What Is a Red Herring?
A red herring is a logical fallacy in which someone deliberately introduces an irrelevant subject or topic to throw an argument off course or divert people’s attention. For instance, if your mother tells you to clean your room, and you respond by showing her a website full of drawings that you like, you are hoping to avoid the chore. Red herrings are also a popular strategy in political arguments.
The term originated in the early nineteenth century, when people opposed to fox hunting would drag a red herring along a course into order to throw the hounds off the scent. Nowadays, there is a special term for Internet users who like to interrupt online forum discussions by throwing out red herrings. They are referred to as "trolls" because they troll for attention by trying to distract people from their original conversation, often by engaging in personal attack.
How Do You Identify a Red Herring in Writing?
The literary genre that contains the most red herrings is mystery writing. In fact, red herrings are a convention of this genre. In order to create suspense, the writer deliberately plants clues that lead her readers to suspect that an innocent character is really the killer. Before the true killer is revealed, most the clues in the mystery come together in a pattern that leads to him; however, a red herring stands out as a false clue, one that goes nowhere and may never fit into a larger pattern.
Examples of Red Herring
1. When a politician says that people are too fat to get out and vote, he distracts his audience from a legitimate question over whether registered voters have been disenfranchised.
2. A mother who tells her child to think about the children starving in Africa when he is upset because a friend hurt his feelings has thrown a red herring into the discussion.
3. If you ask your spouse why they went clothes shopping when you had agreed on a budget, and he defends himself by saying that the clothes were on sale, he has used a red herring. The real issue is the agreement, not the bargain.
4. When you criticize someone for opposing abortion even though they support military action, you are using a red herring.
5. When asked if age was a consideration in his presidential bid since his opponent, Walter Mondale, was so much younger than him, Ronald Reagan famously quipped, "Not at all. I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience."
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