About This Site

Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
(What are figures of speech?)
Ask Figaro a question!

This form does not yet contain any fields.

    « Operation Hairy Eyeball | Main | Naked Is the New Clothed »


    sicko-poster-2.jpgFrom Ask Figaro:

     Dear Figaro,
    Thank you for an excellent website and book! I have a rhetorical news item for you.   I’ve read at least three articles about Michael Moore’s “Sicko” that all say more or less the same thing:  “Moore wants universal health care.  But Moore is a fat, unhealthy slob — folks like him would suck the system dry.  Therefore, Moore is wrong.”   Isn’t this a classic ad hominem attack?  That is, the rhetorical uberfallacy (note bound morpheme) that I learned about in 7th grade?

    Dear Ty,

    First of all, is “Clever” your middle name? (And is your last name “Byhalf”? )  To answer your question:  Yes, Michael Moore is a fat slob.

    Oh, wait.  That wasn’t your question.  Calling Mr. Fahrenheit 911 fat is like calling Paris Hilton an airhead; it’s true enough almost to dwell beyond the realm of ad hominem.  Besides, the character attack lies  within rhetorical bounds.  Much harm, but no foul.  (See page 157 of Figaro’s book.) 

    The Moore attack does qualify as a far more interesting foul called the Red Herring, aka the “Look! a bird!” fallacy.  Its purpose is simply to distract, because it has little relevance to the issue. If Moore got fit, would his accusers then support universal health care? Give that man a Stairmaster, stat!  Moore’s opponents may think they’re accusing him of hypocrisy.  But he’s a health-care hypocrite only if “Sicko” advocates health.  It doesn’t.  It advocates health care.

    Al Gore, on the other hand, is a hypocrite, because he fails to live like a Hobbit.


    Got a comment? Click here. 

    PrintView Printer Friendly Version

    EmailEmail Article to Friend

    Reader Comments (20)

    So where does the term "red herring" come from. I know what herrings are, but why are red ones so distracting? "Look, a bird!" is a far better name, says I.
    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTermagent
    Red herrings are smoked herrings, apparently. At some vague point in history, some bad guys theoretically used strong-smelling smoked herrings to throw dogs off their scent. (Perhaps "red" means "cooked in smoke to hide the taste" in Old Norse.)
    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    You don't feel shabby calling Moore a "fatso"? Talk about ad hominem.
    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRichard
    Aw, we meant "fatso" in a NICE way. And Figaro felt shabby already. He hasn't shaved in a week.

    Besides, the journalist's motto used to be to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," which, because it's a nice chiasmus, we follow rigorously.
    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    The closing scene in "Sicko," where Moore takes a bunch of ill-treated patients to Gitmo, also counts as a red herring.

    What about the opening scene, where a guy without insurance sutures his own knee? Does that have a rhetorical name?
    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette
    Figaro's name for it would be "gross." The Greek word for "gross" is bdelygma (bdel-IG-ma).

    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Would you call the wound-sewing scene an example of enargia--vivid description, in this case used to evoke a strong emotional response (pathos)?

    Interesting coincidence: the locus classicus for pathos comes from Julius Caesar, where Anthony attempts to rouse the crowd by describing Caesar's wounds:

    Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through;
    See what a rent the envious Casca made;
    Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd,
    And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
    Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,
    As rushing out of doors to be resolv'd
    If Brutus so unkindly knock'd or no;
    For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
    July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTy
    Excellent point, Ty. I've long believed that special effects serve as film's enargia. But any gripping scene that happens right before your very eyes--or that makes the audience imagine it--qualifies.

    We're just grateful that Shakespeare didn't let Caesar suture himself.

    July 19, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Oh, thanks for making a distinction!! Are you national, or are these people just in Orange County, CA? (yes, that's an ad hominem-ish generalization)

    Let's call it the Hobbit Distinction, OK?
    July 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMari
    Hobbit Distinction it is! The problem with scouting out hypocrites among politicians (like that's hard) is that we're the ones who suffer. Outing a hypocrite's mansion won't solve global warming. Outing Michael Moore's belly won't solve America's health care crisis.

    Figaro recently wrote a magazine piece titled "Raising Fine Upstanding Hypocrites." He's totally pro hypocrite. Not that he's a hypocrite himself. Which, since he's pro-hypocrite, makes him a hypocrite. Or not.
    July 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Figarist David K. pointed us to Stephen Colbert's Word: victimcrite, a person who decries corruption while secretly indulging in it: http://www.crooksandliars.com/2007/07/18/colberts-w%C3%B8rd-on-senator-vitter-victimcrite/
    July 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro

    Going back to Annett's comment - was the Gitmo trip a "red herring" or was it something else entirely (perhaps a non-sequitur) ?
    August 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHoward
    I suppose a kinder figure to label it is a parenthesis.

    August 7, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Dear Figaro,

    gonna hafta disagree with you here. Both Red Herring and Ad Hominem (here absusive) are what you might call "fallacies of relevance." Michael Moore's being fat has nothing to do with his arguments about health care. Typically, ad hominem arguments invoke such irrelevant personal characteristics in order to discredit the author. That's clearly the intent in the case of Moore. He has no credibility, they suggest, because he's a tub. The red herring, on the other hand, changes the subject of the argument entirely (and so never circles back to the original argument--for instance, "Moore claims that American Health Care is the pits, but many people are sick because they want to be, something ought to be done about fat people. . . .). That's the key difference. As always, however, it depends on the specific argument being made. They way the letter writer states it, however (with the conclusion being that Moore is wrong because he is fat) makes it clear that this is an ad hominem.
    August 8, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjcasey
    You're making a bit of an ad hominem attack against ad hominem. If your mother were about to undergo heart surgery, and you discovered the doctor has been sued repeatedly for malpractice, wouldn't you attack his ethos? It's not the ad hominem that makes the Moore attack bad; it's the red-herring aspect of the ethos charge.

    So: tell me I don't know what I'm talking about. That wouldn't have the slightest stench of red herring about it.


    August 10, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    I would suggest that the original question is wrong. Clearly the statement is ad hominem. But given that Moore frequently and unabashedly admits he is overweight, can the statement truly be called an attack?

    By the way, I just learned of this site from the book, which I came across at work today. (I work in a bookstore. No, not that one. Not that one either. But if you can name one more, you're probably right.) I have a copy of the book on hold until payday.

    By coincidence, I posted a Sicko-worthy tale on my own blog earlier this week. If you ask nice I might even add a link to this blog.
    August 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarkSouthFL
    Dear Figaro:

    you write:

    "You're making a bit of an ad hominem attack against ad hominem. If your mother were about to undergo heart surgery, and you discovered the doctor has been sued repeatedly for malpractice, wouldn't you attack his ethos? It's not the ad hominem that makes the Moore attack bad; it's the red-herring aspect of the ethos charge."

    Ad hominem and red herring are both fallacies of relevance. An ad hominem argument consists in attacking a person's character (or waist line) when that is irrelevant to the argument the person is making and concluding that the because of the faulty character, the argument is defective. But of course the argument isn't defective for the flawed character. For instance, M.Moore argues that the health care system is flawed. But that conclusion can't be true, because he's fat.

    A red herring operates in a similar way, but it changes the subject (and so never circles back to conclude that the original argument was wrong). Example: M.Moore argues that the health care system is flawed, but there are lots of fat people, including Moore, who burden the health care system. Obesity is a huge problem. In this second example, the conclusion is that obesity is the problem. That's certainly related to health care, but it's not related to Moore's orignal argument. Thus the red herring taking it off track.

    So back to your observation. Questioning the doctor's competence at his profession (doctoring) is different from questioning whether a fat guy can make reliable arguments. Charges of malpractice are directly relevant to competence at heart surgery; charges of fatness are irrelevant to arguments.
    August 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjcasey
    OK, I get it. Your ad hominem is a form of red herring. But not all rhetoricians would agree with you. Any attack on Ethos meets the broader definition that Figaro holds. But I'd be the last to say you were wrong, oh ethical one.

    August 16, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    And South Florida Mark, please do link this site. The "not that" store is Tattered Books?

    August 16, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    No, we do not sell tattered products. :-) I work at Books-A-Million -- we are #3, so we try even harder still!

    I am off to write a post about Figaro. Give me a day or two to add the link, as I have to remember how to add a link.
    August 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarkSouthFl

    PostPost a New Comment

    Enter your information below to add a new comment.

    My response is on my own website »
    Author Email (optional):
    Author URL (optional):
    All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.