Category Archives: Straw Man

It’s all interpretation

There seems like there should be a name for the dialectical trap of saying something controversial, but then acting hurt that those who object to it interpreted it as controversial.  Talisse and I called a very closely related stategy spitballing, that of covering the dialectical space with too many things to respond to.   Consider the following case.  President Trump has been the target of a defamation lawsuit by Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump years ago.  Daniels’ lawsuit has been dismissed, and Trump goes to Twitter:

So he calls Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ when announcing the case is dropped. The President has a long history of saying nasty things about womens’ appearances, so he was asked about it by the AP in a recent interview.

Trump also did not back down from derisively nicknaming porn actress Stormy Daniels “horseface” hours earlier.

He says “you can take it any way you want,” when asked if it was appropriate to insult a woman’s appearance.

Such an off-base reply.  The question wasn’t what the statement meant, but whether the President stands by the statement given what it clearly means.  Moreover, what are the options for my preferences to interpret this statement, to begin with?  Is there another option, perhaps less misogynistic, to interpreting calling a woman ‘horseface’ to be a way of maligning her looks?  Maybe it’s a shorthand that rich guys use to show that they know someone who looks like they own horses… you say “Ah, Sterling… he clearly has a wonderful set of stallions at home… see his regal horseface?”  But still hard to take it in these lights when the expression is next to calling Danels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, a “third rate lawyer”.

The question is what’s the problem?  Here’s a shot.  The problem is along two lines.  The first is just that it’s a form of incorrigibility — you get caught doing something that someone objects to, and even if you think it is fine even under their interpretation, you just say they are interpreting it all wrong.  So this is the ‘out of context’ play with verbal indiscretion — you make the game of nailing down exactly what you said just more costly than what’s worth the points of making the objection.  In this case, making explicit what the problem is, what the interpetive options are, and so on, is just more work than is worth it.  (At least for the reporters… I’m an academic… this is my JAM!)

The second part is the trap element.  The trap is as follows — if Trump has said that we can interpret the claim as we see fit, if we interpret it as offensive, that’s evidence that we’ve chosen to interpret the claim as something bad.  But who would do such a thing, except someone who suffers from an irrational, uncivil bias?  And so, by saying that this unqualifiedly objectionable piece of language can be taken as we wish, Trump, by his lights, is testing us for whether we choose to blindly resist him on everything and act all offended when we do that, or we just see that Stormy Daniels is as ugly as he thinks she is, and we agree.

But the point, again, is the trap — once you choose to be offended by interpreting his statement in the offensive way — how is he really responsible for the objectionable stuff.  The only apology he would owe, then, would be that he’s sorry that people can’t help themselves but to interpret him in a nasty way all the time.

With charges of straw man, those who make the challenge take on particular dialectical burdens.  One of them is to point out how the view that’s been straw manned is not only better than the representation, but that better view was accessible to those who performed the straw man.  Namely, that a reasonable interpretation was available that did not suffer from the problems with the represented view.  But here’s the problem with the Trump case here with the trap — he hasn’t offered any alternative that’s a reasonable interpretation that’s not misogynistic.   Not a surprise, really.  But it’s useful for the theory of fallacy.

When they say anything metaphorical, straw man them

Eric Holder, the former Attorney General, recently put a new spin on the familiar Michelle Obama quip, “When they go low, we go high.”  Holder’s is that “When they go low, we kick them.”  Here’s the video with the relevant pieces at the Washington Post.  Importantly, Holder, after the quip, clarifies what he means by ‘kick’ them:

When I say we, you know, ‘We kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal,… But we got to be tough, and we have to fight for the very things that [civil rights leaders] John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young – you know, all those folks gave to us.

He means give it back with confrontational rhetoric, not actual violence.  Oh, but is that what Sean Hannity will have as part of his clip of the quip?  Nope.  Just the part about the kicking.  And here’s how he cuts the tape and explains it to his audience. (Video of Hannity’s show HERE, start at 6:19) He frames and restates Holder’s quip:

Just look at the number of democratic leaders encouraging mob violence against their political opponents…  When they go low, ditch civility. Kick Republicans, when they are on the ground, kick ’em.

He just plays the quip, not the clarification, note.  And that’s the key.  Holder’s expressing the view that political argument is high-stakes and hard-charging, so he’s willing to sacrifice the high road these days, precisely because he thinks it’s clear his opponents have done so.  So the metaphor of the ‘kick’ is the response to their ‘going low’ — invoking the way the battle would go.  But it’s all metaphorical about the rhetorical exchange.  Imagine someone saying,  after hearing another describing a coming debate as a ‘bare knuckle boxing match,’ they are worried for their physical safety.  For sure, this would be some willful ignorance of how metaphorical language works.

Trevor Noah’s Daily Show review of the selective quotation also revealed the additional irony: “Can we just acknowledge that by saying they’re gonna get kicked, Sean Hannity and his friends are accepting that they’re going low?”

 

The fake straw man

Typically, a straw man argument is some kind of misrepresentation (by selection, by distortion, or by invention) in order to conclude that some alternative position is stronger by comparison. We often think that last part–that some alternative position is stronger–is the key move. You use a straw man to go somewhere else with the argument.

So, for instance, “the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is communism,” distorts the ACA in favor of a more sensible, non-communist version.

This morning I was struck by an account of a strategic use of distortion that skips the last, crucial step in straw manning: the sensible alternative. Here it is:

For context, this self-retweet is meant to characterize President Trump’s approach to revisions (rather, alleged revisions) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The argument runs: NAFTA is bad (for exaggerated reasons), engage in a lengthy back-and-forth, NAFTA is fixed (when it’s the same).

You can see from the example that the distortion is almost entirely self-enclosed. In the first stage, it presents a distorted account of the current realty. So far, that’s very straw manny. But, rather than offering an allegedly more sensible alternative, it offers a second distortion, which takes us back to a non-distorted version of the status quo.

This version–I don’t know what to call it–retains all of the puffery of the standard versions: look at how dumb my opponents are! And it doubles that puffery by turning the exchange entirely into a show about how awesome you are.  You’re not as awesome if you have to share the credit with someone else.

Perhaps the more precise account is this: you distort an interlocutor’s position so that you can occupy the non-distorted version. So, the alternative position is strong enough as it is. The only problem is who is occupying it–not you. You have to steal it. To do that, you have to trick your opponent into leaving it.

There are some natural advantages to this. It’s easier to occupy an already constructed position than to make up a new one. Just ask the Great Horned Owl.  There’s got to be a real estate version of this scam. The closest I can find is the real estate practice of blockbusting, where unscrupulous developers scarred white people out of their homes in order to resell them at much higher prices to black families.

At some point… we’ll all love slippery slope arguments

 

Robert Astorino was on CNN with Don Lemon to talk about whether the Trump tweet calling Omarosa a ‘dog’ was racist.  Here is an edited version of the exchange:

Lemon: What do you think, Rob.  Was it a racist attack? Do you think he (Trump) should refrain from doing this?

Astorino: I don’t think it was a racist attack.  I think he’s (Trump) an equal opportunity offender. In that he goes after….

…. I had no idea that the word ‘dog’ – I knew it was pejorative – I had no idea that it was a racist term. And I don’t think that most people took it as one.

… I actually looked it up in the dictionary, and nowhere does it say that it’s a slang or racial word….

Lemon: Certain words used against certain people have a different context than if it’s used on a person of the larger culture…. Shouldn’t you know the nuances of this?

Robert Astorino: No. The quick answer is that at some point, we are going to get to the word ‘the,’ and ‘the’ is going to be racist. Because, as I just said is it (calling a woman a ‘dog’) pejorative? Yes. Because he (Trump) meant it as that – to punch back at her, figuratively.  Because he was upset – he knew her and she let him down.

The trouble with Astorino’s line of argument is that there are, as we’ve called them in the past, bumpy staircases (instead of slippery slopes) between a white man calling a black woman a ‘dog’ being racist and usage of articles (definite or indefinite, perhaps) being racist.  Lemon’s point about context is part of it, and the long history of animal vocabulary being overused with people of color is the main factor.    So what prevents the slipperiness of this slope is that there isn’t a long history of usage of ‘the’ as a term of abuse, but there have been ones with animal comparisons with people of color.

But notice a further thing with this particular slippery slope argument – it represents the opposition as having a very badly formulated view of the matter.  That the term ‘dog’ doesn’t have racist connotations is right from the dictionary — what a way to portray your opposition, that they don’t know the meaning of words.  The importance here is that with this slope argument Astorino represents the concerns about Trump’s racist overtones as just not knowing what words mean.  Notice, by the way, that the word ‘monkey‘ doesn’t have its racist usage noted in the dictionary, either.

 

 

Behind every weak argument there’s a strong one

Let’s say you’re a member of C. C is a big, non-homogenous group. It’s a group defined by adherence to a mish-mash of not-always-consistent beliefs. That’s how big groups work. That’s how names for big groups work. One obvious question is whether “C” really means anything, given the ideological variation among Cs. But there’s no changing that “C” is the term that gets applied to you and to the C whose view you find ridiculous. That’s a bummer, but that’s life.

Now comes someone, call them G, to single out a subset of C, a subset, by the way, he identifies as a subset, by saying something like “The subset of C with beliefs a, b, c, d, and e” are something or other. Crucially, G doesn’t then draw dark conclusions about other Cs. This would be weak-manning C. To be more precise, weak manning consists in singling out real, but terrible, arguments for scrutiny only then to draw broader conclusions about people who hold different, though related beliefs. In this case, it would be selecting some C-beliefs for scrutiny but then drawing, illegitimately, conclusions about others Cs who don’t hold those beliefs. But G doesn’t do that.

An objection might be that there’s no merit in isolating such a group because their views are uninteresting, or that there exist better versions of their views, or that people will confuse the good ones with the bad ones, thinking the good ones to be the bad ones.

To reply to this. In the first place, it’s certainly true that many hold the version of C under scrutiny. That their views are weak is an important fact (noted by G).

Second, there’s merit, especially to the stronger versions of C, for clearing the decks of the bad views. So, for instance, you’re a member of C, but some members of C hold really appalling views. Getting those views out of the way is not necessarily bad for you. This should be especially inoffensive when the critic explicitly identifies the subclass of C they’re referring to–those Cs over there, not you though.

Another, perhaps stronger, objection is that G ought to know that many will take his criticism of C, despite his specifications and qualifications, to imply that people who fail to distance themselves from C or people who did not notice the badness of C are implicated in the criticism of C. In other words, perhaps G is saying: C is bad, and you know that people confuse you with C, so you are guilty of not saying enough about that. You should be on record as not agreeing with C or aligned with C.

But then again, I’m not really sure that this is even an objection. That may be the whole point of criticizing C after all. C’s association will cost C-ists time and effort. That time and effort expenditure ought to dissuade them from being around C. They should have thought of that. That they didn’t reflects poorly on them and their time management skills.

Nutpicked Trump Derangement Syndrome

Nutpicking, or weak-manning one’s opponent, is a form of the straw man fallacy wherein one finds the worst or weakest version of your opponent’s views or the least sophisticated defenders of an opposed view and then subject that view to scrutiny.  So one goes after the bad versions of one’s opposition, instead of the good ones.

The strategy can occur in lots of ways.  One can wait for an offhand and awkward comment to encapsulate the view, or one can track down the least informed representative of the opposition.  Or one can listen in on the other side’s loose talk.  This last one is a new way to weak man — listen in on a comedy show by and for liberals and wait for them to say something that sounds all-too-revealing.

Well, the folks at INFOWARS did just that.  They listened in on Michelle Wolf’s new Netflix show, and in a comedy gag, she asks:

Are you sort of hoping we don’t get peace with North Korea so you won’t have to give Trump credit?

A funny question.  Of course it’s a joke, but one that is at the expense of the deep resentments at the heart of American politics.  The joke gets funnier, since the audience polled answered YES 71% to No 21%.   That’s pretty funny, and surely everyone who responded had a little chuckle.

Oh, but the INFOWARS folks were listening, too.  They don’t like humor, unless it’s them making a joke about how sensitive liberals are.  Anyway, Paul Joseph Watson, the INFOWARS author, didn’t get the joke, and now reports:

In other words, a significant majority of leftists would happily risk nuclear war, so long as it meant Trump would look bad.

Let that sink in.

When conservatives talk about how many on the left “hate America,” it’s seen by most as a tired cliché, but when you see clips like this it really makes you wonder. . . .

Indeed, it seems that the left is so beset by Trump Derangement Syndrome that they’re quite happy to see the pilot crash the plane even though they’re on it.

So, as I see it, a reporter watches a comedy show and reports that a gag that the audience was supposed to play along with bespeaks a traitorous vendetta among liberals.   So much of the straw man fallacy generally is about interpreting your opponent in a way that exercises minimal charity, if only for the sake of the quality of the exchange that these defaults encourage.  But, look, if your defaults are set on interpreting a comedy sketch like this as little more than a suicidal desire for Trump to fail, then it’s hard to see how there’s much of any opportunity for critique either way.

Enlarging the goalposts

We’ve all heard of the accusation of moving the goalposts. At bottom, this consists in illegitimately changing the standard of appraisal in order to match some arbitrary standard. While before you had to prove B, now you need only prove A, because, well, because.  Closely related, so I think today, to this is the idea of enlarging the relevant dialectical context. Here’s a cartoon on point:

I have no comment on the actual discussion (and I don’t know anything about this Peterson fellow). This move nonetheless seems to be a pretty common one. It doesn’t so much as move the goalposts as enlarging the field of play to such a point where you’ll never catch the other player (I don’t know what game this is in my analogy, but you get the idea).

So it’s a kind of iron man. Like all such ferrous persons, it works in two ways: the first way is to make the object impervious to criticism; the second way is to make the critic look dishonest. There’s one more thing: it’s a status-booster for the iron-manner: their being aware of the relevant information is a way of basking in its reflected glory.

Such moves (and I’ve observed them in other contexts, however) are strategically risky: the greater the burden of critique, the greater the burden of understanding. While your critic might not land the blow, the costs of understanding such a complex and unassailable view might be too high for potential converts.

Argumentum ad bawitdabam

So we’re doing this.  Kid Rock gave a speech about his upcoming Senate bid during one of his concerts.  It was not well-composed, but it did have something that looked like an argument in it.  And here we are, seeing if we can do some logic with the American Badass.  Here’s the speech:

And a transcript of it is available here (provided, btw, by Metal Injection).

Rock gave two arguments of note.  One had an interesting bit of complication about taxes and entitlement programs to it.  Here’s the relevant piece:

It seems the government wants to give everyone health insurance but wants us all to pay. And to be very frank, I really don’t have a problem with that. ‘Cause god has blessed me and made my pockets fat.

“But redistribution of wealth, seems more like their plan. I don’t believe that you should say sacrifice, do things by the book and then have to take care of some deadbeat, milking the system, lazy ass, motherfucking man.

So, here’s what I see to it.  Rock holds that he’s OK with government subsidized health insurance, and he’s happy to pay in to that because he’s rich.  But he thinks that there’s a limit to what government entitlements he’s willing to support — and so he’s against free riders to the system.  (He runs a follow-up to the argument about ‘struggling single parents’ and the threat of ‘women, who can’t even take care of themselves, but keep having kid after fucking kid’).

But here’s the crucial thing.  It looks like Rock is saying his defaults are on supporting these entitlement programs, and he’s not willing to let the fact that there are free riders defeat support for these programs.  He just wants to stop the free riders from doing what they are doing.  Now, how he proposes to stop them is bonkers. In all the cases, he proposes that we ‘lock up’ those who are taking advantage of the programs.  That free riding is productive of outrage does not imply that free riders must be punished with incarceration.  Hence an argument from outrage.

What’s important here is noting that, again, Rock’s defaults are on supporting the programs.  It looks like he can distinguish his disappointment with those who cheat them from the fact that the programs work for those who really need them.  Again, his over-reaction to one shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s made a good move with the other.  (Well, perhaps it can overshadow it a bit … are we really going to ‘lock up’ people who have more kids than someone like Rock thinks they should while on welfare?)

The second argument is just a piece of word-salad that seems to come out as a case for him to be President.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Kid Rock for senate has got folks in disarray. Wait till they hear Kid Rock for president of the U.S.A.. ‘Cause wouldn’t it be a sight to see, President Kid Rock in Washington, D.C.. Standing on the Oval Office like a G. Holding my dick ready to address the whole country.

I’ll look the nation dead in the eyes, live on TV, and simply tell them, you never met a motherfucker quite like me

This image is very hard to erase from a mind.

As far as I can see, this is a form of ad populum, one that runs that because the Kid is dope/fly/cool, he should occupy the highest political office in the land.  The fact that the interest in his candidacy has ‘got folks in disarray’ is a form of the negative ad populum we’ve discussed a few times, one that runs:

P: If I do X, it will drive liberals/elites crazy

C: I should do X.

Again, I’m calling the move now negative ad populum, because the core of the line of argument is that the judgment of a certain class of people is so badly aligned, they are a barometer for the correct decision, except by way of negation.  You just do whatever would make them mad, or the opposite of what they would do.   Rock is, in many ways, running this argument convergently — both as an ad populum (I’m cool, so deserving the Presidency), and as a negative ad populum (my candidacy drives the libs nuts, so I’m deserving of more votes).  Of course, as with any ad populum, the matter is regularly underdetermined by the premises.  But, hey, when you’ve got a rock show to run, who has time for relevant premises, amirite?

 

 

Losers say ‘what?’

It was a dumb game in junior high — you mutter, “loser says what?” and your buddy says, “What?”, because you muttered it and he couldn’t hear it properly. Then you say, “Ha ha, you’re a loser.”  A great way to make and keep friends.

David Harsanyi has a little move like that in politics, and he runs it in his recent article, “Democrats are Increasingly Comfortable with Religious Tests” over at NRO.  Here’s the setup.  Because a standard liberal line is that religiously-inspired law and jurisprudence is a threat to religious liberty, vetting judges in terms of how significantly their religious commitments influence how they vote is important.  But this test is not a religious test, it’s a zealotry test.  And, again, we keep the religious nutcases from making and deciding law for the sake of religious freedom — because religious nutcases make law only for their religion.

Well, you can see where this is going.  With Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Federal Appeals Court, Harsanyi takes every question about whether and to what extent her religious views influence her policy decisions to be a religious test,  not a zealotry test.

It is irksome, no doubt, that Barrett’s faith informs her views. Our backgrounds and beliefs always color our opinions. This is not yet an illegal act. But these lines of questioning, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in political discourse, are an attempt to create the impression that faithful Christians whose beliefs are at odds with newly sanctified cultural mores are incapable of doing their job. They are guilty of another kind of apostasy.

But the some of these colorings that Harsanyi thinks are inevitable are different from the very or extreme colorings that these lines of questioning are out to determine.  Once we see it through Haryani’s lens, though, it’s all a form of religious discrimination by the Left.  His middleschool trap, then, is roughly something along the lines of saying, “Leftist anti-religious bigots say ‘What’s the role of religion in your policy decisions?’… and he waits for them to say it.  But it’s a confusion of what the purpose of the question is.

Of course, when there are occasions for clarification of what the purpose of the questions, Harsanyi won’t hear it, because he can’t take anything the folks on the other side says seriously.  Here’s the height of it, recounting Al Franken’s exchange with Barrett:

“I question your judgment,” the former star of Stuart Saves His Family lectured the mother of seven.

Of course you can’t hear a reasonable thing come out of someone’s mouth if you keep bringing up the dumbest things they’ve ever done.  Maybe we should go drag up some of Harsanyi’s early essays or attempts at painting or standup comedy or his performance in a sophomore year poetry slam to see how well they hold up…

To the Fallacy Analysis point, this is a peculiar case.  I’m inclined to think it’s a special kind of straw man — you interpret the questions along some totally uncharitable line, and then you criticize it for being the bad thing you took it to be.  And you avoid the main line of critical questioning, which is about the proper role religious commitment has in making policy for a society committed to religious liberty.  Surely a reflective person can see the issue, right?  But what arises out of this distortion of the point of the questions is a further issue, one that seems to make it so that the other side just can’t make good or decent points.  Once you see their track record through such a lens, they can seem to be little more than those who make awful noises and act on the basest of instincts.  And so, straw man arguments extended over time make for consistent well poisoning. 

 

Give me argument, not advice!

Dear Prudence at Slate.com is an advice site for some of the more progressive of the progressives.  So there are lots of letters and advice response on how to handle LGBT issues, conflicts within class consciousness, how to manage vegan-nonvegan relationships, and Tinder mini-norms.  NRO’s Graham Hillard’s take on it all is that Mallory Ortberg (Prudence) “dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.”  The point, Hillard wants to emphasize, is that:

Regular people — “the great unwashed,” in Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase — know both instinctively and by hard experience that to live as the sexual Left preaches is to enter a world of confusion, heartbreak, and deep, abiding dissatisfaction.

Simple truth, do you? So, to start, Hillard’s charge is that the advice column on a progressive website gives progressive-friendly advice.  The second point is that “Regular people” know instinctively and by experience that it’s terrible advice.   Sigh.   To the first point — what do you expect?  If NRO ran an advice column, I would expect it all to be conservative and religious material.  You go to the kind of advice you want, so it’s really a problem with affiliated advice columns, isn’t it?  (For example, if a student comes to me about a crisis of faith, I interpret it as a request for more information about atheism and Slayer albums to listen to, not asking for spiritual healing. Were she to approach a priest, she’s requesting something different.)

To the second point, isn’t the matter more complicated than that?  Isn’t one of the replies by progressives that most of these norms and intuitions are products of societies that did not abide difference, and when we aren’t under those social conditions, there are many wider livable lives than we’d anticipated?

But Hillard’s not done.  His biggest complaint is that:

The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney — aside from the fact that, if heeded, they’re likely to leave Ortberg’s readers in worse shape — is that their cumulative effect is to move acceptable discourse (indeed, acceptable thought) ever leftward. Because Ortberg makes pronouncements rather than arguments when discussing the latest trends in gender and sexuality, the casual reader could be forgiven for believing that the argument has already happened somewhere, that the Left won, and that the only remaining thing is to climb on board.

Hillard wants arguments.  It’s part of the regular right-side nonsense that liberals are bad at argument, don’t argue, are fact-avoidant, and so on.  But I looked at some of Prudie’s replies, and they are full of argument.  Here’s one from one of the columns Hillard notes, about a bisexual student who was in a relationship with a married couple, who now have a baby on the way:

Get out now. This couple is producing red flags at such an accelerated clip that they could double as a red-flag factory …. You don’t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You don’t want to be treated like a dirty little secret, but already you feel uncomfortable spending time alone with Dave because of the unhealthy, triangulated dynamics between the three of you.

That’s an argument.  But perhaps not the kind of argument Hillard wants, one that would go something along the lines: what were you thinking, being Bi- and getting involved with a married couple to begin with… you must not be Normal.

Here’s  a thing that normal people know either intuitively or by experience: communication is for the sake of relaying the information needed (or thought needed) for the situation.  Bisexual people go to the advice column at Slate about their current relationships for advice about the relationship, not about why they shouldn’t be Bi- or that they shouldn’t have done what they did.  Moreover, normal people know by intuition or by experience that arguments are often there, but you’ve got to be looking for the piece of controversial information in the communication, not for what you think is controversial.

For sure, Hillard laments something lamentable — that people exist, get news in, and even advice within ideological bubbles that rarely are questioned internally.  It’s easy to see it looking in the culture sections of those you hold in contempt. But when you can’t detect reasoning internal to those cultures or in their advice columns, that’s more evidence that you’re the one who can’t get outside the ideological bubble except to gather dirt. (John had a nice column on this phenomenon, asking whether straw-manning is inevitable.)