The image of a straw man comes from past military training, where soldiers would apparently practise their combat skills by attacking a man made of straw. Since I doubt if the soldiers ever attacked a woman made of straw, the politically correct “straw person” alternative seems to be based on a misunderstanding of this metaphor (much as I am generally in favour of gender-neutral universals). The straw man is a fallacy in critical thinking, and refers to a target of argument that is set up so as to be easy to attack. Generally it means a misrepresentation or over-simplification of someone else’s claims that you argue against, using justifications that would not be effective against a more realistic or sophisticated account of what they have said.
Here’s a classic example of a straw man from Margaret Thatcher in the UK parliament:
Here Thatcher attacks not ‘Socialism’ as any Socialist would describe it, but the idea that she attributes to Socialism that Socialists “would rather the poor were poorer as long as the rich were less rich”, i.e. that they are only concerned with the gap between rich and poor rather than with how well off the poor are. She also misrepresents Simon Hughes (the first male speaker) as ‘Socialist’ at all, as he is a Liberal Democrat who would probably describe himself as a Liberal rather than a Socialist.
Does that seem like a clear example? Well, imagine what would happen if you offered it to Thatcher herself, or one of her supporters. Almost undoubtedly, they would contest the claim that Socialism has been misrepresented. They’d probably say that they had detected a basic assumption in socialism, or an implication of socialism, even if socialists themselves were not willing to acknowledge it. You can imagine the fruitless argument that could then ensue between a Thatcherite and a Socialist, probably ending up in standoff and offence, with one claiming a straw man had been committed, and the other denying it. Unfortunately that’s a fairly typical example of what can easily happen when a straw man is pointed out.
As someone who is very interested in assumptions, I find that I quite often get accused of producing straw men myself (and, of course, I usually think this is unfair!). Anyone who seeks to point out an assumption made by someone else is in danger of this. Part of the problem is that people are often only willing to recognise as assumptions what they already consciously believe, so that the pointing out of an assumption of which they have been unconscious just seems wrong. “This doesn’t apply to me” they then think, “I don’t think that: it’s a straw man.” But in the wider analysis, it may still be the case that they do make that assumption. It needs further investigation. However, in the press of debate, we are most unlikely to take the time out to reflect on whether we really do assume what we have been accused of assuming. What Daniel Kahneman calls ‘fast thinking’ is the shortcut we rely upon for social survival, and ‘slow thinking’, where we might reconsider our assumptions, is reserved for occasions when we are feeling more relaxed and secure.
We can only try to come to terms with this condition, I think. We’re not likely to get people to examine their assumptions in most circumstances, unless the circumstances are sufficiently relaxed and (probably) face-to-face, or the people concerned trust each other and are used to examining assumptions. The best we can expect in normal discussion, I think, is that we will stimulate people with opposing beliefs to go off and reconsider them later. But that does quite often happen too, so all discussion should not be written off as useless.
In the meantime, I think it might be helpful to have a holding position on Straw Men, whether you feel someone else is misrepresenting your point of view, or whether they have accused you of misrepresenting theirs. It’s helpful to know if someone feels this, even if we are unable to resolve it on the spot. There are some reasonably obvious cases where someone has misunderstood or misrepresented the explicit and publically stated views of someone else, but most cases are probably not like this. If it can’t be easily resolved at that level, it might be worth noting that the alleged misrepresentation is about implicit things that need more thought, not explicit ones. It might also be helpful to indicate provisionality around straw man accusations. For example, you might say “I feel you’re misrepresenting my position there” and then say why, rather than just “That’s a straw man”. It might be possible to at least agree about how people feel and whether you’re referring to their explicit position. Both sides may then agree to go away and think about it. That’s a much better outcome than merely trading accusations about straw men on the basis of misunderstanding.
Are these examples of straw men? How should we respond to them? Feel free to discuss these in comments.
- (Draft bill presented to Louisiana state legislature)
Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .
Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.
2. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party, argues for the non-renewal of the Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system of the UK. He argues that we should leave the UK defenceless against nuclear attack.
3. Free market capitalism is founded on one value: the maximisation of profit. Other values, like human dignity and solidarity, or environmental sustainability, are disregarded as soon as they limit potential profit. (Naomi Klein, ‘No Logo’)
Picture: Ratomir Wilkowski (Wikimedia) CCA 3.0