The red herring is an argument that I see deployed again and again, and I’m never entirely sure if the person deploying it is even aware that they are bringing up issues that are tangential to the debate at hand. The phrase originates from the days of fox hunting, when the scent of a red herring was used to distract the hounds from the pursuit of the fox. That’s exactly what the red herring does in an argument: it distracts the participants from what is really at issue, and they find themselves talking about onions when they started out talking about apples.
I get very frustrated when people deploy the red herring, whether they are doing it deliberately or unconsciously. Actually, it’s the unconscious deployment that gets to me the most, because it tells me that my interlocutor does not have a firm grasp on what we are really debating. I honestly think it’s a defense mechanism for most people. They bring up side issues as a way to distract from the fact that they really have no answer to whatever point their opponent is making. (As an aside, I want to clarify that my use of words like argument and opponent is not meant to say that I expect every difference of opinion to lead to anger; but when people disagree about something and they engage in conversation about it, they become like opponents in a refereed debate – only without the formality of an actual referee. Of course, sometimes the debate does devolve into an actual argument that is heated with emotion.)
The red herring seems to come up regularly in arguments that are about sensitive subjects such as gun control or gay marriage. I generally see it used when a person is arguing from emotion rather than from logic. For example, I might say that stricter gun control laws could have saved the lives of some of the 194 children who have died from gunshot wounds in the year since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012. Someone deploying a red herring might say “But what about all the people who used guns to defend themselves since Sandy Hook?” There may well be many cases of people deploying guns in self-defense since then, but that is not what the argument at hand is about. Bringing up guns used in self-defense is a distraction from my hypothesis that stricter gun control may have prevented the deaths of some children. My argument says nothing about whether stricter laws might have hindered those who used guns to defend themselves. Although that may well be the case, it is not the point of this particular, specific debate.
Another situation that I’ve encountered many times is when the red herring is used to put people on the defensive. It usually takes the form of a question, wherein your interlocutor will say, “So you’re saying that we should (such-and-such illogical leap)?” It is so easy to be distracted by this and to start defending yourself from the stinky fish being lobbed in your direction! As another example, if I say that I am opposed to the “stop and frisk” policy in New York City because I think it unfairly targets minorities, a red herring-lobbing opponent could say, “So you’re saying that a suspicious looking person should never be stopped by police?” Of course that’s not what I’m saying, but if I lose my cool and chase the herring, the chance to talk intelligently about the merits of the stop and frisk policy is lost.
I’m using broad examples on purpose to try to illustrate the red herring. Obviously, in the course of having conversations about these issues, many different points will be made about different aspects of particular issues. And in many cases, I’ve found, no matter how hard you try to keep your debate partner on point, they will keep tossing the fish. The hardest part when you are trying to concentrate on a specific point is not allowing yourself to be distracted by the scent of the herring, and to keep your eye on the fox… or in some cases, to simply disengage from the hunt.