done something not a part of his more well known genocidal lunacy. Nevertheless, many people will still be convinced that moral character, social standing, or simple closeness to their own cultural values somehow informs the "rightness" or "goodness" of a specific action or argument.

So what better way to discredit someone or their views than to accuse them of improper conduct to their audience, of being a "bad person that should not be listened to or respected," or even of being a part of a group deemed scary and dangerous to society?

Even better for the person making such an accusation, it doesn't have to be true! Blatant Lies, Malicious Slander, Twisting the Words, and the products of Gossip Evolution can do just as well as actual, truthful information.

Poisoning The Well is not to be confused with pointing out a legitimate conflict of interest or Astro Turf / Viral Marketing attempt. Poisoning The Well is defined by its absolute irrelevance to the topic at issue in most cases, or its demand for "impartiality" or "purity" over expertise or knowledge of the subject matter in others.

Type A Poisoning The Well is the "obvious" type, the one where an accusation bears no relevance to anything the accused is discussing or doing at the time. Common accusations are accusing the person of being a Nazi or (among bigots themselves) a race/religion/nationality disfavored, a rapist or pedophile, untrustworthy or a criminal, and/or The Mentally Disturbed. The accusation is almost always untrue or at best barely true and is simply spread either as a naked attempt at Derailing or as a passive-aggressive way of undermining someone. In fact, its use should probably be considered alongside Godwin's Law as a sign that the person who used it has instantly lost the argument and that, unless it is entirely ignored, any possibility of meaningful discussion is over.

Obviously, this type also has its fair share of Unfortunate Implications as well, primarily from the appeals to bigotry that are common in it. The ableist implications inherent in claiming that The Mentally Disturbed are incapable of reason are also quite unfortunate (only individuals with an IQ below 70 or in an active psychotic episode would qualify as legitimately being unreasonable by default - as for other disorders, there's actually evidence that, say, those who suffer from depression are more realistic in appraising situations not involving their own emotions.)

Type B Poisoning The Well is the less obvious type, that can be easily confused with pointing out a conflict of interest. The accusation bears some relevance, and is more likely to be true, but at the same time, it doesn't mean the person accused is necessarily wrong or lying or making bad points. An example would be saying "Bob grows marijuana, therefore his opinions on marijuana law have no merit," or "Alice is a nuclear engineer, therefore she is The Shill for the nuclear industry." Where this is Poisoning The Well is that the preface implies that somehow experience or inside knowledge disqualifies anything they have to say - never mind that personal experience and inside knowledge are more, not less, likely to give someone at least some valid points.

Related to Demonization as it is often demonization on a personal level, Godwin's Law, Derailing, Hitler Ate Sugar, Insane Troll Logic, Troll. Compare Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters. Will invariably pop up in any kind of Flame War or Internet Backdraft. Often includes Blatant Lies, Malicious Slander, and Twisting the Words. Contrast Dumbass Has a Point, Jerkass Has a Point, and Strawman Has a Point - all instances where Poisoning The Well fails. In fiction, quite apt to happen to the Cassandra Truth. Examples:

Film
  • In the film Enemy of the State, the rogue National Security Agency agents fear that labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) has a video that incriminates them, if it becomes public. They create a false scandal that Dean has a love affair with Rachel Banks, a former girlfriend. This leads to Dean being dismissed from his job, his bank accounts frozen, and his wife throwing him out of the house. All to discredit Dean so that no one will believe him if he releases the video.

Video Games
  • In Beyond Good & Evil, the villains try to frame your instrusions (and photographing of their shenanigans) as terrorist attacks. As you progress through the game, fewer and fewer people are fooled until eventually you get a photo of The Dragon (the leader of the Alpha Sections) talking with the Big Bad and the entire Hillian army shows up to back you up.
Community Feedback Replies: 12
  • May 18, 2011
    Fanra
    In the film Enemy Of The State, the rogue National Security Agency agents fear that labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) has a video that incriminates them, if it becomes public. They create a false scandal that Dean has a love affair with Rachel Banks, a former girlfriend. This leads to Dean being dismissed from his job, his bank accounts frozen, and his wife throwing him out of the house. All to discredit Dean so that no one will believe him if he releases the video.
  • May 19, 2011
    Arivne
    Remember to add this to the Logic Tropes and Logical Fallacies indexes when it's launched.
  • May 20, 2011
    Bisected8
    In Beyond Good And Evil, the villains try to frame your instrusions (and photographing of their shenanigans) as terrorist attacks. As you progress through the game, fewer and fewer people are fooled until eventually you get a photo of The Dragon (the leader of the Alpha Sections) talking with the Big Bad and the entire Hillian army shows up to back you up.
  • May 21, 2011
    AGroupie
    BUMP for any suggestions on making this better/ready for launch
  • May 25, 2011
    Xzenu
    I think the concept is too wide and fuzzy. While an improvement on the old YKTTW it's based on (Godwin's Law On Sexuality), it still has a lot of the problems that draft had. Also, it has too much overlap with Frameup: Both examples belong in that trope.

    I suggest you narow it down to a sister trope of Abomination Accusation Attack.

    As for the title Poisoning The Well, it's perfect for a conspiracy theory sister of Abomination Accusation Attack.

    While AAA is about accusing individuals and groups of harmng individuals, PTW could be about accusing individuals and groups of harming large groups or society in general. For example, by actually poisoning the wells - even if there's no plague around to blame on well-poisoning. (that would be Frameup or Scapegoat.

    Bottom line, I think this draft has potential, but it need a lot of work. If both tropes launch, they should link to each other.
  • May 25, 2011
    Xzenu
    Also, if you want to make a trope about how ad hominem attacks are used on blogs, it's probably best to leave it without examples. Would be a pity to waste the great title Poisoning The Well on that, however.

    Dunno what to call it, however: I'd like to call it "Godwin's Law Expanded" or something like that, but that's not a good idea for the reasons pointed out in my old thread.
  • May 25, 2011
    AGroupie
    I think a good compromise for this trope here would be to make it, aside from the trope description, fictional examples only (we have two already and can easily get a third) - and that way we could leave it BOTH covering the instances in fiction and the more common use in Real Life without starting trouble from it.

    Sort of like I did with Mistakenly Banned: it's worked pretty well as a no examples trope.

    As for the Abomination Accusation Attack trope this, that's a good idea. I'll work on it later when I feel better...

    Also the overlap with Frameup is noted, but the difference between this and Frameup is that this is accusation or rumormongering alone (e.g. closer to AAA than Frameup ) and that whereas an actual Frameup is more actively used to get an individual shunned/arrested/socially ostracised, this is used mostly to shut them up or for derailing, with any actual consequences that happen being side effects, so to speak.
  • May 25, 2011
    Fanra
    but the difference between this and Frameup is that

    This is a specific type of Frame Up designed to discredit someone. Other FrameUps may have other reasons. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not this trope, as Roger was framed to draw attention away from the real killer, not to discredit Roger.
  • May 26, 2011
    Xzenu
    Yeah.

    • Frameup: Framing someone.
    • The current version of Poisoning The Well: Framing someone to discredit him. Personally, I think A Groupie made a better title for it in the previous thread: Argument From Slander.
    • Abomination Accusation Attack: Attacking someone by portraying him as a monster, without framing him for having done any actual monsterous acts.
    • Actually Poisoning The Well: If we don't have this already, we should start it. The old european idea that the jews are poisoning the local wells and similar acts against society. In other settings, chaos cultists or whatever are used as Captain Erzats for the jews. Personally, I think the title Poisoning The Well works much better for this trope.
  • May 26, 2011
    Stratadrake
    While it's true that Poisoning The Well is a pre-existing term for a logical fallacy, it's also a pre-existing term for literally poisoning a water source. That's the origin of the phrase, and should probably be given naming priority.

    How about Poisoned Well Falacy?
  • May 26, 2011
    AGroupie
    Poisoned Well Fallacy would be a better title, yes.
  • May 26, 2011
    Xzenu
    Good idea!

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=9k00dvfonw03gvjexcb1fvuv