Allies: Don’t Go Chasing Red Herrings

Corey Ponder
10 min readSep 18, 2020

A red herring, according to Oxford English Dictionary, is something that intentionally or unintentionally misleads or distracts from an important question. A fun etymology chasing exercise seems to place this phrase with William Cobbett, a journalist in the 19th century, who used the term for stylistic flair to describe how easily misled the journalists of his time could be (that’s not on the nose at all two centuries later).

When I was a boy, we used, in order to draw oft’ the harriers from the trail of a hare that we had set down as our own private property, get to her haunt early in the morning, and drag a red-herring, tied to a string, four or five miles over hedges and ditches, across fields and through coppices, till we got to a point, whence we were pretty sure the hunters would not return to the spot where they had thrown off; and, though I would, by no means, be understood, as comparing the editors and proprietors of the London daily press to animals half so sagacious and so faithful as hounds, I cannot help thinking, that, in the case to which we are referring, they must have been misled, at first, by some political deceiver. — William Cobbett, February 14, 1807

Like the hound chasing the scent, we are compelled by and attracted to the red herring. It invites us to follow it down a pathway to a conclusion that promises to be as compelling as the chase.

And herein lies the fallacy, because red herrings were never meant to lead us to where we need to go, but only where we were willing to go.

In the work to build more inclusive spaces, red herrings also exist. Companies may identify a real goal that promises to shift the culture or encourage belonging, but the journey between starting and finishing leaves plenty of room to be led astray. A red herring may present itself when taking the right path feels harder, longer, or requires more skill to traverse. Similarly, as individuals, we may be able to identify unfairness, inequality, and moments to step up as allies; however, a red herring may present an alternative way forward that feels more accessible than where we really need to go.

Building inclusive communities and spaces take consistency and work. It takes a daily commitment to a set of principles and values at organization and individual levels…

Corey Ponder

Tech policy professional by day, wannabe superhero by night. Passionate about building communities, spaces, and platforms focused on inclusion and empathy.