Poisoning The Well YKTTW Discussion

Poisoning The Well
Using ad hominem attacks preemptively to discredit someone or their views
Needs Examples
(permanent link) added: 2011-05-18 15:44:41 sponsor: AGroupie (last reply: 2011-05-26 15:44:36)

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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:

  • 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.
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