Posted by Markitos on July 31, 2001
In Reply to: Re: "Poisoning my well" posted by R. Berg on July 31, 2001
: : : "Poisoning the well" is used to describe the rhetorical device of an ad hominen attack, or discrediting the source of opinion or comment rather than discrediting the opinion or comment on their own merits.
: : Yeh, but if "he is poisoning my well" then he is ruining the source of something I need, right?
: : mortimer
: I thought "poisoning the well" meant harming the community by damaging a resource needed by all. An example would be introducing dissension and mistrust into a religious or intellectual community. But I have no authoritative sources to back this up. --rb
Yes, you're both essentially correct in your readings of the implications of the tactic of "poisoning the well." Dissension and mistrust would result from an effective personal attack on a figure in a community, that's one of the intentions of the method. What's important to recognize with an ad hominem attack is that one attempts to discredit the source and not the substance of the argument or opinion. To unpack the metaphor: someone is offering you a glass of water, you're not even going to drink it if someone on the sly whispers in your ear that it comes from a poisoned well....
Historically, salting or poisoning of wells (often by throwing the bodies of victims into them) was an effective way of depopulating a region. As a rhetorical device, poisoning the well serves to get an opponent off message and on the defensive.