Can we beat the strawman?

Posted by on July 28, 2010 in Thoughts | 6 comments

So often, when in debate we can encounter an immovable opponent, who, no matter what you say or write, is convinced that their position is right. There is nothing more frustrating than taking the opponent’s side into consideration, but getting none of the same in return. This can be due to several different circumstances, for instance: the opponent may not understand what you are saying; the opponent has an opinion which they hold to be infallibly true and they must prove it at all costs; the opponent is playing devil’s advocate for the sake of argument, or is simply being a contrarian; or the opponent has a point which is unrelated and seeks to use this point to make your point seem weaker. This last case is the “strawman” approach.

Recently in a debate I came across a real example of a “strawman” thrown into an argument. This is the first time I have recognised it for exactly what it was, and in doing so was able to work my way back to the topic for further discussion.

For those who are unaware of a strawman argument, the Wikipedia page describes it as this:

“A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar yet weaker proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

So often people seek to discredit your arguments by bringing up a seemingly related point then attack that to prove their point. There are many ways a strawman can be thrown up, and an example of a strawman argument may go something  like this:

Person A: You are descended from a previous form of mammal, and have an ancestor in common with a chimpanzee.

Person B: You are saying I evolved from a chimpanzee? This is simply not true! You are a liar!

The encounter I had today has to do with the origins of morality, and I was thrown an argument which presented a subjective opinion as an “objective truth”, and was then seeking to discredit my original assertion by demolishing my points based on this subjective opinion. It is played out in the comments to this blog post. The comments on the post then spiraled off topic into conversations about whether Westerners’ morals are evil. My post was not about that at all.

While I don’t doubt for a second that the person who threw up the strawman argument wasn’t passionate about what they were saying, I think they were confused by an emotional attachment to an unrelated argument that has a seeming point of crossover with the idea of morals. Combined with this were skewed generalisations and bigotries which I’m sure to him had just as much relevance to the topic at hand. But it seems to me that he was trying to discredit my opinions completely by use of the strawman.

When a strawman is thrown up like this, it can cause an end to real discourse and become a debate about why someone’s argument is flawed. Nothing can be achieved in this kind of situation, except making someone inevitably look either ignorant, overly aggressive, foolish or deliberately disruptive.

I thought this was worthwhile pointing out. Keep the strawman to the “Wizard Of Oz” where he belongs still, seeking for his brain.

What experience have you had with strawman defenses, and how have you managed to keep things on topic without becoming a debate about everything?

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6 Comments

  1. In my experience such people aren’t interested in resolving the argument or debate but rather to get off on eliciting an emotional response from you and get you all fired up. Because the two participants in such “conversations” want very different outcomes there is no win-win situation … just walk away.

    Though often the challenge of turning it around and getting them fired up instead is sometimes too much to resist.

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  2. i’ll kinda talk about this a little bit tonight, dude. being a new show, tonight is just an intro, but since the three main categories are secularism, humanism, and atheism, straw men are quite apt to happen from participants. i see it happen even in genuine attempts at discussion: in fact i find these to be the most troubling kind ~ the unintentional straw men from those who don’t realize they’re doing it. (sigh, lol)

    anyway, thanks for ranting on this a bit. i do think there are some gentle tactics we can use in those instances when the straw men are unintended. it takes time and patience, though. and of course, the recognition that it’s unintentional.

    i know, i just vacillated between singular and plural there. meh. sorry. ugh.

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  3. When I saw your title I thought, “Hell yeah! Let’s go beat up a straw man!” sounds like fun to me. I really need to get out more, and take out my aggression via exercise ;)

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  4. Practise. I like to practise arguments on all sorts of topics. I feel I’m recognising the strawman more and more. It’s all about recognising it.

    I must agree with Synthaetica, I think a lot of people throw out the strawman with out even realising it.

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  5. I tend to get turned off conversation very, very quickly when the other conversationalist starts to use a straw man fallacy.

    If I am discussing it verbally, I will call a pause to the actual discussion, I will highlight the inequity in apparent understanding between us, and I will attempt to explain my point again to them and have them re-iterate what I said in order to demonstrate that they DO understand me.

    If they continue to use the straw man again despite my clarifications then I’m afraid that’s pretty much it for me. Conversation finished.

    In that particular blog post you mention, I think the second time he used a straw man on me it appeared to be so mind-numbingly NOT what I had said that I couldn’t be bothered. There’s only so much you can achieve via text conversations on a forum or blog, and if the person demonstrates a clear unwillingness to meet you half-way then an already restricted medium loses all of its potential conversational value.

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  6. p.s. not to blow my own trumpet too much but since studying philosophy and being fairly heavily personally involved in skepticism, I think I’m getting pretty good at picking out all sorts of logical fallacies in conversation.

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