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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