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I've come across a type of argument I hear often when discussing touchier subjects. I call it "The Worst Possible Interpretation Argument".

It goes like this — I say "I agree or support X", and my opponent will say that "I agree or support X" means I really support the worst possible interpretation of X.

Or a more innocent, less argumentative example would be if Person A stated they like old-school baseball, and Person B responded "so you like sports when only white people can play".

Liking old-school baseball can be interpreted in many different ways, but Person B chooses the worst possible interpretation. I know this is similar to a strawman argument, but it specifically frames your statements in a morally reprehensible manner. And it's a bit different from strawmanning, since strawmanning misrepresents claims that are usually articulated clearly, while this action takes a less clear position and selects the worst possible interpretation of it. I want to know if there is a specific name to this action.

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    The example fits what Bentham called "imputing a bad motive" and psychologists recently called negativity bias about motives "worst motive fallacy". The more generic version is appeal to motive. In academic context, principle of charity urges one to adopt the strongest possible interpretation of arguments, and uncharitable interpretations are frowned upon. However, in the context of public debating its application is limited.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 7:52
  • @Conifold This is a serious problem with public debating! It's cynically dishonest, trying to hurt the other person rather than sincerely engaging. "Who can misinterpret their opponent in the nastiest and most emotionally charged way?" The "winner" of such a contest should be ashamed.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 13:50
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    @Conifold It's harmful to the country when people promote their values without seeking the truth. In an ideal world, the debater who has shown themselves to be honest and fair and open to reason should be viewed as the winner. The best views to hold are those held by such people; the country would be better off if the policies favored by the honest and fair and reasonable in debate were implemented.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 14:17
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    If person A refuses to give a straight answer to a relevant question, then they demonstrate they are hiding something and not being honest. In an ideal world, that should cost them all credibility.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 14:32
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    Thanks everyone for all the input. Thanks Conifold for pointing me to some references. And I definitely agree with Causative that this is a serious problem in this country. I don't think I've had a serious politically oriented disagreement that didn't involve at least one incidence of this happening. Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 16:22

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Depends on what "worst interpretation" means, plain and simple, which is context dependent. I've read the comments, and the appeal to motive is not strictly correct. The better classification is the fallacy of irrelevant conclusion. From WP:

An irrelevant conclusion, also known as ignoratio elenchi (Latin for 'ignoring refutation') or missing the point, is the informal fallacy of presenting an argument that may or may not be logically valid and sound, but (whose conclusion) fails to address the issue in question. It falls into the broad class of relevance fallacies.

As noted, it is not a strawman attack because a strawman must have a superficial resemblance lending it the appearance of similarity. Strawman attacks, which are often polemical in nature, can be downright devious in their ingenuity by attacking an argument that seems identical. The worst possible interpretation of an argument might not look anything like the original argument.

But the worst possible interpretation isn't necessarily an attack on the lines of someone's motives. What is the "worst possible interpretation"? That will always be context dependent. Accusing someone of hebephilia or pedophilia is pretty bad if the opponent is a priest or teacher. Accusing someone of being self-hating if they are a minority might be the worst under another circumstance (both types of ad hominem). Worst interpretations would seem to involve a combination of other fallacies: if your opponent says X, then you appeal to emotions, attack the origin of the argument (genetic fallacy), lay out a strawman, and cook up whatever else you think of. None of those necessarily involve imputing motivations on others, although it's so common a tactic as to be expected.

Informal fallacies are artifacts of natural language, and they do not necessarily all get named. That being said, it's very possible that someone has named it but the name has achieved little currency. Bo Bennett has an online compendium of over 300 fallacies but none seem to apply; I would also urge consideration of another point.

Informal fallacies tend to have criteria assigned to them. One of the criteria to which I adhere is one of persuasiveness. When someone violates the principle of charity so flagrantly as to present an absurd counterargument, it is questionable if the counterargument is persuasive anymore thus moving it out of of the class of informal fallacy and into some other class, like philosophical bullshit. BS or humburg as Frakfurt alternatively labels it are claims that have no regard for the truth at all and are meant to serve some other purpose other than persuasion by reason.

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Jason, if the answers here prove that there isn't a widely accepted term for the kind of behaviour you have cited, then I would wholeheartedly recommend that you devote the rest of your life to ensuring that such a term is defined and widely adopted. That type of behaviour is absolutely rife in public discourse, and many people are swayed by it. Putting a name to it is an important first step in enabling it to be highlighted and challenged. How about calling it jasonising? I can just imagine how that could make our future so much better and brighter...

Screen dissolves into coloured zigzags and a rising arpeggio is played on a harp to denote a flash forward. There is a TV debate in which an honest principled advocate for fairer taxes is up against a typical morally bankrupt slime-ball politician in front of a studio audience:

HPAFFT: So I believe that it is time for a long-overdue review of the loopholes that allow companies to offshore their profits and avoid paying a fair rate of tax.

TMBS-BP: So you're advocating putting companies out of business?

HPAFFT: That is a typical blatant example of sheer jasonising.

Studio audience, waving arms and leaping from their seats with disgust: Jasonist! Jasonist! Scumbag! Booo! etc etc.

Screen dissolves again to denote return to present.

Are you all with me in this??

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  • Late response, but I love it and appreciate your compliments. Commented Apr 7 at 4:50

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