Poisoning the Well

The following quotation has become the general reaction to Donald Trump’s charge that the judge presiding over his civil fraud lawsuit has an ethnic conflict of interest. It comes from the UK’s Guardian:

Trump’s broadsides against Judge Curiel certainly crossed a line. The presumptive GOP nominee suggested that the judge’s “bad decisions” against him were not the result of Curiel’s interpretation of the law, but rather because, as Trump put it, he’s a “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana). Since Trump has a harsh view of illegal immigration from Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s ethnic heritage made it impossible for him to offer unbiased judgments on Trump’s case. This is, as even Republicans have pointed out, the textbook definition of racism.

With all due respect to Cohen, the charge in question isn’t a textbook definition of racism. Rather, Trump’s charge is a textbook example of the poisoning the well fallacy. Without getting too fancy and formal, the poisoning of the well fallacy is a failure of relevance whereby, in the words of Douglas Walton, “the critic questions the sincerity or objectivity of an arguer by suggesting that the arguer has something to gain by supporting the argument he has advocated” (Informal Logic, Walton, pg. 170). To supplement Walton’s definition, the poisoning the well fallacy is the commission of the ad hominem fallacy where the objectivity of the arguer is called into question by implicitly or explicitly suggesting s/he has a vested in the topic. The dialectical water well, so to speak, is thus poisoned since anything the arguer says is subject to suspicion on the basis of a presumed conflict of interest. The fallacy, superficially persuasive in argument when successfully utilized, is a cardinal error even if the motivation is a noble one. Anyone exposed to the basics of critical thinking ought to be able to spot the fallacy a mile away.

No doubt Trump’s comments about judge Curiel are ethnically insensitive and politically destructive. However, the charge of racial insensitivity (or racism) misses the point. The point isn’t that it is argumentatively wrong to bring up race as a basis to call into question someone’s neutrality. The relevant point is that it is always wrong to impugn another’s objectivity by suggesting that they have a vested interest, whether the “vested interest” is racial, ethnic, religious or political. That much is true even if the biographical facts in question are true. Thus even if judge Curiel loathes Trump’s accession from a famous business mogul to presumptive Republican nominee or is an active member of a Latino lawyers’ association, it simply does not follow that those facts undermine Curiel’s judicial objectivity in Trump’s civil case. Curiously, some have called for judge Curiel to recuse himself from the case to avoid signalling a hint of bias. For Curiel to do so would give legitimacy to Trump’s charge. Fallacies, by definition, are illegitimate.

What’s amazing about this fiasco is that it’s raged on for nearly two weeks and no one (to my admittedly limited knowledge) has called Trump’s flagrant error by its proper name. There has to be a reason, but for the life of me I can’t think of one. Not that any of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Trump’s comments will be memory-holed only to be replaced by a more degenerate and blatant set of comments as the national conversation has already ceded territory to terrorism, radical Islam, the prospect of banning Muslims US entry, and “crooked” Hillary Clinton.

For a dated (though relevant) essay on the poisoning of the well fallacy, I leave you with this fine essay.

4 thoughts on “Poisoning the Well

  1. Very much on target. For some reason, informal fallacies strike me as extraordinarily difficult to teach, and have almost no traction in our discursive culture. When I have succeeded in teaching students the fallacies, they come to agree with me that almost “argumentation” in contemporary political discourse is fallacious. I agree with you, though, that the otherwise laudable desire to take Trump down a peg has induced people to throw the kitchen sink at him. Racism isn’t the relevant charge in this case, well-poisoning is, but an accusation of well-poisoning lacks the moral bite that an accusation of racism has.

    Incidentally, I was rather disturbed to discover that Trump (or anyone) could in principle face legal sanctions for making the claim he made (on grounds of contempt of court). I hardly have sympathy for Trump, but going after him in this way seems morally on par with beating up his supporters.

    I thought the last link was going to go to something by Walton! But thanks for the shout-out.

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  2. “The relevant point is that it is always wrong to impugn another’s objectivity by suggesting that they have a vested interest, whether the “vested interest” is racial, ethnic, religious or political.”

    Surely this can’t be the lesson. This implies that it’s always unreasonable to expect judges to recuse themselves from a case, even one where the judge and/or a close family member are parties to the case. But the whole system of having judges is based precisely on the idea that people cannot be relied upon to be impartial whether they have a vested interest at stake. It would certainly be fallacious to ignore evidence or arguments from the parties to a dispute based on their having a vested interest in the outcome; but it is not a fallacy to distrust the independence of their *judgement* in such cases. The problem can’t be with the general concern with conflicts of interest – Trump’s error is in the very poor evidence he has for attributing such a conflict of interest.

    Also, it seems to be a contextual matter which aspect of Trump’s behavior is relevant, not an objective one. There are many reasonable contexts in which the public might be more concerned with the “ethnically insensitive” and “politically destructive” features of his remarks, rather than how they are classified in the language of informal fallacies.

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  3. Derek beat me to the point about conflicts of interest; there really can be some, and that matters. I’d add to his second point that the racial/ethnic dimensions of Trump’s claims really do matter here. If Trump had said, on just as little evidence, that Curiel cannot be an unbiased judge because he is a socialist who is committed to destroying capitalism and has a particularly strong loathing for Trump as a symbol of capitalism, he’d still be poisoning the well, but the particular brand of poison would be less toxic given our current environment and Trump’s history of similar racially/ethnically bigoted comments. I agree that it’s curious that hardly anybody has pointed out the general fallacy involved, and that it matters that Trump, like so many others, gets away with the fallacy even when he’s called out for other aspects of what he’s said. There’s no reason why the objection to Trump should be one or the other rather than both. But to deny that the racial/ethnic dimensions of what he’s said matter is, I think, just flat out wrong.

    As for why informal fallacies persist and are so difficult to teach, one reason seems to be that they are, by their nature, not always fallacious (well, ok, most of them aren’t). Just as it isn’t always irrelevant to point to conflicts of interest to impugn someone’s objectivity, it isn’t always fallacious to argue that your opponents’ position suffers from the same flaw they point to in yours, it’s not always fallacious to appeal to authority, it’s not always fallacious to maintain that some alleged Scotsman is in fact not a true Scotsman, it’s not always fallacious to argue that some action or policy should be rejected on the grounds that it will have negative long-term consequences, etc. Spotting informal fallacies requires judgment in a way that spotting formal fallacies doesn’t; we could program a computer to spot formal fallacies, but it’d take a much more advanced program that could identify all and only informal fallacies about which no reasonable argument could be had. Of course, this wouldn’t explain why they are so pervasive and won’t go away. I suspect an adequate explanation would involve rather more empirical psychology than I am in a position to do.

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  4. Pingback: Let’s play Trump speech bingo! | candid sparrow

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