During any sort of testing times, circumstances or situations, it is very common to pick a side to stick by and defend. You and ‘your people’ have your argument, ‘them’ and ‘their people’ have their argument. The sticking point arises, of course, when you realise that both sides believe themselves to be correct.
One of the most common ways of ‘proving’ that one side is superior to the other is using something called the Straw Man Argument (sometimes called the Straw Man Fallacy or just straw man). During these extremely changing, testing and friction-filled times that we know as 2020, I have already seen countless examples of the Straw Man Argument being used by both sides of every conflict.
A straw man is a type of argument that purposely distorts the stance of the ‘other’. When this stance is distorted, it is much easier to attack that distorted version of reality rather than the actual reality of the opponent’s argument itself. As is the case with almost every conflict ever, issues are normally full of grey areas and the strawman fallacy seeks to make black and white, right and wrong.
There are countless examples of Straw Man arguments. One point of view is conveyed by Person A, Person B then creates a distorted version of Person A’s argument, Person B then attacks this distorted version, which is much easier to attack than the actual argument by Person A.
Tim Urban has already talked about this extensively in his excellent long-form post, Political Disney World:
Using a Straw Man can make you appear victorious to unwitting viewers, like a boxer who takes a swing at the balls mid-match and hopes the ref won’t see it. You wouldn’t think it could work, but humans are bad at reality, so straw-manning often goes unnoticed.
You will notice in the below straw man examples that the response is directed at an argument that isn’t actually there. You will probably laugh when you realise how much news coverage and arguments between people are actually just groups straw-manning each other. In other words, they argue past each other in order to emphasise being right and to avoid the discomfort of trying to find common ground. They take the most extreme version or association of the original point and decide to attack that instead. Here are just a few current examples.
Actual statement –> Response that avoids the statement and attacks the fictional ‘straw man’.
“Black Lives Matter” –> “So you don’t value the lives of white people?”
“I don’t think violence is the solution to the problem” –> “So you think that hate and injustice should continue?”
“You shouldn’t be out protesting during a pandemic” –> “So you believe that the cause that people are protesting for is unworthy?”
“You have the right to protest during a pandemic” –> “So you don’t care about all of the nurses and frontline workers?”
“Winston Churchill had good qualities” –> “Winston Churchill was a racist. If you respect a racist you are a racist.”
“Winston Churchill had bad qualities” –> “Winston Churchill played a huge part in ending Nazi Germany. If you don’t respect him, you are an ungrateful Nazi sympathiser”
“I don’t agree with your healthcare proposal” –> “Person A clearly thinks our current healthcare system is fine as it is.”
“I’m worried about illegal immigration” –> “So you’re just fine with putting children in cages?”
“I’m pleased about more flexible borders” –> “You clearly don’t care about the workforce of your nation’s great people and history then”
“The children’s winter concert at the school should include non-Christmas songs too” –> “You clearly won’t be happy until Christmas songs are banned from the radio”
“Pollution from humans significantly contributes to climate change” –> “So you think humans are directly responsible for extreme weather like hurricanes?
The list goes on and on and on. The problem with straw man arguments is that they hide in plain sight. They always imply that there is some sinister motive from the other party. Of course, straw man fallacies are actually based on complete distortion, delusion and an underlying sense of wanting to be right. They want to strengthen the identity of the ‘me and my view’ at the expense of the ‘you and your view’. More commonly, they want to strengthen the identity of the fictitious ‘us’, at the expense of the fictitious ‘them’.
Everybody has used or does use straw man arguments. The first step is recognising it in yourself. It is so important that you first recognise you yourself have used them. Recognising it in yourself first creates this scenario:
Oh yeah, I have been straw-manning other people a lot, even though I have thought that it was necessary for truth and justice to prevail. They have been straw-manning me as well and probably think that they are doing it for truth and justice as well. Maybe we aren’t so unlike after all…
Recognising it in others first creates this scenario:
I knew it! This whole time they have been using sneaky straw man tactics against us to further their agenda. What kind of a low-life uses deceitful tactics like straw man against those trying to bring about a better world? I’ll tell you who: evil people. These people are evil and must be stopped at all costs. At least my straw-mans are for a good cause, their straw-manning is clearly for evil.
If you jump straight to looking for it in other people, it’s likely that you’ll use it to only further extend the gap between the ‘us’ and ‘them’. It will strengthen the individual and/or collective ego, and pull everyone even further away from the truth. You have and most likely do use straw man arguments. We all do.
The first step is always recognising and removing it from yourself. Because straw-manning is deceitful, delusional and pulls people apart, using straw-manning is never justified if you truly seek truth and progress. If everybody says straw-manning is necessary to stop the other ‘evil’ from advancing, then we are back to square one. I hope that is clear enough to see.
Compassion, understanding, acceptance, compromise and free-flowing dialogue are the only paths to a brighter future for everyone. Straw man arguments are just one part of the satisfying but ultimately divisive ego that continues to pull people apart.
The point here isn’t about where you stand on any given debate (or if you don’t stand anywhere at all), it is about how you arrive at your position and the extent to which you defend it. Do you seek dialogue with others and try to understand where they’re coming from? Or do you bunker down and keep fighting straw men rather than trying to come to any sane conclusion?
It’s satisfying to be right. However, progress, that usually only comes from empathy and communication, is even more satisfying.
It takes courage to address a statement that you don’t agree with directly, rather than creating a straw-man for an easy moral victory. Yet this courage is exactly what is required. If we keep fighting fictional ideas and fictional points of view, then the truth will never come to our attention and a destructive, divisive loop will never become broken.
True progress can only come from this place, and from the individual to the collective level, it has to be without the use of the straw man.