Welcome to the inaugural Shitty First Drafts Regular Feature! Logical Fallacies week was always my favorite part of teaching rhetoric. I got to show funny videos, mock public figures, and make a game out of students matching the quote to the appropriate fallacy. Occasionally, this would backfire a little bit, as a few intelligent students would learn that you can pretty quickly throw a fallacy label on any argument you don’t particularly like. Labeling arguments as straw men, ad hominem attacks, or red herrings is a pretty effective derailing method. So, as both a fun exercise and a public service, I thought I would devote each Friday to explaining one logical fallacy until I eventually run out.
So, the Straw Man! Most people are familiar with this one, I think. The straw man fallacy is where you present the weakest possible version of a position so that it’s easy to rebut. The straw man is so flimsy that it cannot resist your attacks. It just sits there mute and ridiculous-looking while you tell it how terrible it is and how everything it represents is evil. Then you and your friends can set fire to it and do a heathenish dance of celebration as you watch the evil, evil straw man disintegrate in the flames. I’m fairly certain that O’Reilly and Olbermann have literally done this on television. Ok, maybe not. But a little effigy burning would probably be more interesting than the usual bloviating that happens on those shows.
This ruse is usually so effective that eventually, you forget that you created the straw man in the first place, that it was thrown together using the most oversimplified, misinterpreted version of the position you hate, that in your dissociative haze of rage and cognitive dissonance, you transformed a complex argument with many subtleties and nuances and exceptions and suspended judgments into a cartoon villain. You forget how exactly you got from this:
The straw man is where fact meets fevered imagination. It is a diversionary tactic that absolves you from having to engage with actual ideas. Do either of these statements sound familiar?
Conservatives want to roll back Civil Rights.
Liberals want to turn America into a Communist state.
The reason these straw men work is because they are relatively easy to turn into slogans: “MY OPPONENT LIKES TO PUNCH PUPPIES AND THINKS WE SHOULD ALL PUNCH PUPPIES TOO. IF YOU DON’T WISH TO SEE PUPPIES PUNCHED, VOTE FOR ME!” Ok, it’s not exactly like that. One of the reasons why these work is because they are familiar enough that they sound sort of like something a conservative or a liberal might think. But no one on either side is actually arguing for either. Many conservatives are critical of policies like affirmative action and resent the government trying to enforce equality (like in the military) before social attitudes are adjusted, but no mainstream conservative that I have ever heard has seriously argued that we should go back to separate drinking fountains and Jim Crow. Similarly, many liberals are critical of capitalism and the socio-economic inequalities it produces and want to see the government directly involved in reducing those inequalities through welfare, universal healthcare, etc., but there are no mainstream liberals that I am aware of that have Stalin posters on their walls and want the government to completely take over the means of production.
Ok, it’s time for a West Wing digression. There was this episode once where Toby, a White House staffer thought he had found a way to fix Social Security and was reaching out to members of Congress he thought might be willing to help work out a compromise. There was a heavy-handed bit of irony in the second act, when the deal was falling apart, in which Toby tells his new assistant that there used to be this Republican in the House who could have probably solved the whole partisan clusterfrack. This guy had wanted to work on Social Security in the past, but the moment that he went on the record as maybe, perhaps, one day considering possibly, under some certain circumstances raising the retirement age, Toby and another staffer had hit him with an attack ad showing 90 year-olds working in a factory. So, the guy lost re-election to a Democrat who was too concerned about his own re-election to help out. The most depressing part of that episode was when they intimated that the reason we haven’t fixed Social Security yet is because that would make it impossible for politicians to campaign on the promise of fixing Social Security. Creating Straw Men is usually about winning the argument rather than solving the problem.
While it is important to recognize straw men for what they are and attempt to avoid them in our own speech and writing, the term “Straw Man” gets abused an awful lot. Sometimes, when someone disagrees with you in a way you don’t like, it’s fairly easy to go OMG STRAW MAN! as a way of refusing to engage the critique. Sometimes, claiming that you’ve been misrepresented is a way of avoiding the fact that someone just put a spotlight on your argument and a whole bunch of roaches crawled out. So, I guess this is where straw men accusations can sort of also become straw men themselves. I think this happens a lot when Person #1 in a debate indicates that what Person #2 just said is racially insensitive or offensive to women or disabled people, etc, citing Person #2’s words. So, for example:
Person #2: If she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt, she wouldn’t have been assaulted. Women need to take responsibility for their own safety.
Person #1: The suggestion that female victims are somehow responsible for their own assault is victim-blaming and misogynist.
Person #2: I’m not a misogynist! She just called me a misogynist! I can’t possibly be expected to reason with this crazy person!
This sort of derail works because we know that Racist, Sexist, and Homophobe all fall into the category of Really Bad Things to Be Called. So now everyone is concentrating on that mean, mean name Person #1 called Person #2 instead of addressing the critique, which is that victim-blaming arguments help perpetuate a culture of misogyny that lets perpetrators off the hook because “she was asking for it.”
I wish I could prescribe an easy way out of this trap. I tell my students that in order to avoid a Straw Man Fallacy, the best thing to do is make sure you are really paying attention to other people’s arguments and to cite specific examples and exact language whenever possible. The thing is that at some point we all use logical fallacies. They are easy to use and often effective, and no one is immune to resorting to them. Awareness of what they look like and why they are problematic and how you may be prone to them helps, though. The more you know and all that.