Straw Men

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THE STRAW MAN FALLACY

The straw man follows variations of the following pattern:

  • Person 1 asserts proposition X.
  • Person 2 argues against a superficially similar proposition Y, falsely, as if an argument against Y were an argument against X.

The reasoning of an opposing position deliberately takes up a fallacious "what is meant is..." to create a misrepresented version of the original argument that's similar enough to pass superficial consideration but enough different it can be successfully refuted. The misrepresentation lets the opponent evade having to face the original proposition.

Straw man arguments often arise in public debates or in quid pro quo debates like those carried out online or in correspondence, where the protagonists argue in stages back and forth and frequently each extemporizes publicly to their audience while formulating their latest answer.

STRAW MAN TRIFECTA

Straw man can sometimes be a crossover with Misdirection and some of the strongest propagandists blend Straw Man with Misdirection in Continuity campaigns designed to take advantage of a patient delivery of the propaganda over a period of time. Most modern political campaigns aiming to permanently define (or redefine) public opinion use subtle blends of the Straw Man, Misdirection, Continuity trifecta to achieve their goals.

CLASSIC STRAW MAN

This is the REPRESENTATIVE straw man. It's the original straw man form. The CLASSIC STRAW MAN is a form of answering an opponent's position by misrepresenting or discounting it in the retort.

WEAK STRAW MAN - SELECTIVE

This is the SELECTIVE straw man. It's a more recent form; and more subtle. The WEAK STRAW MAN involves answering the opponent's proposition by representing it in a partial or weaker form, thus making it easier to refute. The partial or weaker form represented must be similar to the original, e.g. a hasty generalization of the original form that's weaker by design.

There are various techniques used in the selection of good alternative form to straw man in the refutation of a point. Cherry-picking, fringe cases, reduction halfway to absurdity, edge cases, outlier excess, slippery slope are all useful straw man misrepresentation selection techniques. The best misrepresentation selection, however, falls within the range of 'reasonable' legal definition, so even though it may misrepresent by weak straw man the original point, the selection can't be so easily dismissed as wilfully unrepresentative.

HOLLOW STRAW MAN -

The least subtle, most barefaced but - depending on the calculus of Faith x Source versus Face x Truth over Contradiction - frequently most effective form of straw man propaganda is the HOLLOW STRAW MAN. In this type the straw man misrepresented selection is entirely fabricated, giving the refutation complete freedom to throw back anything 'effective' (e.g. appeals to emotion) to attack the original point. The hollow straw man propaganda often argues its counterpoint using vague phrases such as "some say" or "close friends have reported"; or attribute a non-existent argument to a broad movement so the source can't be interrogated (disproven, discounted).

STEEL MAN

The steel man argument (or steelmanning) is the exact opposite of the straw man argument. The idea is to find the best form of the opponent's argument to test opposing opinions. It's a recent addition to the lexicon, popularized by conferences and academic podcasters as a way to tackle opposing views without falling into the trap of resorting to a straw man or being delimited by a particular opponent's ability to define the view.

Return to Twelve Rules of Propaganda.

ABSTRACTIONS

  1. Quoting an opponent's words out of context—i.e., choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent's intentions (see fallacy of quoting out of context).
  2. Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then denying that person's arguments—thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.
  3. Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
  4. Exaggerating (sometimes grossly exaggerating) an opponent's argument, then attacking this exaggerated version.
  5. Overstating the pros or the cons beyond what's realistic, then using the overstated consequence as if it's a likely outcome of the opposing intention and therefore reason to discount it. This method is also known as slippery slope argument.

EXAMPLES

  1. Proposal is made: "We should relax the laws on beer." -- Counterpoint: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification. The original proposal was to relax laws on beer. Person B has misconstrued/misrepresented this proposal by responding to it as if it had been "unrestricted access to intoxicants." It is a logical fallacy because Person A never advocated allowing said unrestricted access to intoxicants.
  2. US Vice-President Nixon in 1952 accused of illegally appropriating $18,000 from campaign funds. In his television response he addresses the appropriation investigation by telling a story about being given a cocker spaniel dog as a gift. "And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it." -- Nixon straw mans the criticism of his finances by associating critics with nitpicking heartless interference in his affairs, misdirecting focus away from the $18000 by playing on sympathy with his family dog. It may seem crass but the blend technique is effective; and worked out for Nixon, who got elected.
  3. Creationists keen to restrict schools from teaching anything contradictory to the biblical Adam and Eve story found a cunning route to attack Darwin's Evolution by Natural Selection: Darwin's theory is used by certain racist eugenicists - since it's a theory of selective breeding, of fittest versus less fit to dominate an environment (and therefore survive). Creationists argued Darwin's work itself was therefore racist and that his theory must be excluded from the school syllabus on the basis it's a blueprint for legitimizing race science and a gateway drug to racism.
  4. Straw Man, Hollow Man and Weasal Words PDF


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