The Straw We

Lately with all of the doings I’ve run across a few examples of what we might call the “Straw We.” Here’s  (a not particularly ideal) one:

The idea is that this is false. Many indeed would have and did think this.

As far as I can tell, Steven Pinker first identified the “Straw We” in a review of a book by Malcolm Gladwell (we discussed it here briefly, some years back). The idea is that someone represents the view held by us, most of us, or some subset of us, to be more weak, less nuanced, less sophisticated, etc. as it actually is for the purposes, I imagine, of highlighting the ingeniousness of some discovery or other.

Here’s how Pinker put it:

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

At first glance, the Straw We might seem to be a narrative device meant to enhance the originality or insight of what responds to it. I can even think of several pastiches of it (mostly from the Simpsons). This technique might serve somewhat innocently to increase the uptake of whatever it is one is trying to say (or maybe sell) by way of heightening the contrast. You sharpen the contrast in order to make the lesson clearer.

The Straw We’s pernicious use mirrors the pernicious use of the regular straw argument strategy: it misrepresents the dialectical terrain: things aren’t really so shallow or silly.  But the Straw We draws attention to a particular feature of straw arguments, noticed by someone whose name I don’t have handy (but will fill in later). In a straw argument, the misrepresentation of an opponent enhances the stature of the one doing the misrepresenting (and at the cost of the ones who are misrepresented) to an onlooking audience. Someone in other words looks a fool so that someone else can claim insight. The same account might be given of the Iron Man or Iron Argument: the enhancement of the argument (and consequent impugning of critics) enhances the stature of the one doing the enhancing.

The Straw We, then, highlights the performative aspects of argument. You can rarely just assert your authority on some matter (trust me, I’ve tried) and expect to be believed. You have to perform it. An easy to way to perform it for an onlooking audience, and so establish your own awesomeness, is to find some dumb thing to beat up on: Look at me, I’m winning.

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