Tag Archives: Nathan J.Robinson

Self straw manning

Image result for straw man

This is a continuation of Scott’s post from yesterday, where he observed that you can perform a kind of self straw man. You say something vague, knowing that you’re going to be “misinterpreted” and then you complain that you have been misinterpreted.

This kind of move–and I’ll give a slightly more subtle version of this in a moment–nicely illustrates the Owl of Minerva Problem for fallacy theory. The Owl of Minerva problem, as Scott and Robert Talisse describe it over at 3 Quarks Daily, runs like this:

But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

The introduction of a metavocabulary will change the way we argue and it will, inevitably, become a thing we argue about.  The theoretical question is whether there is any distinction between the levels of meta-argumentation. The practical question is whether there is anything we can do about the seemingly inexorable journey to meta-argumentation. I have a theory on this but I’ll save that for another time.

Now for self straw manning.  This is a slightly more subtle version of yesterday’s example. Here’s the text (a bit longish, sorry) from a recent profile of Sam Harris by Nathan J.Robinson.

A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam,[4] but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.[5]

Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.[6]

It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?

Sam Harris is certainly a divisive figure. I’d also venture to guess that he is smart enough to know his audience, some of whom (such as Robinson here above) strongly disagree with him. He might be expected, therefore, for the purposes of having a productive debate, to make his commitments absolutely clear. This would involve, one would hope, avoiding bombastic utterances bound to provoke strong reactions or misinterpretations.

But, crucially, arguments are not always about convincing new people to adhere to your view, but to strengthen the attitudes of your followers. It seems to me that just such a tactic as the self-straw man is ideal. You get an opponent (cleverly, this case) to embody the very stereotype of the unreasonable, ideology-driven mismanager of fallacy vocabulary by setting up a straw man of your own view for them. They’re drawn to that but not to your qualifications and so the trap closes.