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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 that speech aimed to both summarize both sides of the issue, and, in effect, to 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 itself be called an "if-by-whiskey" argument. The actual 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."
The original text
“”My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, this is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, 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; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
|—Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.|