Sunday, April 08, 2007

Poisoning the Wells

You may know that poisoning the well is the rhetorical tactic of insinuating that someone is untrustworthy so that doubt can be cast on anything they say later on. It's one particular example of an ad hominem tactic, and arguably the one that is most ethically problematic. What you may not know is that we owe the name, and the characterization of it, to John Henry Newman in the famous dispute with Charles Kingsley. Charles Kingsley had stated in an article in Macmillan's Magazine that Roman Catholics (unlike Anglicans) did not consider truthfulness a virtue; and he attributed this view to Newman, saying that he held that deceitful cunning was the weapon of the saints against the "brute male force of the wicked world." There was an exchange of letters, and it all culminated in Newman's writing the Apologia Pro Vita Sua [corrected-ed.]. At one point Kingsley had argued:

Dr. Newman tries, by cunning sleight-of-hand logic, to prove that I did not believe the accusation when I made it. Therein he is mistaken. I did believe it, and I believed also his indignant denial. But when he goes on to ask with sneers, why I should believe his denial, if I did not consider him trustworthy in the first instance? I can only answer, I really do not know. There is a great deal to be said for that view, now that Dr. Newman has become (one must needs suppose) suddenly and since the 1st of February, 1864, a convert to the economic views of St. Alfonso da Liguori and his compeers. I am henceforth in doubt and fear, as much as any honest man can be, concerning every word Dr. Newman may write. How can I tell that I shall not be the dupe of some cunning equivocation, of one of the three kinds laid down as permissible by the blessed Alfonso da Liguori and his pupils, even when confirmed by an oath, because 'then we do not deceive our neighbour, but allow him to deceive himself?' … It is admissible, therefore, to use words and sentences which have a double signification, and leave the hapless hearer to take which of them he may choose. What proof have I, then, that by 'mean it? I never said it!' Dr. Newman does not signify, I did not say it, but I did mean it?


This is the rhetorical tactic Newman will call 'poisoning the wells'. As Newman notes, if successful, it would result in readers taking everything Newman does as a sign of deliberate, double-tongued equivocation. His response to it is to identify it and call Kingsley on it:

I really feel sad for what I am obliged now to say. I am in warfare with him, but I wish him no ill;—it is very difficult to get up resentment towards persons whom one has never seen. It is easy enough to be irritated with friends or foes, vis-à-vis; but, though I am writing with all my heart against what he has said of me, I am not conscious of personal unkindness towards himself. I think it necessary to write as I am writing, for my own sake, and for the sake of the Catholic Priesthood; but I wish to impute nothing worse to Kingsley than that he has been furiously carried away by his feelings. But what shall I say of the upshot of all this talk of my economies and equivocations and the like? What is the precise work which it is directed to effect? I am at war with him; but there is such a thing as legitimate warfare: war has its laws; there are things which may fairly be done, and things which may not be done. I say it with shame and with stern sorrow;—he has attempted a great transgression; he has attempted (as I may call it) to poison the wells.


If debate is like war, then, Kingsley has broken the law of war by an unscrupulous tactic. Then, after quoting the above passage from Kingsley, he continues:

Now these insinuations and questions shall be answered in their proper places; here I will but say that I scorn and detest lying, and quibbling, and double-tongued practice, and slyness, and cunning, and smoothness, and cant, and pretence, quite as much as any Protestants hate them; and I pray to be kept from the snare of them. But all this is just now by the bye; my present subject is Mr. Kingsley; what I insist upon here, now that I am bringing this portion of my discussion to a close, is this unmanly attempt of his, in his concluding pages, to cut the ground from under my feet;—to poison by anticipation the public mind against me, John Henry Newman, and to infuse into the imaginations of my readers, suspicion and mistrust of every thing that I may say in reply to him. This I call poisoning the awells.


This is all laid out in slightly abridged form in the Preface to the Apologia. Note, incidentally, the use of the term 'unmanly' here; this is a subtle but recognizable swipe at Kingsley, who had a long-entrenched habit of swiping at Catholics for being unmanly and effeminate. Kingsley was a big partisan of what came to be called 'muscular Christianity', which emphasized as a virtue a sort of manliness expressed in straight talking, sex, fighting, sports, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.

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