January has April showers and two and two always makes a five.
I’m planning on doing a series of posts on logical fallacies. Let me get this out of the way first. I am just as guilty as anyone for using fallacies. That does not mean I am unqualified to opine on them (this is an example of a fallacy to be covered later, the tu quoque). The more interesting angle to me is why I or others use them.
In the broadest sense, a fallacy is an error in reasoning. Fallacies are not factual errors. Zooming in just a bit, a fallacy is when the premise or premises of an argument don’t support the conclusion to the necessary degree.
The Straw Man
The straw man fallacy is ubiquitous in today’s discourse. It occurs when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. Some common ways to do this are: quoting an opponent’s words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent’s actual intentions; inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical; and oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
Let’s look at an example. “Senator Jones says that we should not fund the attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can’t understand why he wants to leave us defenseless like that.” See the game there?
So, why do people attack straw men instead of their opponents’ actual positions? First off, it is much much much easier to argue against the extreme of a potential position than it is to argue against a nuanced position. I see it as a preference for contempt over understanding. It is more fun to thunder against an opponent and dismiss them entirely than to listen and maybe learn something from your opponent. The flip side to this is that your opponent has zero incentive to accept or listen to your viewpoint when you are showing bad faith by (deliberately?) misstating their position.
Second, it is much easier to maintain an ideological viewpoint and/or internal narrative by assuming your opponent is as ideological as you are. We live in a period of hardened beliefs. Instead of highlighting where we agree, we choose to highlight how we differ. If a proponent of the straw man is forced to consider that his opponent may not be as crazy as he believed, he may have to acknowledge that his position could be crazy. It is quite easy to avoid this. Just assume that all “reasonable” opponents do not exist or are lying.
Third, our failed media experiment conditions us to believe the stereotypes about our opponents. The sad thing is that the media has an incentive to foment hate and misunderstanding. Those things create clicks/views/book purchases/etc. I believe that adopting this focus is completely wrongheaded. Those sorts of “arguments” are for entertainment purposes. We have to live with each other and are trying to exchange ideas about governing, which has very real effects.
The use of the straw man is one of the principal reasons that we talk past each other. As I said above, it is a bad faith starting point. It is extremely difficult to achieve any sort of result when we are locked in tribalistic combat. By definition, the only acceptable results would be the eradication of the opponents’ position in this ideological game. We should all take a step back. I promise to try not to assume the worst about my opponent’s position and to listen and understand that position to try to make headway that benefits us both.
If you see a straw man argument (and it may be you that uses it), take a second to acknowledge it. Ask yourself, why is this tactic being used here? Bad faith? Easier argument? Is this person so enraptured with tribalism that it is fruitless to engage? What do I want to achieve in this interaction? We don’t necessarily have to shout at each other from ideological poles.