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.
A dichotomy is an equal split, taking a subject and saying, “There is THIS or THAT. The end.” Implied in the dichotomy is choice. Choose one side of the dichotomy or the other because choosing both would be a contradiction.
True dichotomies follow two criteria:
Everything you’re discussing fits into EITHER one side of the dichotomy or the other.
Nothing you’re discussing fits SIMULTANEOUSLY in both sides.
Violate either principle and you commit the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy.” Not cool.
For instance, if Joel claims that all food is either sweet or sour, he violates the first criterion since some food is bitter, savory, salty, etc. He also violates the second criterion because some food is both sweet and sour at the same time. BOO Joel.
Legit dichotomies can be rhetorically powerful as tools for framing debates. But the greatest power in dichotomy is breaking one. Let’s discuss:
I don’t mean shouting down your opponent until he relents. I don’t mean repeating the same discredited point over and over again. I don’t mean name-calling or bringing up irrelevant facts. That’s what we accept as argument these days (especially on the Internet), but it’s all #ArgumentJunk.
Let’s define our terms.
Holding a gun to someone’s head and commanding them to empty their wallet is not an argument. Blackmailing someone is not an argument. Hypnotizing someone is not an argument. The use of force is never an argument.
A picture by itself is not an argument. Stats by themselves are not arguments. Emotions and feelings are not arguments. Disintegrated data are not arguments.
Telling your child to sit down is not an argument. A Biblical commandment is not an argument. An order from a drill sergeant is not an argument. Unsupported assertions are not arguments.