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Truth Doesn’t Depend on the Messenger: Ridicule & Motive

by / January 25, 2020

[Originally published as Appeal to Ridicule and Appeal to Motive]

Appeal to Ridicule

This logical fallacy is difficult to classify in some ways because of the huge potential for blending and overlapping with other fallacies (especially ad hominem). Appeal to Ridicule is a form or subclass of the Appeal to Emotion fallacy, and is often used as a kind of Red Herring to distract the opponent from the topic under discussion.

This fallacy is something that I encounter very frequently and in various forms:

  • Creation science is stupid. This is the “purest” form of the fallacy, where the topic is directly ridiculed.
  • You must be an idiot fascist because you believe in God, and religion is stupid. Now you can see an ad hominem attack mixed with the ridicule.
  • Intelligent design is stupid and unscientific because it’s just “Goddidit”. A Straw Man fallacy is  mixed with the ridicule.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The emotional aspect of an Appeal to Ridicule can be powerful. If you are not on guard against it, you can find yourself hopelessly chasing a school of red herring to nowhere. And getting angry. You could find yourself defending your intelligence and personal integrity instead of having your opponent justify his assertions. (I have seen attacks that reek of desperation by jumping on typos, mixed metaphors [such as a school of red herring swimming] or grammar instead of dealing with the point at hand.) And if you’re distracted from your subject, the simple act of wasting your time is a sort of victory for your opponent, you savvy?

Ridiculing your topic is not necessarily ridiculing you, but wait a while; the personal attack will not be far behind.
I know it is easy for me to say, but try to maintain your composure and stay with the topic at hand. Of course, if your discussion is adversarial and unproductive, feel free to withdraw.

Appeal to Motive

Keep an eye out for this fallacy, not only in discussions about faith and reason, but in political arenas.

In its simplest sense, the Appeal to Motive fallacy is rather easy to spot. It is a form of the argumentum ad hominem fallacy. I posted some song lyrics in the comments section of a Weblog, and someone said that I posted them “to feel better about myself”. (What gave him the idea that he had insight into my mental processes, I have no idea.) It seems to me that one of the most common indicators that this fallacy has been engaged is terminology resembling, “He/She/You are doing this because…”

But the accuser has no way of knowing what is going on inside your soul.

Worth Investigating

In a more difficult manifestation, the Appeal to Motive is not always a fallacy. This is when something tangible can be brought into question, such as, “Snidely is suggesting that we use General Universal Widgetarium because he holds stock in that company”. Well, that may be worth further investigation, but to reject Sindely’s suggestion out of hand because he holds stock in the company could have negative consequences.

On a variation on this theme, someone could very well have an ulterior motive that is either good, or at least, harmless: “We can’t let Ray give away this video because he wants to present the gospel message!” So? Either ignore or receive the message, but his motive is probably not a good reason in and of itself to refuse to allow him to give away a video.

Responding Well

When you are on the receiving end of the most blatant Appeal to Motive, you can easily counter it by saying something like, “How do you know what is going on inside my head?”, or, “Your guess about my motive has no bearing on the validity of what I said.” (That is, if you think the attack is worth giving a response in the first place.) Many times, I have seen this fallacy used simply to attack a person instead of engaging in honest discussion.

Being aware of its existence can help you keep a cool head and not get wrapped up in emotional distractions and you can get back to business.

On the other hand, when you are seeing or hearing a remark from someone who is questioning the motives of someone else, exercise restraint. It may not be a fallacy if the questioner has some kind of insight about the motives. Also, you may be right about someone’s motives based on your own experiences, interactions and evidence. But it may not be a good idea to speak up too quickly, or even to speak up on that at all.

So, the Appeal to Motive fallacy is a frequent kind of ad hominem attack, and you can parry the thrusts of your opponent. But be careful, sometimes it is valid to question someone’s motives if you have actual knowledge and want to examine their statement or proposition further.

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Cowboy Bob Sorensen
Although raised in a United Methodist family where my father was a pastor, I was challenged in my high school years to examine why we believe the Bible and hold to our doctrines. Years later, I drifted from the faith but never fully abandoned it. After I recommitted my life to Jesus in 2010, I was led to establish Weblogs to discuss matters of doctrine, apologetics, and especially biblical creation science. This grew into the Piltdown Superman site. My primary goal is to help equip the church in defending the faith, especially the foundations in Genesis.
Cowboy Bob Sorensen

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One Comment

  1. Some very excellent points! Your section Responding Well hits home the hardest for me: “exercise restraint.” I suppose it is because I can be too quick to fire off and fight back that God is always dealing with me to exercise restraint; to just step back and wait on Him. At my secular job, we often come under social media fire. I always want to craft long, combative responses but the Spirit urges me to be silent. Recently, some people tried to drag us through the mud. But I kept God’s advice and stayed out of the social media fray. In the end, the critics were all wallowing in the mud and looking dirty, but I felt clean, vindicated and above it all, just by keeping silent! So sometimes we have to take an example from our Savior: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth..” Isaiah 53:7. If He, being totally innocent of any charge could keep His mouth shut, shouldn’t we?

    William Wise

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