Thursday, June 28, 2012

Red Herring

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Moving the goalposts; the Chewbacca Defense.


The advocate deliberately introduces an irrelevant topic into a discussion or debate in order to divert attention away from the topic under consideration. The Red Herring is similar to Moving the Goalposts, in that the advocate is attempting to change the focus of the conversation. What makes Red Herrings different is the employment of outright non-sequiturs.


1. Newton Mattburt was accused of assaulting his former girlfriend Sacha Wellbroke. His lawyer spoke on his behalf outside the court: "Mr. Mattburt pleaded not guilty to the charges and will defend himself vigorously. Let's get some perspective," Mattburt’s solicitor went on to say: "Ninety people died in Iraqastan today, most of them kids. This is a very minor matter."

2. In the South Park episode “Chef Aid”, Lawyer Johnnie Cochran is representing a record label who is suing the character Chef over the intellectual property of the song "Stinky Britches”. He starts talking about Chewbacca (from the Star Wars movies), referring to the fact that Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk who lives on the planet Endor (he actually doesn't). But as Cochran points out, this does not make sense:

Cochran: Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of two-foot tall Ewoks? That does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me. I'm a lawyer defending a major record company, and I'm talkin' about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense!

And so you have to remember, when you're in that jury room deliberatin' and conjugatin' the Emancipation Proclamation, [approaches and softens] does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests."

(South Park 1998, Season 2, Episode 14)


The kind of Non Sequitur used by Mattburt’s lawyer in the first example is a Red Herring. It is a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from the real issue under consideration - that Mattburt (allegedly) beat his (now ex) girlfriend. Most of us would agree that 90 people dying in a war zone is, in the grand scheme of things, worse than one person being assaulted. However, this has nothing to do with the case.

In the second example we have an extreme version of the Red Herring Fallacy called the "Chewbacca Defense" - coined in the animated series South Park. South Park satirised the closing argument of the attorney (Johnnie Cochran) defending O.J. Simpson at his murder trial. The Chewbacca Defense is more extreme that a "standard" Red Herring. It is a series of bizarre non-sequiturs whose only purpose is to confuse an opponent.