Over the past year, I have been increasing my consumption of online news from a wide range of sources. I am the first to admit that many of my sources come from a particular point of view. I make no secret about being politically liberal, and I feel that I hold my own very well when arguing for my positions. That said, I have started to become uneasy about how many people – myself included – can be easily led to accept an idea or an argument when it is tailored to support a specific ideology. This is why I advocate so fiercely for critical thinking and for exploring all sides of an issue. The thing is, it takes work to understand the other side, and it’s easier to accept the building, and then the tearing down, of the straw man.
I want to say from the outset that obviously not every argument for or against a position is based on the straw man fallacy, but it is frequently deployed, especially in the online debates that take place in the comment sections of the many sites I read. The danger of the straw man is that, for people who don’t do the work to explore the opposite side, they can accept the straw man as the actual position of the opposition. So what is the straw man? This is the fallacy of misstating or misrepresenting the other person’s position, and then making arguments that refute the misrepresented position. Essentially, it means that you are not actually refuting the other side; you are refuting your misrepresentation of the other side. This can be quite deliberate, or it can be inadvertent, but either way it does not serve the debate.
You see straw men all over the internet landscape, from mainstream news to social media to political sites, advocacy groups, and even charities. It is so much easier to win somebody to your position if you create an easily understood and fearsome straw man and then talk about how desperately it needs to be destroyed. The problem is that most arguments are much more nuanced than the opposition will present them to be. Now, I firmly believe that there are some arguments that do not deserve anything beyond an initial hearing. For example, the idea that to be balanced, news outlets must present both (or multiple) sides of an issue can have the unfortunate consequence of giving air time and the veneer of credibility to ideas that have absolutely no merit (for example, the views of young earth creationists – or to be honest, any creationists!). However, this is not what I am talking about with the straw man. The straw man is not an idea with no merit like young earth creationism; it is an idea that does not actually represent the opposition’s point of view but it is presented as if it does. A terrific example of this is the abortion debate. The straw man for pro-lifers is the idea that the pro-choice crowd is advocating for the heartless murder of cuddly babies. On the flip side, the pro-choice side creates a straw man when it says that pro-lifers are anti-woman and want to see women dying in back alleys with bloody coat hangers between their legs. Obviously I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I think you can see why straw men like this could rally people to a cause.
So what am I arguing for? Critical thinking, as always, but specifically I am asking people not to use the straw man. Take the time to try to really understand what the other side believes. Be open to listening (even though it may only take a few minutes to realize that you have good reasons to disagree). Don’t disrespect your opponent by inaccurately simplifying and/or twisting their position so that it’s easier for you to knock it down. I think this sort of thing is what divides us. It leads to screaming headlines and outraged reactions as straw armies rise and fall.
I hope it’s obvious that I realize there are people who believe in and will support some truly terrible, offensive, misguided, and/or frightening ideas, and those are the real positions worth fighting against. But what good do we do when we get people riled up over something that doesn’t actually represent the other side? How can we process, debate, and try to create actual change in the world if we aren’t discussing what other people actually believe? Is it really satisfying, in the end, to burn up all that straw and leave the real man alive and kicking? Or is it that we are afraid to contemplate that the other side may actually not be as awful as we make it out to be, and we will have to engage with an argument that may be well developed and defensible?
This is a tangled collection of ideas, to be sure. I want to reiterate, if it’s not clear already, that falling prey to – or deliberately deploying – the straw man fallacy against another’s position does not mean that the actual position is worth defending! But you still need to aim your attack at the other side’s actual argument. There is too much sound and fury over all our cultural conflicts already to waste time building and destroying straw armies.