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Apple polishing has a number of synonyms, which include brown-nosing, false flattering, and toadying. In all cases, the idea comes from apples given to teachers at school in order to curry favor. It can be a mute appeal in the form of a gift to like and therefore grade a student better. Alternately, in speech, especially where someone wants to argue a point, it can be used as an appeal to flattery and emotion, and therefore considered a logical fallacy.
Trying to get a teacher or a boss to like a person in order to give him better grades or a promotion is a common practice. While it is fine to like a teacher or boss and tell him or her so, constant flattery meant to gain something from the person is apple polishing. It’s an often used but disparaged technique for getting what someone wants but possibly doesn’t deserve.
Children often try using flattery to get what they want at quite a young age. For example, a child may say “Mom, you are so beautiful. Can I have a cookie?” Whether or not the child really regards Mom as beautiful, the compliment is meant to gain favor with her so that she will deliver the cookie. Further, it connects two unrelated topics: mom’s beauty and desire for cookies. This is a fallacious argument since Mom’s beauty has nothing to do with whether or not she will dole out the cookies. In fact, the mom in this case would do well to wait for a while before giving the cookie to not reinforce the behavior.
As children age, they often become a little more subtle in their attempts. Consider the following statement: “Professor, I learned more in your class than any class I’ve ever had before. I’m even thinking of minoring in history now. I just wish my grade reflected what I’ve learned.” Obviously, a professor in need of flattery may be slightly swayed by a student singing his or her praises until it comes to the sticky matter of grades. Suddenly, the praise is suspicious because it comes with a request to change a grade.
Another method of apple polishing is to begin by a bit of flattery that works into winning an argument. “Since we’re both intelligent, I think you’ll agree with me that “X” is important.” The person constructing the argument first establishes the intelligence of both people, but more importantly he establishes that the person with whom he wishes to gain agreement is intelligent. Then comes the hook: “I think we’ll both agree.” Unfortunately, the statement that a person is intelligent does not have a logical connection to “X is important.”
This last form is a frequent one used by politicians and by many commercials. For example something could be marketed to the consumer “with taste,” flattering those who buy the product into thinking they have “good taste.” A politician might say, “I know all good Americans will join me in this fight.” If you do otherwise than join the politician, you are not a good American, according to the statement.
The basic formula for apple polishing is the following:
- Use flattery to the person or audience to which you appeal,
- Make a claim or a request,
- Insist that since the flattery is true, the request or claim is valid.
Through this formula, it is clear that this action establishes a faulty logical connection: flattery doesn’t make an argument true. It should be pointed out, however, that it works quite well for many in politics and commercial markets.