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Logic and rhetoric
“”If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster […] then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes, […] then certainly I am for it.
|—The speech that it was named for|
The if-by-whiskey or if-by-whiskey fallacy is a debating tactic often found in politics, and a subset of the relativist fallacy. It is named after a famous speech by Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr., a Mississippi lawmaker, who was arguing both for and against the legalization of alcohol. It could be considered a form of the balance fallacy, or at least related, and often uses loaded language and doublespeak.
The if-by-whiskey is generally structured in a very verbose way, and basically acts like a fill-in-the-blank:
- If by [noun], you mean [negative descriptors of noun], then of course [statement of lack of support/belief]. If, however, by [noun], you mean [positive descriptors of noun], then [statement of support/belief].
Despite the length, it very rarely contains any real content.
Where "If-by-whiskey" is not fallacious
One important note: "If-by-whiskey" is only fallacious if it is used to disguise a (lack of) position; one of the things that made the speech from which the fallacy takes its name not quite an example of "If-by-whiskey" is that it was intended to both summarize both sides of the issue, and, in effect, say "please don't ask me to take sides on the whiskey issue; both sides have a point, but they're also both wildly exaggerating". The reason the fallacy is named after the above speech is that the speech forthrightly and directly implies what is usually carefully concealed in a "If-by-whiskey" argument or speech.
Further, clearly setting the terms of debate is not fallacious; for example, differentiating between illegally made "moonshine" and legally made-and-sold, reputable brands of alcoholic beverage labelled as "whiskey" is probably a valid distinction, assuming that in context the word "whiskey" is ambiguous between the two.
And yes, we're aware of the irony that this section could be called an "if-by-whiskey" argument. The actually fallacy is in the taking of contradictory positions or avoidance thereof, not in the structure of the argument.
- "If by terrorists, you mean freedom-fighting rebels who aren't afraid to protest their overly authoritarian governments, then yes, I support terrorists. But if by terrorists, you mean extremists, disrespecters of authority, suicide bombers, and the like, then of course I don't support terrorism."
- "If by God, you mean the man who killed everybody on the Earth, punished a man for no reason at all, and killed the firstborn son of everybody in Egypt, then of course I don't think he should be worshiped. But if by God, you mean the man who sacrificed himself for all humanity's sins, brought a man back from the dead, and loves everybody equally, then he should definitely be worshiped!"
- "If by 'atheist' you mean I am simply mocking the idea of God(s) out of spite or malice or attacking it from a position of ignorance of any field relevant to why it exists, then of course I believe in [insert god(s) here]. But if by 'atheist' you mean I view a world where it is possible to live a good life without needing to believe in God(s), then of course I am an atheist."
- "If by feminism, you mean the belief of man-haters who want to have superiority over men, then no, I do not support feminism. If by feminism, you mean the belief of non-misandrists who will peacefully protest for equality, then yeah, I support feminism."