Guilt by Association


Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy >Informal Fallacy > Red Herring > Guilt by Association > The Hitler Card


The al Qaeda Cheering Section

The most telling moment in last night's [State of the Union] speech came after the president noted that "key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year." In response, notes the New York Times, "some critics in Congress applauded enthusiastically." If Osama bin Laden watched the speech, one imagines him applauding too.

Source: James Taranto, "The al Qaeda Cheering Section", Best of the Web Today, 1/21/2004


General Form
Target Link Bad Thing
The person or group being criticized An idea that the Target shares with the Bad Thing A person or group of which the argument's audience disapproves

Specific Forms
Person P accepts idea I.
Therefore, I must be wrong.
Group G accepts idea I.
Therefore, I must be wrong.
Hitler was in favor of euthanasia.
Therefore, euthanasia is wrong.
The Nazis favored eugenics.
Therefore, eugenics is wrong.
Hitler was a vegetarian.
Therefore, vegetarianism is wrong.
The Nazis were conservationists.
Therefore, conservationism is wrong.


Guilt by association is the attempt to discredit an idea based upon disfavored people or groups associated with it. This is the reverse of an appeal to misleading Authority, which argues in favor of an idea based upon associating a favored person or group with the idea, whereas guilt by association argues against an idea based upon associating it with a disfavored person or group.


What's often called "McCarthyism" was a specific version of guilt by association in which an individual, organization, or idea was associated in some way with communism. An association was made between the target of McCarthyism and communism by linking both through some shared idea. For instance, in the 1960s some anti-communists attacked support for civil rights by pointing out that the Communist Party of the United States also supported the civil rights movement. It was then argued that supporting civil rights was tantamount to supporting communism. Here is the form of the argument:

Target Link Bad Thing
Martin Luther King, Jr. Support for civil rights Communism

Since the fall of Soviet communism, the McCarthyist version of guilt by association has become less common. The current most common version of guilt by association attempts to link the target with Nazism or, more specifically, Adolf Hitler. This is reflected in the Examples and Counter-Examples given above. When guilt by association takes this form, the subfallacy of argumentum ad Nazium, also known as "the Hitler card", is committed―see the Taxonomy, above.

Analysis of the Example:

That Osama bin Laden might approve of the expiration of provisions of the Patriot Act does not show that American critics are wrong to also approve, since the reasons for their approval are different. Some Americans oppose parts of the Patriot Act because they believe that it infringes upon the rights of Americans without significantly helping to prevent terrorism. They may be wrong, but that doesn't make them an al Qaeda cheering squad.

Reader Response:

Reader Dale Liop writes in response to the above analysis:

It seems to me the author's point is not that the critics are wrong just because Osama bin Laden might be applauding with them. Rather, I think his implicit point is that by removing the Patriot Act, terrorists like Osama bin Laden will be able to commit crimes of terrorism more easily. For this reason, the author is saying, Osama bin laden would be clapping too, and so that's why the critics are mistaken in their position. I think calling the critics the al Qaeda Cheering Squad and mentioning bin Laden would applaud with them was for rhetorical effect only, to make his point come across more effectively. So, I do not think the author commits a fallacy because the association between bin Laden and the critics is not his real point.

Dale, in logically analyzing an example, it is important to focus upon the argument itself and not the arguer. It is not a good idea to try to read the arguer's mind, or guess his intentions. There are many reasons why an arguer may commit a fallacy: he may be mistaken, he may intend to deceive his audience, or he may be making a joke.

Another reason is a type of rhetorical overstatement: for instance, a person who is hungry may say "I'm starving!" What the person says is literally false, and they know that it's false, but they're not lying because they're not trying to deceive. Rather, they are emphasizing that they are very hungry. Similarly, people may fallaciously draw extreme conclusions that are not supported by the evidence as a way of emphasizing a point.

So, evaluating an argument as fallacious is not a judgment pronounced upon its author, but simply a judgment of the argument itself. In the example, Taranto may well have been joking or using rhetorical overstatement when he called the applauders an al Qaeda cheering squad, but that doesn't make the implicit argument―that because the applauders and bin Laden are both against the Patriot Act, then the applauders must be supporting al Qaeda―any less fallacious.


T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (Third Edition) (Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 54-56.