How To Defend Against The Guilt By Association Tactic

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on October 6, 2008

In my previous post, I talked about the power of association and its use in the ‘Guilt By Association’ tactic. In this post, we’ll explore how it effects the people exposed to it, and how to defend yourself from its use.  

However, as preface, please don’t get me wrong.  There actually is such a thing as actual guilt by association.  If you sit in a room and hear people conspire to break the law, and do not take action, you are complicit.  If you know that Jane is robbing the company, and then Jane gets caught, you are guilty by association and may be considered an accessory to the crime.  So I think it is fair to say that if the claimed association being made politically holds up to critical thinking or sufficient evidence, then it has some degree of legitimacy.  If it doesn’t hold up to critical thinking, then it is merely a tactic.  And the aim of the tactic, at least as it is being used by McCain Palin, is character assassination, plain and simple.  Should Obama decide to return fire by digging up associations with which to tarnish McCain Palin, he runs the risk of the tactic backfiring on him, because instead of leading with it, he’s following a bad example.  

The Best Defense Requires Understanding The Offense

The obvious defense is to dissociate yourself from the association.  I don’t know him.  I disapprove of what he did.  I am not like him.   And in Obama’s case, the fact checkers seem to be making this point for him, because from what facts are available, Obama was not palling around with Ayers and strongly disagrees with and disapproves of what Ayers did 40 years ago.  Further, I’m willing to bet that everyone of us has had associations with people who have bad behavior in their past, if not in their present.

Unfortunately, the obvious defense is not the best defense.  Why?  Because if you respond to the direct charge but ignore what it implies, the inference is what creates the bad result.   The real issue isn’t whether or not Obama knows Ayers or served with him on boards in a district in which they both live.  It’s the implication of the attack that does the damage. He’s not like you. He doesn’t love our country.  He can’t be trusted. That’s a subliminal effect, and it has to be brought to the surface to be countered effectively. 

So it’s not enough to say it isn’t true.  Somehow, Obama has to turn this to his advantage. Once you understand what makes the association potentially damaging, the best defense is a good offense.  

McCain knows this.  He’s been on the receiving end of the guilt by association campaign run by Obama from the beginning of this.  Obama has worked very hard at associating McCain to Bush.  And McCain, recognizing the tactic, is now trying to turn the tables on Obama yet again, while there’s still time.  If turn-about is fair play, he could make the claim that he’s giving as good (or bad) as he’s getting.  Obama could then make the claim that McCain started the negative campaigning, referring to the Spears/Hilton ad that attempted to associate Obama with the idea of an empty headed celebrity that’s all style and no substance. And the resulting tit-for-tat would leave voters cold, suppress turnout, and in my opinion damage the country.  

So Obama has no choice but to counter it this latest move.  And for Obama to counter it, he needs to succeed at bringing the attack into the light of day, and pointing right at it, then labeling/associating the tactic itself to something that Americans abhor, then connecting the outrage this invokes back to his own agenda as the solution.  And if he really wants to deliver it effectively, he should demonstrate a bit of the outrage he’d like us to have.  His indignation about this will serve as an emotional signal that tells voters that he IS like us, because we wouldn’t stand for someone telling these lies if it was being done to us or to people we know and care about.  I sure wouldn’t stand for it.  I bet you wouldn’t either. 

If I were Obama, here’s the speech I’d give to counter the McCain Palin late stage of the game attempt at character assassination, and the sound bytes I’d use to help people think clearly even when they’re not.  

“Ladies and Gentleman, my fellow Americans, John McCain’s campaign is using fake and phony charges to distract your attention.  He wants you to believe the phony claims they are making about me instead of noticing the fact that he has surrounded himself with the same lobbyists, the same fat cats and cronies that surrounded and advised George Bush.  He’s hoping you will forget that he wants to give you four more years of the same.  He and his running mate are offering you the same old distractions.  The same old politics.  The same old policies.  

“But I don’t think you’re going to fall for it this time.  I think you’re going to say enough is enough, it’s time for real change.  I think that with your vote,  you’re going to tell John McCain that we expect better of our leaders.

“Because, even though he doesn’t seem to get it, I know you get it.   Our problems are too big and the time is too short to waste on foolishness and deception.  We’re a better people than that.  We’re a smarter people than that.  And we’re a better country than that.  Let’s quit dumbing down our politics with this nonsense. 

“John McCain, if you disagree with me about the direction of this country, do it honestly.  If you have policy differences with me, tell the American people and let them decide.  Stop distracting us with all this phony concern, and start telling us how what you’re going to do in the next four years is different than what you and George Bush have given us in the last eight years.  

“I mean, come on.  When Sarah Palin says Obama isn’t like us, what is she really trying to say about me, and what is it she’s trying to say about you?   I challenge her to quit beating around the Bush and come around and say what she means.  She says I’m not like you.  I’m not like you in what way?  Is she saying you don’t love your country?  Because if you do, I’m like you.   Is she saying you don’t care about the politics of personal destruction?  Because if you’ve had enough of it, I’m like you.  Is she saying that this cheap political tactic is more important than dealing with our economic problems?  Because if you disagree with that, if you think facing our real problems and trying to solve them is more important than the politics of personal destruction they’re trying to pull over on you, well, I’m like you.  And I say, enough is enough.  What do you say?

“If you’ve had enough of the politics of character assassination, I’m like you.  If you’ve had enough of the policies that got us into this mess, I’m like you, and I’m with you.   If you’ve had enough of the special interests running this country into the ground, I’m like you, I’m with you, and I’ll fight for you,  and for the change we need to turn this great country of ours around.” 

That’s just a first pass, but you get the idea.  Of course, I’d tighten it up and reorganize it a bit, but use repetition, the rule of threes, two part contrast, vivid language, all of those persuasion guides,  to make it stick. 

Now obviously, I’m not running.  And if asked, I will decline.  If elected, I will not serve.  But if I were asked, and I was running, this is how I would talk to the voters.  By breaking the guilty association and shaping two new associations, a guilty one for my opponent and an affinity one that binds me closer to the voters, I would eagerly claim the moment instead of defensively reacting to it,  take a negative attack and turn it into a positive advantage.

That’s what I think, anyway.  I’m interested in hearing your comments on the persuasion tactic of ‘guilt by association.’  How do you respond to it?  How do you protect yourself from it?  What do you think when you notice someone using it?

be well,


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