Tag Archives: Hollow Man fallacy

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.

First, get some straw…

We’ve pretty regularly noted that you can tell a straw man fallacy is coming when the speaker starts the windup for attributing views to his opponent by saying, “Some folks who believe X say…”  or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”  What generally comes is a view nobody even recognizes as their view, or if it is, it’s only from the least capable of those who hold X.  And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.

Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?  It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.  For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.   There are at least three in quick succession.

First, there’s the implication that Democrats who use the expression ‘The Republican War on Women’ don’t care at all about the way women are oppressed around the world.

When Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia,  relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a “war on women,”  these innocent babies, teenagers and wives often attacked by their families and given no protection under the law throughout many countries in the world were not on his mind, however.  Not even remotely.

Second, there’s the implication of reverse racism in describing the progressive view:

It also fits in nicely with the progressive narrative that history is moving irrevocably forward to some ideal – which does not include stodgy white men.

And third, there’s the simple imputation of sheer craven rhetorical objectives to their opponents:

The success of the “war on women” trope should make Republicans realize that they are fighting progressives for whom the idea of truth is an outdated relic of a racist, homophobic, misogynist past to be discarded in favor of tactics that allow them to win elections and sway opinion.

Now, sometimes, the writing in politico magazines isn’t about making arguments.  Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.  But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.  It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.  And when you don’t see the opposition as reasonable, you don’t work on developing good arguments, and when you don’t work on good arguments, you don’t maintain your best reasons.  And then you become, ironically, just like the folks you were dog-cussing.

To the three straw men here, it’s worthwhile to say the following.  1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.  You focus on what’s different between the two candidates and parties in that argumentative context and about the things they will determine – to talk about the treatment of women around the world is not what that discussion is about.  (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)  2. There’s a difference between having less (unearned) influence and having no influence – if everybody gets a fair shake, there are going to be fewer white guys at the top.  It shouldn’t be hard to see that.  3. As to the cravenness view of one’s opponents, I’ll simply say that if you, yourself, aren’t very good at constructing good arguments, you won’t be very good at detecting them, either.

 

Arguers arguing

My sense is that critical thinking and informal logic classes stress the evaluation of arguments, not arguers.  This is fine as a starting point, but as a long run strategy, it ignores the fact that we have very often to evaluate arguers.  Someone who makes good ones, like someone who can throw good pitchers, is a good arguer; someone who makes bad ones, is a bad arguer.  It's a kind of skill.  The judgement about the person arguing strikes some, however, as having too much of an ad hominem character.  But ad hominems are not by their very nature fallacious.  They're fallacious only when the ad hominem judgement has no relevance to the truth or falsity or reliability or whatever of what a person is saying. 

In light of this, consider George Will's latest attack on his favorite hollow man, "progressivism."

In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.

and then later:

An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?

Let's put this another way.  A person who makes up phony opponents (hollow men) merely in order to knock down their imaginary arguments with demonstrable scientific falsehoods is a very sorry arguer.  That's an ad hominem.

via Washington Monthly 

Safire on straw men

William Safire was one of the inspirations for this site.  No, not for his semi-erudite columns on language, but rather for the consistent sloppiness of his arguments in his op-ed columns.  He retired from op-ed writing shortly after we started this blog (almost five years ago!), so that was it for him, for us.  But he never stopped writing (so far as I can gather, I don't read it that often) his On Language column for the Sunday Magazine.

Recently he has been a go-to guy on the notion of a straw man, as if his supposed expertise on matters of language makes him a master of critical reasoning.  It obviously doesn't, as the following passage from last week's column will demonstrate:

Accepting the Democratic nomination in a huge football stadium way back in the presidential campaign of ’08, Senator Barack Obama displayed his oratorical talent by using one of his favorite tried-and-true devices in argument: “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country!”

Who was telling him that? To be sure, his opponents were claiming that a Republican administration would be stronger on defense, but nobody was telling him or the voters that Democrats preferred abject surrender. At the time, reviewing that speech, I noted the rhetorical technique: “By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book.”

Encouraged by his reviews for eloquence, President Obama has embraced the straw man frequently (as F.D.R. liked to emphasize it, “again and again and again”) with nary a peep of criticism. Two weeks ago, the Times correspondent Helene Cooper dared to note this president’s repeated use of digs like “I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems.” Some folks, like those who, are never named but are always wrongheaded extremists. Her “White House Memo” was headlined “Some Obama Enemies Are Made Totally of Straw”; its subhead was “Setting them up to have someone to knock down.” Cooper, as the objective reporter, gave examples of conservative politicians who speak straw-manese, although none with such fluency.

I suppose Safire doesn't read the newspaper, listen to speeches, or know how to use google.  A constant theme of Republican arguments in the last two National election cylces has been that the Democrats would not defend this country (see any speech by Dick Cheney–chances are "we'll get hit again").  On top of this, Safire even straw-mans the alleged Obama straw man: Obama said "would not defend" and Safire says "preferred abject surrender."  Those are different.

More basically, Safire doesn't really get what makes a straw man a straw man.  Just because one uses "those who" or "some" does not mean one is using a straw man.  What makes an argument a straw man is the distortion or actual arguments, the selection of really weak and unrepresentative arguments (the weak man), or the whole-cloth invention of silly arguments and non-existent arguers (the hollow man) for the sole purpose of defeating them.  "Some" and "those who" may be a sign of a straw man, but it's not a sufficient condition for one.

Opposite marriage

Many are no doubt familiar with the saga of Miss California, an employee of serial net-worth exaggerator Donald Trump.  In case you're not, during a recent Miss America or Miss USA competition, she took a stand against gay marriage.  Here's what she said:

CARRIE: I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage and, you know what, in my country and my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there but that's how I was raised and that's how I think it should be between a man and a woman.  

One interpretation suggests the first line there is disingenuous: she does not think it's great you can choose and doesn't think you ought to be able to choose.  Another interpretation suggests she personally favors opposite marriage for herself, but thinks it's great that others can choose.  Either way, she answered the question.

Not surprisingly, she seems to have drawn some fire by her remarks, especially from those who don't favor the sole choice of opposite marriage.  That's free speech, some of you liberals will say.  That's why we have it.

Enter professional contrarian Michael Kinsley.  He says:

SEATTLE — I want the next Supreme Court justice to share my views on the Constitution. I don't care how she looks in a bathing suit, or halfway out of one. Miss California is a different story. Her qualifications, as a general rule, should be up to the people of California. Here in the state of Washington, we expect our beauty-contest winners to be able to split a log and appreciate good coffee. But Miss California's views on gay marriage have nothing to do with her qualifications for the job and shouldn't disqualify her for it.

This is really Liberalism 101, and it's amazing that so many liberals don't get it. Yes, yes, the Bill of Rights protects individuals against oppression by the government, not by other private individuals or organizations. But the values and logic behind our constitutional rights don't disappear when the oppressor is in the private sector. They may not have the force of law in that situation, but they ought to have the force of understanding and of habit. The logic behind freedom of speech is that "bad" speech does not need to be suppressed as long as "good" speech is free to counter it. Or at least that letting the good and bad do battle is more likely to allow the good speech to triumph than giving anyone the power to choose between them. Congratulations to Donald Trump for making the right decision in this case. But we can't count on every employer to be as sensitive and understanding as The Donald.

The "disqualification" issue regards unrelated violations of the rules of the pageant.  As for the "liberals who do not get it," notice that Kinsley does not mention anyone by name.  Nor could he.  No one is arguing that Miss California's freedom of speech ought to be restricted.  The most extreme scenario suggests Miss California ought to have given a more coherent answer to a question.  But the Q&A, after all, is part of the contest, so the answer does in some sense matter (in what sense I don't know).  That the answer in some sense matters, or that Miss California has drawn criticism, doesn't amount to restricting her freedom of speech.

I think that's really just Critical Thinking 101.