A common tactic to “win” an argument today on an issue is to label the opponent as a racist. It has become commonplace in our nation to present the “straw man” argument as a means to “win”. The federal government and media do this everyday. Are we used to the straw man argument? Do you know what this tactic is?
Here is an example from recent events:
- Trayvon Martin is killed while attacking George Zimmerman.
- The police do not press charges based on the evidence.
- The Department of Justice promotes protests to arrest and try Mr. Zimmerman.
- Mr. Zimmerman is acquitted.
Straw man argument:
George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. Mr. Zimmerman had no right to go out with a firearm to patrol his neighborhood.
Straw man argument: all stand your ground laws in the country need to be abolished.
We have to recognize this “tactic” in order to defeat it. Is this a straw man argument:
Edward Snowden releases information showing the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program is illegal.
Congress reacts that Mr. Snowden is a traitor to the United States. No hearings are scheduled to address the original issue of illegal government activity.
Once we start looking at the issues without the straw man argument component, we see that this has become the standard policy of the federal government to address issues: the federal budget, the real unemployment rate, the war on terror, Islam, Christianity, Homosexuality or Israel. But this is a short list. Take any issue today and see if the straw man argument applies. Once we can expose this tactic, we can make people and the government address the crux of the argument.
The Straw Man Fallacy
The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:
- Person 1 has position X.
- Person 2 disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y. The position Y is a distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:
- Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent’s position.
- Quoting an opponent’s words out of context—i.e., choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent’s actual intentions (see fallacy of quoting out of context).
- Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then refuting that person’s arguments—thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.
- Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.
- Oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
- Person 2 attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This reasoning is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position does not address the actual position. The ostensible argument that Person 2 makes has the form:
- “Don’t support X, because X has an unacceptable (or absurd or contradictory or terrible) consequence.”
However, the actual form of the argument is:
- “Don’t support X, because Y has an unacceptable (or absurd or contradictory or terrible) consequence.”
This argument doesn’t make sense; it is a non sequitur. Person 2 relies on the audience not noticing this.