Monday, June 11, 2012

Red Herrings and Lipstick on Pigs

A Red Herring is a fallacy in which one tries to introduce an unrelated topic into a discussion in order to derail the conversation or distract from the original issue. A very nice example of this fallacy comes from this September 9 ad for John McCain's 2008 US Presidential campaign:

John McCain Lipstick on Pig Ad re: Gov... by RevSpitz

In order to recognize this as a red herring, we need to unpack some of the details and context of this ad. As Politifact notes, the initial clip comes from then Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. The second clip comes from an Obama campaign speech delivered a few weeks later. If one looks at the full context of the quotation from Obama, one finds that the McCain ad deliberately pulls the quote from its original context (an example of eduction). What Obama actually said was:
John McCain says he's about change, too. And so I guess his whole angle is, 'Watch out, George Bush! Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics, we're really going to shake things up in Washington.' That's not change. That's just calling something the same thing something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.
Seeing the comment in context, it is clear that Obama is not talking about Sarah Palin, but is instead talking about McCain's presidential platform (I leave aside the question of whether the criticism is accurate as it is not relevant to my larger point).

Now the McCain campaign clearly understood that Obama was not making a sexist comment directed at Sarah Palin yet they nevertheless produced and aired a national ad claiming exactly that. Why? The reason is clear and relates directly to the subject matter of this post. They were trying to change the political conversation away from discussions of the relevant party platforms of the two candidates to a political conversation that put the Obama campaign on the defensive. Though the McCain campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, this particular ad did succeed in its goal of distracting the media and derailing the political conversation. All one needs to do is a quick Google search on "McCain Lipstick on Pig ad" and you will find many media sources from that period treating the ad as raising a legitimate question. And this, of course, is exactly what one tries to do when one deploys a Red Herring.

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