I have a friend who likes to tell me about disagreements he has with others. When he tells me about his arguments with his friends, family, or coworkers, he likes to discredit the other side by ventriloquizing his opponents in a baritone and belligerent voice, his mouth drooping, his eyes wide so as to really make it clear: this person who disagreed with me is a dope.
Almost everyone I know—myself included—is guilty of pulling something like this at some point. It’s a useful strategy for framing yourself as the voice of reason and your opponent as an irrational putz. It’s often funny and effective, but it’s also dishonest. If your opponent really is so irrational, then why the need to misrepresent the tone of their voice? Why not just take on the argument itself?
This is the colloquial version of a strategy we witness in all sorts of writing, from political speeches to academic books, a logical fallacy known as the “straw man.”
The straw man fallacy occurs when a speaker refutes an opponent’s argument by misrepresenting that argument entirely. Instead of taking on the argument itself, the speaker constructs a “straw man” version of that argument—as weak and flimsy as a scarecrow—and knocks it down with ease.
Here’s an example from the Idea Channel at PBS:
Mike: “I don’t think it’s too much to ask that when a media creator wants to show heinous or awful stuff, they do so in a context that shows that that stuff is heinous and awful.”
Straw-Man Mike: “Oh, so now we’re not allowed to show violent or terrible things unless we include some long-winded sermon about how bad things are bad? I think creators should be able to show or do whatever they want.”
Mike asserts a pretty moderate suggestion (“I don’t think it’s too much to ask”) rather than a strict prescription. Straw-Man Mike responds by replacing that suggestion with a cartoon version: representing violence in media requires the supplement of a “long-winded sermon about how bad things are bad.” Straw-Man Mike aligns Mike’s suggestion with censorship, verbosity (“long-winded”), and redundancy (“bad things are bad”), attributes that are not at all apparent in Mike’s actual position.
This is a dishonest strategy, as it misrepresents the initial argument. But there is also a finer point to make here. There is a fine line between constructing a straw man and pointing out the logical conclusions that, though not immediately apparent, might emerge from a position.
For example, Straw-Man Mike could potentially be correct in asserting that contextualizing violence has some necessary relationship with censorship. This is a worthwhile matter of debate. The issue, then, concerns the merits and pitfalls of censorship. Are cultural expectations surrounding the representation of violence a subtle form of censorship? If so, is this form of censorship a problem? What are its potential merits, and what are its proper limits? How do we go about answering these questions, and who gets to answer them?
This is suddenly a complex issue—as all genuine debates on substantive issues should be.
The straw man misrepresents the argument at hand, and, as with all logical fallacies, it should be diagnosed when it rears its head. But it also can serve a purpose. In tearing down one argument and building an extreme alternative, straw men can sometimes plunge us quickly into the heart of the matter. That’s a good thing, as long as we’re willing to explore where that leap into the deep end actually leads.