Rhetoric’s most commonly used device gets its name from Lloyd “Red” Herring, a 1920s Three Card Monte master so skillful at taking your eye off the queen that he never lost a bet. I just confirmed that explanation on the intergooglewebtubes and found that I made it up two minutes ago. No, the most commonly cited origin for the term “red herring” comes from dog training, where herring that was so over-cured that the flesh turned red was used to help the mutts learn how to pick up a scent, and later how to stay on the original scent.
I don’t know whether that’s true, and more importantly it’s completely irrelevant to this conversation. All I’ve done by babbling about the etymology of “red herring” is got you thinking about word origins rather than my original point, which is exactly what my original point is. Confused? Well then, my work here is done.
Any number of people who want you to take your eye off the queen depend on some form of red herring – advertisers, cable news anchors, loud radio personalities, advertisers, and your Facebook friends just to name a few. The red herring is very simple to deploy: Simply counter a statement with a completely irrelevant response. This tactic is used so often that I wonder how many people know they are even using it.
Here’s a completely fictitious example that sadly you’ve probably heard in not so fictitious circumstances:
Bob: “If we really want to make a dent in the deficit why don’t we look at defense spending, entitlement programs, and corporate handouts?”
Ted: “I think it’s terrible that you don’t support the troops.”
Wait, what? Bob never said that he didn’t support the troops. He didn’t even imply that, but Ted has thrown the original conversation completely off the scent by tossing a big, stinky red herring out there. Rather than having a meaningful conversation about reeling in the deficit we’re now talking about Bob’s lack of patriotism. Well played, Ted.
A good example in recent years was the conversation regarding Sandy Hook. This was an important and timely conversation rendered unimportant and foolish by a chronic case of red herringitus.
The discussion began with a reasonable thesis statement—why have there been so many mass shootings in the last 15 years and what can we do about it—but it was quickly so obscured with red herrings that the original point was completely lost. People were talking about the hazards of hammers, the Third Reich, the “mainstream media,” virtually anything other than the original point, which was that wholesale slaughter is not okay and is a problem that needs to be addressed. How does it need to be addressed? I have no idea, but I know that Hitler comparisons have nothing to do with solving that problem. They are simply distractions from what might otherwise be valid points.
Speaking of which, watch out for the Hitler Gambit when you’re online or watching fake news channels. You know who was like Hitler? Hitler. Also, Charlie Chaplin, but just a little bit right around the upper lip. Affordable health care, for example, does not equate to “like Hitler” unless we’re talking about reanimating Mengele. Such comparisons are silly and add no value, and if you use them then you don’t support the troops.
How did we get so off track as a nation in the last dozen years when it comes to sound reasoning? Were we blinded by commercials that promised us that if we drank a particular beer we’d be irresistible to hot babes? Was it the elimination of the line separating news and opinion? The twenty-four hour news cycle? The rise of the internet? The inexplicable popularity of Larry the Cable Guy?
I really don’t know, but we’re living in an era of Orwellian doublespeak, and the only way to survive is to beat the Three Card Monte that we’re being hammered with all day every day. Keeping an eye out for red herrings is key to that strategy, so stay alert. Also, if you don’t you’ll be just like Hitler.