The Palliative Rejoinder

You won’t see this fallacy anywhere else, because I’m coining the term for it right now. Perhaps this could be viewed as a minor variation of the red herring or a logical extension of simple inconsistency, but I want to call attention to something a little more specific than that, so I’m going to suggest treating this as it’s own fallacy. Anyway…

The Palliative Rejoinder occurs when someone denies the charge that they have taken an objectionable position by calling attention to statements they have made which appear to contradict the position in question. This might be thought to answer the charge, but only if one assumes a rigorous consistency on the part of the individual producing this argument. Strictly speaking, the question in such instances would be whether or not they have articulated the position in question, not whether or not they hold other beliefs contrary to that position. So, the response may call attention to a less objectionable feature of the speaker’s views, but it doesn’t resolve the more substantive question about whether or not he has committed himself to an objectionable position in the first place.

Example 1: An individual has argued that homosexuality is unnatural and sinful, and he has consistently argued against granting a range of civil rights protections to those of homosexual orientation. Faced with the charge that he is hostile (perhaps even hateful) to those of homosexual orientation, he proceeds to explain that the Bible tells him to hate the sin and love the sinner.

The distinction between hating a sin and hating a sinner is simply another theme in the individual’s total world view. If the individual in this example is to successfully defend himself from the criticism in question, he must show that his opposition to homosexuality does not rise to the level of hostility. Only then could he show that the distinction is at all meaningful as applied to his own position on the subject. His willingness to adopt that principle does not in itself demonstrate that the individual in question is not otherwise engaged in hostile behavior.

Example 2: An individual has been highly critical of the Iraq war in a number of public venues. Charged with the concern that public opposition to war has negative morale effects on troops, he proceeds to explain that he supports the troops though not the war.

Assuming this accurately describes the attitude of the individual in question, it still does not answer a concern about the actual impact of protest on troop morale. This argument could unfold in so many different ways, but as described, the war-critic’s response would be quite irrelevant.

Example 3: A college student has missed well over half her classes before midterms, and she has yet to hand well over half of her assignments in each of her classes. Told that she does not appear to be taken class seriously, she replies that she thinks her education is very important.

It may very well be that the student can say in all sincerity that she values education when she considers the topic in the abstract, but this does not demonstrate that her conduct is consistent with those words. Absent a clear explanation as to her previous failure to do the work (and likely a plan for correcting the matter), the reassurance she offers will be of little value.