It’s easier to fight a punching bag than it is to fight Anderson Silva. (Certainly less scary.) Yet if you dominated a punching bag it wouldn’t be fair (or rational) to claim that you won a fight with the MMA star.
It works the same way in rhetoric. But less blood. (Usually.)
Too often when we argue we “defeat” something that doesn’t exist. We take a weak, pathetic, offensive version of our opponents’ arguments, beat them up, and announce that we’re champions. It’s the logical fallacy of building a “straw man argument.” No belt for you!
The term “straw man” has an ambiguous origin, but the concept is simple. Imagine a soldier, for instance, setting up a scarecrow, stabbing it with a bayonet, then declaring victory over the enemy. Delusional. The straw man fallacy operates in a similar way during debate. It’s the presentation of your opponent’s argument as an unsubstantial or easy-to-defeat version of itself. It may “look” like the original argument, but all the meat is gone.
The straw man fallacy is an evasion of reality, taking one proposition and replacing it with something entirely different. In the end, the rhetorical effectiveness is suspect at best. An audience can usually tell if something seems too bad to be true.
Take this debate on education for example:
Elvira: “It’s a shame that we spend so much money on the military when our schools need funds.”
Vincent: “Actually I would like to see education spending cut to zero. True competition is the only way to improve education in this country.”
Elvira: “WHY DO YOU HATE CHILDREN!?”
OK, so usually the fallacy isn’t so…extreme. Often it’s more like this:
Elvira: “I just can’t see leaving the future of our country without an education.”
Here Elvira is misrepresenting Vincent’s point. Did he say that he wants to leave children without an education? Elvira’s assertion is a straw man because it replaces Vincent’s real argument with an easy-to-defeat alternative.
The Best Possible Version Corollary
Herein lies the number of one test to determine if you’re building a straw man: Would any reasonable person take the position you’re asserting your opponent holds? If you hear yourself saying, for instance, “My opponent wants to keep kids dumb and on the streets,” you should take a step back and reevaluate your statement.
I’m not suggesting that your opponent isn’t advocating a terrible (or immoral) position. What I think good rhetors need to consider is if they, in their counter-arguments, are presenting the best possible version of what they’re arguing against.
Why is it important to make your opponents look good? So your inevitable victory will utterly crush them and their supporters. ::drinks blood wine from a goblet:: In less Klingon-ish terms, presenting evidence against the best version of your opponents’ strongest arguments will raise your ethos with the audience and make it easier for them to accept your position. You’re presenting yourself as both honest and capable. ::swoon::
Ever a Good Idea?
Can it ever be effective to misrepresent your opponents’ arguments? No. If making your point requires evading the reality of your opposition, then you need to take a closer look at what you believe and why. Lying is not self-interested.
Where thinking about straw man fallacies can be helpful is thinking about how your own position is often misconstrued. Anticipating how your opponent might frame your argument is a good way to think about counterarguments and how you might re-frame the debate.
Essentializtion & Analogy
There is an important distinction, though, between committing a straw man fallacy and properly essentializing or using an analogy.
Essentializing means bringing an argument down to its core principle or meaning. For instance, Vincent is not committing a straw man fallacy when he essentializes Elvira’s argument here:
Elvira: “The rich can handle giving back more to the community for education.”
Vincent: “You mean the government needs to force people to pay more for government schools.”
It may not be the most rhetorically effective tactic Vincent could use to persuade Elvira or an audience that agree’s with her, but his essentialization is not replacing her proposition with a different one. It’s unpacking the meaning behind her words and explaining the implications.
Likewise using an analogy to explain a position isn’t necessarily committing a straw man fallacy, but you must be careful.
Elvira: “Oh come on. The rich can afford to pay more for schools.”
Vincent: “The rich aren’t an ATM from which you can draw unlimited funds. It’s not your money spend.”
Here the analogy might go too far and imply something Elvira does not mean, but the point actually goes back to Elvira to answer: Where do you stop? What percent? What amount? The analogy calls into question her underlying premises.
* * * * *
Like many of the best rhetorical strategies, avoiding the straw man fallacy is a matter of ethos. If you’re dishonest in the presentation of your opponent’s ideas, can the audience trust you to fairly present your own argument? Plus it’s more rhetorically effective to crush a strong argument than a weak one. Doing so will make you a better, harder-hitting rhetor.