Poisoning the Well

“Poisoning the well” is one of the “fallacies of logic” dating back to Roman Times (and perhaps, before).

The fallacy involves attempting to negate or even destroy the source of a truth in order to render that truth invalid. Of course, something can be true, regardless of who has spoken it – hence the fallacy.

For example, a burglar, sent to prison who has then served their sentence then states: “Stealing is very damaging to the victims.” Poisoning the well involves then stating that nothing that comes from this person’s mouth, at least regarding crime, can be true, as they “were once a criminal and probably still are.”

Or a smoker gives advice to a friend who drinks to “never become addicted to alcohol”. Poisoning the well invalidates any truth spoken by the smoker for they display addictive tendencies themself!

Poisoning the well has been used in politics and the media from time immemorial. It is a key tool of propaganda.

But it is also used in personal relationships, sometimes not very consciously.

Often, if a person cannot cope with truth spoken by someone, they will attempt to “poison the well” in order to avoid acceptance of the truth of the person’s words. They’ll demonise and even imagine all kinds of negative things about the truth-sayer, in order to attempt to devalue or even eliminate the truth spoken.

One example I observed recently is a person being warned about returning to job where a boss was essentially abusing them verbally and in ways that were “below the radar” of company disciplinary procedures. The “Poisoner” started to label the friend as “jealous”.

In another case, a friend attempted to point out the controlling and threatening nature of a person’s boyfriend. Her response was to “poison the well” by naming the friend as obsessive and bitter. She even made this public and attempted to blacken his name to other people. For who listens to truth spoken by a “demon”? In this particular case, the person herself was so trapped in her relationship that she HAD to poison the well, as accepting the truth of what her friend was saying, would involve extracting herself and breathing free air, after going through a period of strong discomfort and guilt as she tried to break free. She went on to further demonise her friend as “clever”, “scheming” and even issued threats against him herself. The friend was, of course, saddened and flabbergasted.

Poisoning the well is a desperate measure usually – it is nearly always born of insecurity. Even if we thoroughly disagree with another’s view, even if we are convinced it isn’t true, an inability to let other people to free state their take on truth, is a sure sign of deep insecurity, even where, on the surface, a person appears to be functioning normally. Usually our friends tells us the “truth” because they care about us. To poison the well, is a damaging, often cruel thing.

And truth always comes out in the end. No matter how much a person tries to poison the words of a friend who acts out of genuine care and concern. Someone of conscience, if they have poisoned another in this way, will feel that conscience weighing down on them. They may even finally decide to embrace the truth being offered.



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