Appeal to fear (also known as scare tactics)

This is the tactic of trying to elicit a fear in one's readers or listeners in order to influence their behaviour or attitudes. A frequent example of the appeal to fear occurs in discussions about immigration into countries such as the UK. Many politicians and other opinion-formers such as journalists use the tactic of eliciting citizens' fears of economic destitution and cultural demise by constructing deliberately exaggerated images of 'waves of immigrants'1 entering a country illegally and generally living a life better than that they deserve; taking jobs, education, health care and state benefits to which they have no rightful entitlement and thereby making Mr and Ms Average Citizen worse off. This familiar scare tactic (which almost certainly also makes appeal to some people's racist attitudes) is often used by politicians to persuade people to support draconian immigration policies and infringements of people's civil rights, and to demonstrate that support by voting for them at election time. But no reason has been given for the belief that disaster would result if such extreme policies were not enacted. Instead, it is hoped that describing these disastrous scenarios will alarm people so severely as to disturb their reason, prompting the confused supposition that the apparent disas-trousness of the worst possible scenario should be matched by the severity of the preventive measures taken.

The appeal to fear should be distinguished from genuine warnings. In instances of the former, there is no warranted connection between the fear elicited and taking the suggested course of action or accepting the claim. Whereas in the case of a warning, we are given a good reason to act. This is usually because the circumstances of the warning are themselves such as to warrant the belief that the warning is well-founded. For example, the warning 'Don't touch the dog, it may look cute and friendly but it bites!' would normally be given only by someone who knows that the dog bites; since such warnings are very seldom given insincerely or with a deceitful motive, the fact that such a warning has been given is good reason to heed it. Such an inference, needless to say, would be much more doubtful in the realm of advertising or political discourse.

These are the most common instances of rhetorical ploys intended to manipulate specific feelings and thereby to influence our attitudes and behaviour, but there are others which occur frequently. Try to think of some and find some examples of your own.

1 Notice the rhetorical power of the phrase 'waves of immigrants', connoting as it does a flood that will sweep people away.

The direct attack and hard sell

The direct attack is the simplest of all rhetorical ploys. It occurs most frequently in advertising, though it also appears in political campaigning. It often takes the form of a very simple slogan. For instance, 'Say no to tuition fees!', 'Drink Cola!' Notice that we are given no reason to say 'no' or to drink cola. The belief of those who employ the direct attack is that the more we hear or read these commands and internalise them, the more likely we are unreflectively to do as they advocate, despite having been given no reason to do so. We often talk about 'giving someone the hard sell'. The hard sell is simply the direct attack repeated persistently. Children are notably effective with it. The persuader just keeps it up until the subject of their attack gives in and does as they want, the persuader thereby having influenced their target by verbal means without giving reasons for doing as they command.


This is the technique of using fashionable or otherwise currently 'hot' words or phrases which are loaded with rhetorical power due to their rich secondary connotation. (If you don't feel familiar with the concept of secondary connotation, have another look at the relevant section of Chapter 1.) Buzzwords can be enormously provocative and therefore hard to tame, and this makes them especially problematic for the critical thinker. If we want to make an objective analysis of a passage or speech act, we should rephrase what is said or written in such a way as to eliminate the buzzwords, and then embark on the analysis. Here is an example of a passage containing several buzzwords:

The Prime Minister's solid stance against European Union bureaucrats' latest attempts to create yet more employment rights for European workers and yet more financial burdens for European employers sent a message to business that his Government would continue to stand tall in its commitment to the free market and to wealth creation.

The writer uses the terms 'bureaucrats', 'business', 'free market' and 'wealth creation' as buzzwords to manipulate readers' sympathies towards the Prime Minister's anti-European stance. In combination with the rhetorical import of some of the other words used in the passage, these buzzwords have the effect of showing the Prime Minister to be protecting these (allegedly) uncontroversially good things in the face of an unwarranted attack on them by the European Union, which the writer casts in a bad light by their use of the negative connotations of the buzzword 'bureaucrats'.

Scare quotes

This tactic is a means of influencing opinion against a view that one opposes. The speaker/writer takes key words in terms of which their opponent expresses their views and attempts to discredit those views by making them appear ridiculous or suspicious through the use of scare quotes. No reason is given for rejecting the view, we are simply manipulated into rejecting it because it has been made to appear ridiculous or suspicious. Suppose someone makes the following claim about people trying to settle in the UK for reasons of political asylum:

Almost all asylum seekers are economic migrants.

Now consider the effect of using scare quotes around the term 'asylum seekers' so that the claim becomes:

Almost all 'asylum seekers' are economic migrants.

As you can see, the addition of scare quotes has the same rhetorical effect as putting the phrase 'so-called' before the crucial term or phrase. The claim becomes much more explicitly negative in respect of its questioning of the legitimacy of people's claims for asylum. Indeed, it has virtually the same effect as the rhetorically explosive phrase 'bogus asylum seekers'.

This tactic can also be used more subtly but to similar effect. In such cases an opponent's opinion is made to seem dubious by placing scare quotes around words used to describe what would be perfectly normal, acceptable facts about them. This can turn a perfectly innocuous statement into one that casts doubt on someone's credibility. Compare

My opponent does of course have his reasons for what he believes to be right.

with the scare-quoted,

My opponent does of course have his 'reasons' for what he believes to be right.

While the first sentence suggests disagreement with the opponent's view, the use of scare quotes in the second lends it increased rhetorical power, not only expressing disagreement with the opinion in question, but also casting doubt on the legitimacy of the justification provided for those views.

Care should be taken not to confuse the rhetorical ploy of scare quoting with the legitimate use of quotation marks to demarcate a direct citation of what someone has said or written. Sometimes we use quotation marks in this way even if the view we are quoting is one with which we disagree. For instance, in responding to a letter one has read in a newspaper, one might write,

Ms Long is simply mistaken when she claims that 'men are better critical thinkers than women'.

Here the writer is simply using quotation marks to show that she is using the original writer's words verbatim. Sometimes we do use citations of what people actually say or write to rhetorical effect and we use quotation marks to demarcate their actual words, but this is not the same as the tactic of scare quoting. A good example of this latter technique is the use of someone else's words taken out of context in order to give rhetorical support to one's own opinions.

Trading on an equivocation

This ploy deliberately exploits the ambiguity, and in some cases the vagueness, of a word or phrase in the given context. Although nothing false is claimed, the speaker or writer manages to influence our actions or beliefs by misleading us. It is generally used when someone is attempting to persuade us of the benefits and virtues of their product or policy; hence it is common in advertising, particularly when an advertisement uses a superlative such as 'best', 'biggest', 'most successful', and so on. So imagine we come across the following advertisement:

Britburgers: Britain's favourite hamburger restaurant!

To equivocate is misleadingly to use the same word in more than one sense; the ploy is to get us to interpret a message in a way that favours the product or view being advanced, when it is only under another interpretation that the message is true or well-founded. In this case, the word 'favourite' is ambiguous, having at least two possible meanings: It could mean (i) that Britburgers is the hamburger restaurant that most British people prefer or like best, or (ii) that Britburgers is the hamburger restaurant with the most customers in Britain (or possibly: that it's the one that sells the most hamburgers in Britain, or that has the most franchise outlets in Britain). Obviously the advertisers hope that we'll understand the message according to (i); this is much more favourable to the restaurant than merely having the most customers, since its market domination might be due to some factor other than actual customer preference.

Now we might realise that Britburgers would risk prosecution if they made this claim knowing it wasn't true, and thus conclude that Britburgers really is actively preferred by more British hamburger-eaters. But there's the rub with equivocation: the slogan could be true without the proposition it expresses giving us a good reason to expect Britburgers' burgers to be any good, for the truth expressed by the slogan might not be the one we take it to be. The slogan might be true only under interpretation (ii), and not under interpretation (i). In that case the advertisers could not rightly be convicted of having said something false; they can always claim that (ii) is all that was intended.

Smokescreen (changing the subject)

This is the tactic of avoiding discussion of an issue or acknowledgement of a point through diverting or distracting one's opponent from the issue at hand by addressing a different (possibly related) issue. The issue irrelevant to the discussion thereby acts like a smokescreen by obscuring our view of the real issue. The more subtle the smokescreen, the more effective at distracting the listener or reader it tends to be. Consider, for instance, a court case brought against a company that has allegedly been pursuing illegal monopolistic practices. When giving evidence, the company's Chief Executive Officer responds to counsel's questions about those practices, by launching into a speech about how the court case constitutes an attack on traditional values of hard work and innovation. Instead of addressing the issue at hand - whether or not the company was indeed involved in the alleged practices - the CEO is attempting to distract the court's attention from it by obscuring it in the rhetoric of their speech about hard work and innovation, a speech that is rhetorically powerful because hard work and innovation are the sorts of things that right-minded people are supposed to admire and want to protect.

The smokescreen tactic is very similar to the red herring fallacy, discussed in more detail below. The crucial difference is that while the smokescreen works via its rhetorical power, the red herring is still an attempt to persuade by argument: it gives reasons for accepting a claim, just not good reasons. When we are trying to distinguish the smokescreen ploy from the red herring fallacy, we must first work out whether or not the writer or speaker is attempting to persuade by argument.

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