One major purpose of critical argument analysis is evaluating other arguers: other arguers’ arguments are bad and they should feel bad. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s helpful to us to have this kind of information. Arguing is a skill, you can do it well or you can do it badly. If you do it badly enough, then maybe we should ignore you.
Straw manning shortcuts this process by loading the deck against the person being evaluated: people who make such arguments are fools/liars/inconsistent, etc. Armed with this information, we can safely ignore them. Beyond this, we need not consider their reasons anymore as reasons to be engaged and evaluated, but rather as pathologies to be explained.
Naturally, this kind of move is productive in bucking up the troops, but ineffective as a method of rational engagement with another arguer. I ran across a very good example of this form this afternoon on the American Prospect. Here, first, is the conclusion:
This, in the end, is the essence of conservative thought on these issues. Better a child should go hungry than get a free lunch. Better a poor person should have no health insurance at all than get insurance from the government. Their suffering may multiply, but they’ll still have their dignity. If only you could eat it.
I’m fairly certain no conservative would agree with that formulation of the essence of their view (not that this is what would make it wrong). This interpretation relies on the following argument:
The souls of the wealthy, on the other hand, are apparently so healthy and strong they can withstand the indignity of government help. Special tax treatment for investment income? The mortgage interest deduction? Cuts to upper-income tax rates? The rich are truly blessed with souls so resilient that they remain intact even in the face of such injuries of government largesse.
As almost any conservative would tell you (I imagine, not being one), there’s a difference between giving someone something they don’t have and not taking away what they currently have. They argue the taxation is unjust (or immoral, or inefficient, or whatever their view is) and that a system of government benefits is ineffective at its purpose of lifting the poor out of poverty. I think it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the obvious inconsistency we’re supposed to think it is. I imagine they’ll also argue that there is difference between our obligations to people with nothing and our obligations to people with something. The rich, in other words, can ruin their lives on their own dime; they hurt only themselves.
On the version of the argument presented, however, I don’t get any of this, nonetheless, I’m invited to conclude the conservatives are foolishly inconsistent and heartless to boot. Should I believe the author here, the argument with the conservative on these scores is closed.
Of course, it isn’t; in fact, I’ve probably just made my ideological compatriots just a little dumber and my conservative opponents just a little more annoyed. And I suppose the former is an under-stressed effect of the straw man: while it’s usually deployed to undermine an opponent, the damage is really to ourselves: we’ve cut ourselves off from the actual arguments being made, we’ve misinformed our friends, and made ourselves appear just that much duller to our opponent.