How Not To Argue: Straw Man
One of the most depressing aspects of our world today is our inability to argue reasonably. Oh, we know how to argue; there’s no doubt about that. We just don’t know how to do it reasonably.
I like to debate issues in online forums — through blogs and Facebook mostly. I find that reasonable discussion with people who disagree with me has numerous benefits. First, it forces me to think through what I believe about a given topic. I like it when people challenge my perspective because it forces me to analyze and evaluate my own opinions. Over the years this has caused me to modify and sometimes completely reverse my views. Honest, intelligent challenges to my opinions have helped me get closer to the truth.
Second, reasonable discussion gets important topics out in the open. Some things just need to be talked about so that eventually something can be done about them. Even if disagreement is unpleasant at times, it’s the only way progress can be made on some issues.
Third, arguing rationally sometimes, if rarely, changes the other person’s mind. Honestly, this hardly ever happens, and I learned long ago that if the goal is to convince my opponent in a single debate, I am most often going to leave the conversation frustrated. No one changes his mind easily, and that includes me.
The problem is that very few people know how to argue rationally. They can argue passionately, but rarely reasonably. This is most evident in the vicious, profane, mean-spirited, and sarcastic tone to most online debates. This blog post and others in the series are written in the faint hope that we can do better and that our society may benefit from more intelligent disagreement.¹
The Straw Man
No logical fallacy is more pervasive in today’s vitriolic culture than the straw man argument. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:
The … typical “attacking a straw man” argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and then to refute or defeat that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the original proposition.
I encountered three separate incidences of straw man arguing in a single day of Facebook dialogue with some friends.
First, I was questioning the idea that education is a universal human right, akin to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Someone wrote in response:
. . . I just don’t see how not educating kids is the better plan.
I never suggested that we stop educating kids. I think nothing of the kind. I simply expressed that I don’t think education is something we should consider a “right” in the same sense as we consider freedom of speech or association a right. This arguer didn’t address my actual position, she just created a straw man. And straw men are ridiculously easy to knock down.
In another post, I wrote about my concern for what seems to be an overly militarized and aggressive approach to police work in our country, noting that the number of SWAT raids has risen from a few hundred per year in the 70s to tens of thousands per year recently. Here’s how a commenter replied:
So you would like [police] to go up to the door [of criminal suspects] and say “please step outside”? Good luck with that.
Again, here’s an easy position to refute. Unfortunately, it’s not my position — nor anything close to it. I didn’t suggest that SWAT team raids were never necessary, only that I found it hard to believe that they were necessary quite so often.
I also commented on what seems to be a nationwide problem of police shootings where the victim is unarmed. Another reader objected with this statement:
I don’t believe the police just go shooting people for the thrill of it.
Of course, I don’t believe such a thing either and never implied anything of the sort.
The appeal of straw man arguments is obvious — they are easy to win. The problem is that straw man arguments never address the actual point of debate. They are for that reason a type of red herring argument — one in which one party leads the other away from the actual topic into an argument he feels more confident of winning.
I’m not implying, by the way, that people who use straw men know what they are doing. In fact, I think none of my three friends (and they really are friends!) intended to argue fallaciously. I’m quite sure they thought they were making a good point. People argue with straw men in part because they don’t listen carefully and are too quick to draw conclusions. They read what people say and then make all kinds of unnecessary inferences. Then they argue the inference instead of the actual statement. In the first example above, my friend saw my objection to calling education a “right” and assumed that meant I was against education. Instead of arguing against what I said, she argued against what she thought I really meant.
Another reason people fall unwittingly into the straw man fallacy is the temptation to pigeonhole. They hear an argument that reminds them of some point of view they are familiar with and place the arguer in that pigeonhole. If you don’t like a tax, you must be a conservative. If you care about endangered species, you must be a liberal, etc. But someone may be against a particular military action and not be a pacifist. Someone may object to a government action and not be an anarchist. Someone might dislike the behavior of a person of color and not be a racist. Too many modern arguers fail to recognize nuance and particularity; instead they seek to immediately categorize their opponents and then dismiss the argument along with their simplistic understanding of the whole category.
I am by no means a political liberal, but just today I was called a “libtard” (a gracious term, right?) because I wrote something critical of conservative websites. This pleasant comment cam from a stranger who arrived at this appellation based on a handful of sentences. We can do better than this. Let’s listen carefully before drawing conclusions. Let’s seek to understand a position before we object to it. Let’s treat people like individuals and not merely as members of easily-demonized demographic categories.
Let’s argue wisely, intelligently, and graciously. And lets argue with the actual ideas of our opponents and not straw men of our making.
¹Okay, it’s also designed to help students write better argumentative papers.