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A smear is among the simplest of propaganda techniques. It can take the form of repeated, unapologetic, systematic name-calling, or otherwise implying or asserting that opponents are bad, evil, stupid, untrustworthy, guilty of reprehensible acts, or part of some undesirable category.

A smear might be conducted subtly or vaguely so the target cannot seek legal action against a slander or libel, which must be specific and believable to be legally actionable. False implications can be masked by otherwise truthful statements. Truth is usually a defense against libel in most jurisdictions.

An archetypal implicit smear is the question, "When did you stop beating your wife?" Whatever the answer, the question accuses the person of prior domestic violence. Smears might use oxymoronic language, broad generalizations, false characterizations, irrelevant information and loose associations. Smears appeal to emotion and discourage reasonable discussion.

Public officials, politicians, media representatives and advocates tend to disagree at times about when accusations of impropriety are relevant and when they are intended to smear.

A slime is someone who smears others. Smearing is detrimental to a civil discourse, and thus explains the pejorative name given to those engaged in this type of activity.

Examples of smears

  • allegations of homosexuality, in institutions which explicitly refuse to employ gays or lesbians, or in cultures with social or legal sanctions against homosexuality - (see also outing)
  • Republican Party smears against Democrats as the "Party of Treason" in the 1950s.
  • allegations that someone is a convicted pedophile (this is an oxymoron - a felon is convicted of specific acts, but a pedophile is a term from psychiatry describing not acts but desires - for which there is no legal liability - although some jurisdictions do define habitual offenders, they do not in fact convict them of "being a pedophile")

Smears don't always work. Straightforward claims that one's opponent is morally bad may sometimes backfire:

  • assertions that choice between one politician and another is a choice between good or evil, as Albert Gore Jr. did against George W. Bush - claiming the mantle of good for oneself while describing one's opponent as being evil. In a close election, dogged by a third party implying both parties are so bad they are about to destroy life's chances on earth, Gore's claim found little purchase.
  • more specific allegations that one's opponent is an evil reptilian kitten eater from another planet - a stunt unlikely to be repeated, given that Ernie Eves (who used it against his opponent Dalton McGuinty) lost that election.

For a moral smear to be effective, the association with evil probably needs to be believable, though like any rule, there are likely exceptions (see big lie). A morally demeaning word merely introduced in an innocuous context might tend to cast a cloud of doubt over an opponent, if the audience is not alert to the device. In 1988, the George H. W. Bush campaign associated the Democrat opponent with an implicitly dangerous criminal released on parole.

Repulsive imagery conveyed in a smear or ritual defamation might extend or reinforce a more general moral appeal. If so, approaches like the "evil reptilian kitten eater from another planet" appeal might be effective if they don't backfire and if other circumstances don't overshadow the effect.

In the United States, Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush have exploited the concept of evil to dehumanize an enemy. Speaking to the nation in a widely broadcast message, Reagan blasted the Soviets as an "evil empire". G.W. Bush presaged aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq with identification of what he called an "axis of evil."

The concept of evil is rooted deeply in religious and secular lore throughout the U.S., allowing the presidents to allege evil both as a direct appeal to supporters swayed by religious propagandists, and to offer a psychological justification for secular listeners who might follow leaders' instructions to dehumanize an enemy that they might not otherwise despise.

Variations on the theme

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