One day, I was talking to a fan of Ben Shapiro’s about his cringe-worthy book The Right Side Of History, which argues that the purportedly peerless “greatness” of Western Civilization can be directly attributed to its embrace of “Judeo-Christian” values. When I mentioned that this thesis cannot be supported by the facts, she replied, “name one country that’s greater”. It was a very blatant deflection, which is the 9th in our series of propaganda props.
A deflection is an attempt to divert focus away from one issue and turn it toward something else. In psychology, it’s symptomatic of an abuser. In politics, it really isn’t much different. In the above incident, there are at least two major problems. First, this individual was expecting me to stack up the accomplishments of some single nation against the entirety of Western Civilization. But more important, she was suggesting that I was impugning the “greatness” of the latter (and apparently of the United States in particular). While I consider it crucial to define “greatness” and delineate the criteria used in determining it, my point was simply that the “greatness”, however defined, of Western Civilization can not be attributed to its religious affiliations.
Deflection is a particularly fascinating tool, because it encompasses several notable variations. Let’s look at some of the most common.
1. Non sequitur
A non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”) is merely an out-of-the-blue distraction that has no logical connection to the matter at hand. (Reporter: “So, Senator, what’s the deal with you and that teenage boy you were seen coming out of a motel with?” Senator: “Hey, how about this nice weather, huh?”) Such a transparent maneuver is relatively uncommon compared to the other variations here, but don’t be surprised if you see it at times. In fact, you definitely will see it if you try indulging in a discussion about a topic that someone has strong beliefs about, but few facts to back them up.
Talking one day with an RRR (rabidly right-wing relative), I mentioned what a vile and dishonest piece of scum a certain president was, and he replied, “Shame on you for saying that. This country won’t always be free.” Such a sequence of words may have made perfect sense inside his head, but it didn’t at all in the real world.
You’ll also hear it from cable TV and talk radio bloviators — not so much as an attempt to deflect from one specific issue as part of a general strategy to disorient the public with a constant stream of disjointed soundbites that the propagandist hopes people will assume are somehow related. “Let’s build a wall! Make America great again!” And on and on and on, in an endless march toward superlative cognitive dissonance. You may recall that in one episode of the original Star Trek, an orator used this technique to pump up the masses in a society patterned after The Third Reich.
A tangent is also a veering off topic, but unlike the non sequitur, is connected in some associative way. (Reporter: “So, Senator, what’s the deal with you and that teenage boy you were seen coming out of a motel with?” Senator: “I do indeed stay at motels when I travel, rather than fancy hotels. I’m just an ordinary Joe, like my constituents.”) In commenting once about Politifact, I mentioned that it had every right to bill itself as a Pulitzer Prize winner, since it had indeed won a Pulitzer, just as a baseball team that wins the World Series has a right to bill itself as World Series champs. To which someone commented that the winner of the World Series does not have to play a team from Japan in order to earn the title, so it’s really not an accurate claim at all, and therefore not a good analogy.
To address that comment, one would have to discuss whether it is indeed fair to claim such a title under the circumstances, which would lead to a discussion about whether the World Series should allow teams outside North America a chance to compete, which would lead to a discussion about how professional baseball is structured — and on, and on, going very far afield of the original observation. You will see this kind of endless branching very frequently in online forums.
3. Red Herring
A red herring is also an irrelevant matter, but unlike a simple tangent, it appears to be related in some way to the central topic. (Reporter: “So, Senator, what’s the deal with you and that teenage boy you were seen coming out of a motel with?” Senator: “How dare you suggest that I would do anything to harm a youngster when I’ve worked on several bills to benefit youth.”) A red herring is often related, but not relevant; which is to say, it is connected to the topic being discussed, but does not contribute to (or detract from) the point in question. In the above illustration, the work the Senator may have done to benefit youth does not affect what he did or didn’t do on this one particular occasion.
When I made a remark on Twitter about how the Second Amendment does not really guarantee an individual right to own weapons, one indignant gunster piped up to educate me with a lengthy thread documenting the authority of the Bill Of Rights. In fact, the Bill Of Rights consists of constitutional amendments; and constitutional amendments can be, and have been, nullified by Congress. But more to the point, I was not questioning the sanctity of the Bill Of Rights or any part thereof. I was just commenting on what one of the amendments actually means.
Sometimes the red herring is related to the main topic only if one accepts certain premises to be true. When discussing mass shootings, it’s very common for reactionaries to bring up abortion. They mean to suggest that the two are somehow connected. In their minds, abortion is also killing, and so that means that… well, something or other. Sometimes, you will even hear them claim that because of the “disregard for human life” shown by the legalization of abortion, American society has come to accept killing, and therefore Americans decide to just pick up guns and go gunning each other down for no reason. (There are many problems with that theory, not the least of which is that for the past few decades, the abortion rate has been steadily declining, while mass shootings have been surging dramatically.)
Sometimes a red herring can be a decoy to divert focus away from many other topics simultaneously. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the matter of Hillary Clinton’s emails became an obsession not only of her opponent but of the media, and many far more important issues were shunted to the sidelines. In fact, it’s a good bet that at any time in the future, whenever a politician wants to deflect from his own scandals, he will just say, “Hey, Hillary’s emails”. (Even though it’s been very quietly revealed that a years-long probe found no wrongdoing on her part.)
Sometimes, rather than divert your attention to a matter that is falsely intended to be relevant, the deflector will try to get you to focus on a matter that is falsely intended to be actually identical. It’s semantic legerdemain, like the magician switching cards when you’re not looking. (Reporter: “So, Senator, what’s the deal with you and that teenage boy you were seen coming out of the motel with?” Senator: “It’s true that I do volunteer my time to tutor teens.”) In a discussion one day about vegetarianism, a carnivore who was trying to convince me that eating meat is essential said, “But without animal products, you won’t get Vitamin B-12.” He abruptly substituted veganism for vegetarianism, and apparently hoped I wouldn’t notice.
Protesters against a Republican president are routinely said to be protesting against America itself, or displaying disrespect for the office of the presidency itself. Those who attack a Democratic president, even in the vilest and most dishonest terms, are routinely said to be defending America and showing their patriotism. Which is to say, substitution makes heavy use of spin.
Although whataboutism is a word of recent coinage, the technique itself is timeless. A whataboutism may be thought of as a specific kind of red herring. It is presented as a response to something else, and is meant to suggest that two things are not only related and relevant to the point, but also are equivalent or parallel. (Reporter: “So, Senator, what’s the deal with you and that teenage boy you were seen coming out of the motel with?” Senator: “Hey, what about Senator Smith, who was arrested for DUI?”)
In many instances, the whataboutism is intended to be not just equivalent to, but actually more important than, the real issue. For example, one ideologue who wants you to believe that racism is a thing of the past, has made a point of saying that the real problem African-Americans face is father absence. Well, yes, growing up without a father can have a negative impact on a child. But guess what? That’s true of all children, not just African-American children. And that does nothing to diminish instances of blacks being shot by police, yelled at by racists, and stalked by vigilantes.
Many whataboutisms present a false choice: “Why should we worry about the plight of refugees when we have homeless veterans”? Somehow the person who asks this (and a great many people do) wants you to believe that there must necessarily be a choice between being concerned about, and doing something about, one or the other. It’s also common to present a false equivalence as a whataboutism: “So what if the current president lies? Bill Clinton lied about an affair. And besides, all politicians lie.” Comparing the prevarications of any normal politician with the nonstop blustery whoppers of the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant is like comparing a soapbox derby to the Indianapolis 500.
Sometimes there are instances when a whataboutism is perfectly justified, and is not intended as subterfuge. When Barack Obama was president, there was a very popular and very bizarre line of attack among Republicans that consisted of making fun of him for using a teleprompter. It certainly would not have been out of line to gently remind them that it has been standard practice for political speakers to use a teleprompter for decades — many of the individuals sneering at Obama for doing so were themselves reading their insults from a teleprompter! It would be far less absurd to ridicule someone for having a Facebook or Twitter account.
An especially interesting scenario occurred when Bill Clinton was being investigated and impeached for lying about an affair — by several Republicans who were…well, lying about having an affair. Some of the president’s defenders said, “hey, they all do it”. To which his detractors replied, “that doesn’t excuse him”. The latter response, however, was a red herring in most cases. Those who pointed out that “everyone does it” generally weren’t trying to excuse or justify his behavior, but were emphasizing the absurdity and inequity of singling out one person to rake over the coals for doing something that so many people do — including many of those condemning him.
Bothsidesism, also a recently minted word, is a form of whataboutism. It’s meant to suggest that two opposing factions are equally guilty of some offense or other — which in fact is almost never the case.
6. Shooting the messenger
“Shooting the messenger” (more formally known as genetic fallacy) consists, of course, in attacking the credibility of the source of information rather than addressing the actual issue. (Senator: “There you go again, you media people are always looking for a sensationalist story.”) Questioning the source is legitimate and even crucial in some cases. If the only source for a rumor is Alex Jones or Fox “News”, then you have every reason to be skeptical. A broken clock may be right twice a day, but it’s still wrong 1438 times a day. Hearing a claim that seems to be totally out of touch with reality is a good reason to question its source. But if you simply respond “fake news” to every report you don’t like, you’re not legitimately questioning the source; you’re just shooting the messenger. And be cautious about rejecting a source simply because you don’t like its bias (or lack thereof). Bias is not necessarily an indicator of inaccuracy. Dishonesty is.
Climate science deniers frequently shoot the messenger by attacking celebrities who try to raise awareness about climate change. The deniers try to portray movie stars as pampered elites out of touch with the real world (most of them aren’t, but that’s another story), and therefore anything they say should be discounted (with the exception, of course, of celebrity geniuses like James Woods). Quite often, this will include a jab at their “hypocrisy” for living in big houses and traveling on jets.
What the deniers don’t realize (or what they don’t want you to realize) is that these movie stars are just repeating what scientists say. That’s something that anyone can do, with no qualifications whatsoever. If you’re going to challenge what scientists say, however, then you do need staggering expertise, greater than all the world’s scientists combined. So questioning the qualifications of a denier is perfectly legitimate, and is not shooting the messenger.
7. Tu quoque
Tu quoque, which is Latin for “you too”, consists of throwing an accusation back in the face of the accuser. It can involve either a duplicate accusation, or another deemed to be somehow equivalent. (Senator: “How dare you accuse me of being morally depraved, when I’ve heard on good authority that you smoke pot and cheat at golf.”) It’s pretty much a dressed-up version of the schoolyard retort, “It takes one to know one.” Note that in the situations mentioned above, neither Obama nor Clinton invoked a tu quoque, though they very easily could have.
8. Ad hominem
Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person”, and an ad hominem attack is an attack against an individual who takes a particular stance instead of bothering with an examination of the stance itself. (Senator: “I’m not going to answer questions from someone who obviously doesn’t know the truth when he sees it.”) And notice those operative words “instead of”; it’s certainly sometimes appropriate to discuss a person’s character, in itself or in relation to one of his or her stances. But it becomes deflection when you choose to focus on the individual in order to skirt around the issue. You’ll see this crop up all the time in discussions among passionate ideologues: “you’re an idiot”; “you’re a libtard”; “you think you know it all”. Etc.
One of the many bizarre ad hominems against President Obama was a narrative about the supposed frequency of his use of personal pronouns –which according to the Obama haters, was more frequently than any other president, and therefore proved that he was an egomaniac. (Yes, these were the same individuals who gush like preteen groupies over Obama’s successor.) They were wrong on both counts; Obama’s use of personal pronouns was not exceptionally frequent, and such frequency has never been even close to a reliable indicator of a president’s egomania or humility. But it’s striking how desperately they tried to attack Obama himself (“He’s a Muslim!” “He’s Kenyan!” “He’s a socialist!” “He pals around with terrorists!” “He uses a teleprompter!” “Latte salute”! “Tan suit”! “Fancy mustard”!) rather than discussing his actual policies and actions in office.
Projection consists of accusing others of what you are guilty of yourself. Unlike tu quoque, it doesn’t wait for an accusation, but acts proactively to put other people on the defensive. (Reporter: “Excuse me, Senator, I’d like to ask you –” Senator: “You! Aren’t you the guy who’s been repeatedly suspected of being a pedophile?”) It’s become especially common since the ascendancy of the 45th White House Occupant, who throws it in your face constantly: “fake news”, “Crooked Hillary”, “do-nothing Democrats”,etc. etc. etc. He has extensively run a fundraising page on Facebook (Fundraising??? For a purported billionaire???) which features his staple narrative of media persecution with the tagline “Hold them accountable”. This from a man who has always demanded, and usually obtained, exactly zero accountability for himself.
Sometimes you will even hear people exercise projection by accusing other people of projecting. It can get a bit confusing — how do you know who’s really projecting without studying their behavior more closely? Well, there are a couple of rather reliable signals that projectors give off. For one thing, they heavily apply the technique of repetition: “fake news, fake news, fake news”; “Crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary”. For another, they tend to speak in broad generalizations: “she’s a liar” rather than “he’s lied more than 10 times a day in office”. Or the “do-nothing Democrats” control the House, rather than “the Democratic House has passed over 100 bills this year, but the Republican Senate has refused to vote on any of them”. In general, the more you hear Person A try to brand Person B or Group B with a particular adjective, the more you should suspect that it actually applies to Person A.
Right-wing fanatics devote a great deal of time and energy to trying to portray “liberals” and “leftists” as intolerant, hateful, irrational and guided entirely by emotion. A great deal. A really great deal. A really really really really great deal. A staggering;y, mind-blowingly, unfathomably great deal. It very well could be a calculated effort to steer attention away from their own sins — e.g., Islamophobia, homophobia, religious chauvinism, white nationalism, and an intense, eliminationist loathing for anyone who doesn’t concur with their ideology.
One particular tactic involves highlighting a handful of Antifa demonstrators who get rowdy, rude or destructive, and declaring that they are typical of the “violent left” even though Antifa is a fringe group that has actually been shunned by the left. But right-wingers try very hard to spin this narrative in order to mask the right-wing’s embrace of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who are much more violent — who indeed actually kill people. Nearly all mass shootings and domestic terrorist attacks are committed by right-wing extremists. And yet conservative pundits want you to focus your outrage upon a handful of punks who get into shoving matches with those extremists.
Republicans have even been known to brand Democrats as loony and delusional — even as they themselves push narratives of birtherism, Pizzagate, Climategate, “false flags”. “deep state”, “civil war”, “millions voting illegally” and oh yes, George Soros is behind it all. And which network plays the “fake news” card most heavily? Unquestionably Fox “News”, which habitually promotes narratives like the above (and many others) after spending much of the 2016 campaign season ridiculing the notion that fake news existed at all.
Non sequitur. Tangent. Red Herring. Substitution. Whataboutism. Shooting the messenger. Tu quoque. Ad hominem. Projection. All are variations on a theme. There are a couple of things you may have noticed about these forms of deflection. First, there is a great deal of overlap among them and other propaganda techniques. You very well might see, for instance, a tu quoque combined with a whataboutism. Second, these things often manifest themselves as merely logical fallacies in normal human interaction, with no deliberate effort to mislead. But they’re also very often used calculatedly for ideological or financial gain. And they have been extremely successful.