Do you think language affects how we view an object or situation? For example, let’s say you ask one hundred individuals randomly selected from all over America what their opinions were on the issue of physician-assisted suicide. You then take another random sample of one hundred Americans and ask them their opinions on the issue of death with dignity. Would you expect to get different answers from these groups?
Not only would you get different answers from the two groups, but the difference between the answers of the two groups would be giant. Certain words and phrases, though they refer to the same topic, are emotionally charged in different ways. “Physician-assisted suicide” is more pejorative as opposed to the positive connotations of the phrase “death with dignity.” Any good speaker needs to be aware of this importance of word choice. However, some speakers take advantage of this knowledge to play both sides of an argument.
If-by-whiskey is a type of argument that supports both sides of a topic by employing terminology that is selectively emotionally sensitive. It makes use of particular connotations—affirming the positive ones while denying the negative ones—to effectively say nothing. The speaker never takes a clear side: instead, they rely on their audience hearing whatever opinion they themselves most strongly support. Because of this sneaky strategy, if-by-whiskey speeches rarely contain any substantial information.
If-by-whiskey gets its name from Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. In 1952, the lawmaker from Mississippi spoke to supposedly address whether the state should continue its prohibition on alcohol. What follows is an excerpt from his speech.
“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge … then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine… then certainly I am for it.”
At first, it seems like he’s taking a stance against whiskey. He uses very negative synonyms for the alcoholic beverage. However, in the second half, he switches sides. He calls it very positive names and says he’s for such good things. By the end of his speech, we don’t know what side he stands for, if he even has an opinion on the topic. He merely uses the rhetoric of the day to sound like he’s making a stand.
Hence, if-by-whiskey came to refer to similarly structured speeches or arguments in which the speaker disguises their neutral stance by appealing to both sides of the argument, allowing audience members to perceive their own beliefs.
Politicians make particularly good use of this fallacy, but anyone can use it in their daily conversations and debates. That’s why it’s so important to be able to spot them. While emotionally charged vocabulary is used, the speaker doesn’t make any impassioned pleas or denials themselves. In fact, when you examine them closely, you’ll see that they contain little if any information outside of the speaker’s supposed stance. They often employ the “If by topic X, you mean positive Y, then yes. If by topic X, you mean negative Z, then no.” formula. They only plug in their variables and then let their audience assume whatever position they favor.
Making distinctions between terms and clearly defining them isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it can be useful for making sure your opponents and audience clearly understand your argument. The problem with if-by-whiskey lies in its deceitful nature and purpose. The user of if-by-whiskey remains neutral on a topic but presents themselves as taking a firm stance on the issue.