This is part eight of a 12 week series where, on Mondays, I explore the tactics of verbal cheap shot artists – people who can’t, or won’t use valid arguments to present their case, but instead resort to verbal cheap shots. To make sure you don’t miss a single article, be sure and sign up for my RSS feed or subscribe by email (both are free!) so you can get a new article each day! Check out my other articles in the Verbal Cheap Shots category.
The Straw Man is perhaps one of the best named of the fallacies simply because it instantly brings to mind a vision of a fight where one of the contenders sets up a scarecrow, attacks it, then declares victory. Meanwhile, the real opponents escapes unscathed.
The straw man argument explained
In an conversation with a friend, she presents a point with certain key points that you disagree with. As a way to show your disagreement with those points, you bring up an alternate point. You then attack this alternate point and believe you have shown the original point to be flawed on the basis of your attack. You just set up and attacked a straw man!
Some examples of the straw man argument:
- Jack: I’m hungry. Let’s go out to that new restaurant.
- Jill: We went out last weekend. We don’t have the money in the budget.
- Jack: What – can we never go out to eat again? You are so CHEAP!
Senator: All these disagreements with my position on healthcare are rooted in [fear, anger, racism, egalitarianism, any ism will do here].
Congressman: Could they be rooted in people’s sincere, honest disagreement with your point of view?
Senator: Don’t cloud the issue with facts, man!
- Jack: Free market capitalists are pigs! They only care about profit.
- Jill: Oh, I’m sure they care about other things too, Jack.
- Jack: No they don’t. They should either care about profits or people. They can’t have it both ways.
Boss: That new project isn’t working out so well. Sales are down. Gross profit is down. Net profit is down. Sigh …
Employee: But sir, we’re in a recession, remember? And we’re also seeing the effects of a weakened dollar with the material we’re buying from overseas. And when we built that plant we didn’t know our top manager was in talks with our competitor and that those new regulations would actually kick in. Plus, the steel we used in those custom CNC machines was softer than we thought.
Boss: All I know is we’re not performing. I may have to replace some people working on that project.
How do people use straw man arguments?
1. Taking words out of context. By choosing words or phrases that an opponent has used in one context and using them in another. Sometimes called “quote mining,” taking words out of context is a favorite past-time of political campaigns.
2. Using causal oversimplification of an opponents position. Later, the verbal cheap shot artist will attack the opponent’s supposed oversimplification.
3. Completely distorting the opponent’s position. This is the classic straw man argument. It’s easy to attack and be victorious over an imagined argument.
4. Inventing a person with characteristics that are then criticized. Later, the verbal cheap shot artist (VCSA) will imply that this person is representative of a group holding views that the VCSA also criticizes.
5. Present a weak debater as “the” defender of position. Then, after soundly defeating him or her, announce that the debate has been settled once and for all.
All kinds of groups use the straw man argument
- Creationists and evolutionists
- Republicans and Democrats
- Protestants and Catholics
- Plaintiffs and defendants
- Parents and teenagers
It doesn’t matter which view you hold to, you’ve probably found yourself on one or both sides of the straw man argument.
Although the misrepresentations characteristic of straw men can be intentional, many times they are simply indicative of the pathetic effort people make to understand another point of view. We think the straw man is inadequate, but what’s really inadequate is our measly attempts at understanding someone else.
The world isn’t black or white
Too often, we demand that our world to be clear cut and simple, made up only of black and white. If we attribute hopelessly false, inadequate, unsubstantiated, or repugnant views to others, the blissful virtue of our own position seems obvious. But if we cede that our opponents have an arguable case, then our own views suddenly don’t seem so perfect, lofty, and unworthy of scrutiny, and our opponents don’t seem to be so clearly wrong.
Don’t fall victim to straw man arguments. Learn to recognize them and steer the conversation back on track. Don’t attack a straw man in your own arguments because from this point on, you’ll know only an empty victory.