Tag Archives: Straw Man

Friendly fire

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.

Straw manning and logical implication

Michael Medved has argued at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference and in print (almost four years ago) that it’s a “liberal lie” that states have “banned” gay marriage.

Now that you’re done laughing, here’s the argument in print (at TownHall.com):

1. “Proposition 8 was a mean-spirited ban on gay marriage.”

TRUTH:Proposition 8 banned nothing. The ubiquitous headlines describing this voter-mandated change in the California constitution as a “gay marriage ban” amount to the worst example of journalistic malpractice in recent years. The entire proposition consisted of only fourteen words: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” This simple statement imposes no restrictions and issues no commands regarding the behavior of private citizens: it merely demands a change in the actions of government. Proposition 8 did nothing to interfere with gay couples in registering for state-recognized civil unions, participating in church or civil ceremonies consecrating their love, forming life-time commitments, raising children, or concluding comprehensive contractual arrangements to share all aspects of life and property. The proposition simply says that government will not get involved in any of these private or public processes by calling such relationships a marriage.

The “only” in those 14 words has the effect of a “ban.”  I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader to figure out (it’s not hard).

This reminds me of a debate about whether certain universities’ bans on homosexual behavior were “discriminatory.”  People argued, with a straight face so I imagine, that they were not, because such places didn’t ban homosexual behavior per se, but rather all extra-marital sexual activity.

If one is fancy enough with words, distinctions like these can be made.  But they’re really just disingenuous cover for something else.

The fun part about this move, however, is this: should you call them out on their too-subtle-by-half distinction, they’ll accuse you of distorting their position, as Medved (and the defenders of gay faculty bans) have done: note how Medved elaborates on the “journalistic distortion” of that characterization.

Sadly, for people like Medved, you don’t have exclusive control over the interpretation of your arguments; more importantly, you don’t own words and you don’t determine the rules of implication.

How to turn your analogy to straw

Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.  He said that the likelihood of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) actually helping people is as great as the likelihood of the Denver Broncos coming back from their fourth-quarter deficit in the SuperBowl.

I know that there are still some who hold out hope that Obamacare will work, just like there were some in Denver this Sunday still holding out hope that the Broncos could come back and win in the fourth quarter.

Now, there is some debate on the matter, but let’s give Rubio the point for the sake of argument.  However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:

But let’s not forget that the Broncos actually made it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were the second best team in the NFL in 2013….

If Rubio is going to compare Obamacare to a football team he should invoke the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16. Better still, the junior Senator from Florida could also speak of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. This would be a far more apt comparison because when it comes to Obamacare no one wins.

Ah, a lesson in how to turn an analogy into a straw man.  At least the Rubio analogy conceded that the ACA had something going for it (at least the Broncos had a chance to make points back earlier), but Goldstein refuses even that.  Beyond this, the point Rubio was trying to make with the analogy was one of prospects, like for the future, not retrospects, looking at the past.  Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.

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.

Replace and defend

Deep Insights

A follow up on David Brooks’ piece on the inadvisability of marijuana legalization.  Perhaps you’ll recall that Brooks told a very personal tale of his own adolescent adventure with marijuana.  TL;DR: marijuana should remain illegal (also because of nature and the arts). A charitable reading of this argument would go thusly: Brooks himself continues to pull tubes, with the consequence being that his arguments are terrible, so don’t legalize marijuana, lest you end up a bumbling fool like David Brooks.  He kind of says as much:

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

I’m still embarrassed for him.  In any case, rushing to his defense is the allegedly unstoned Reihan Salam, of the National Review (via Lawyers, Guns, and Money).  His argument is the perfect iron man.

The column has prompted an ungenerous and largely uncomprehending response from people who are attacking David as a hypocrite, and worse. But you’ll notice, if you know how to read, that Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use. Rather, he is suggesting that legalization as such might not be the best way forward. Though I imagine I don’t agree with Brooks in every respect on this issue, I think his bottom line is correct. The goal of marijuana regulation, and the goal of alcohol regulation and casino regulation and the regulation various other vices, ought to be striking a balance between protecting individual freedom while also protecting vulnerable people from making choices that can irreparably damage their lives and the lives of those closest to them.

This fellow has just made up an entirely different argument: Brooks did not argue for regulation of marijuana.  Nor, in fact, does his column even suggest this.  Nor would any sane (non stoned libertarian) argue for unregulated legalization.  Just for reference, here’s how the obviously stoned David Brooks characterizes legalization:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

Yet, according to Salam, Brooks is not arguing against legalization.  So this is a beautiful example of argument defense by complete replacement: when the argument you need to defend really sucks, no matter: replace it with a completely different argument, then accuse your opponents of straw manning.  It’s a double fallacy.

Question for the readership then: must the iron man always involve a straw man?  Seems like it might.  In strengthening an argument beyond what it deserves, I distort the critics’ view of the argument as weak.

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.

 

Not the Onion, part 342

Thighmaster General

While Scott and Rob argue their minds to the bone on the place of rationality in political discourse, the Wall Street Journal publishes an error-filled op-ed (in a section called “The Experts”) by Suzanne Somers, of Three’s Company and Thighmaster fame.  Here’s how it begins:

First of all, let’s call affordable health care what it really is: It’s socialized medicine.

I’ve had an opportunity to watch the Canadian version of affordable health care in action with all its limitations with my Canadian husband’s family. A few years ago, I was startled to see the cover of Maclean’s, a national Canadian magazine, showing a picture of a dog on an examining table with the headline, “Your Dog Can Get Better Health Care Than You.” It went on to say that young Canadian medical students have no incentive to become doctors to humans because they can’t make any money. Instead, there is a great surge of Canadian students becoming veterinarians. That’s where the money is. A Canadian animal can have timely MRIs, surgeries and any number of tests it needs to receive quality health care.

So the reason the Affordable Care Act, i.e., Obamacare, is a failure, is because the Canadian system, to which ACA is completely unrelated, is also a failure, according to the cover of a Canadian magazine (the original version of Somer’s op-ed said it was a horse, not a dog).

This would be hilarious if it were not the Wall Street Journal.

As always, the Onion already kind of called it.

Risky strategies

ad Hitlerem and straw man

Like the ad Hitlerem, there is a paradoxical admission involved in straw manning, viz., you don’t actually have an argument against your opponent’s view.  You have an argument against Hitler, in the case of the ad Hitlerem, which your opponent is very likely not; in the case of the straw man, you have an argument against a distorted, selected, or made up position or opponent, when your real opponent’s real view is still hanging around.  If you get caught, you first of all look like a liar; but more seriously, you’ll look like you’ve just made the case for your opponent.  Crucially, however, you’ve wasted precious time and attention attacking a pseudo-position.

This struck me when I read the following snippet from a New Yorker piece about the Tea Party:

The really weird thing—the American exception in it all—then as much as now, is how tiny all the offenses are. French right-wingers really did have a powerful, Soviet-affiliated Communist Party to deal with, as their British counterparts really had honest-to-god Socialists around, socializing stuff. But the Bircher-centered loonies and the Tea Partiers created a world of fantasy, willing mild-mannered, conflict-adverse centrists like J.F.K. and Obama into socialist Supermen.

As many supporters have pointed out, all of the attention given to death panels and Hitler socialism has left the law, with all of its actual flaws, standing.  One would think that concerns over practicality and efficiency would be sufficient to eliminate the straw Hitler arguments.  One would think.

Under a description

Here’s a way you can straw man someone.  Pick out a bad decision she made, then say she chose that bad part of the decision.  For example, say my wife and I are  trying to decide where to vacation.  She wants to go to a cabin in the woods – something rustic and woodsy.  But we get there, and the cabin’s filled with spiders and there’s a raccoon in the fireplace.  Angrily, I say: We could have gone to Chicago, but you preferred a cabin filled with arachnids and vermin! Yes, that’s the choice she made, but not what she chose as she chose it.  What she chose was rustic vacation… what that choice yielded was spiders and a hissing varmit.  The lesson: our desires are propositional attitudes, and those attitudes represent what we desire or choose under a specific description.  Again, she chose rustic cabin… and it happened to have spiders.  She didn’t prefer the spiders.  She just chose something that turned out had them.  That’s not choosing spiders.  So it’s a straw man – you’re misrepresenting the intentions of your interlocutor by describing them under the description of their worst consequences.

OK.  So now the point about choice under a description and straw-manning is clear, let’s turn to the way George Neumayr over at AmSpec is handling his portrayal of the Obama Administration’s turn on foreign policy.  His view is not just that they make bad decisions, but that they choose terrible things.

Ho Chi Minh once said that he won the Vietnam War not in the jungles of Asia but on the streets of America. Islamic terrorists could make a similar claim: from Libya to Egypt to Syria, they rose to power not in spite of American leaders but because of them. Obama and McCain preferred Morsi to Mubarak, the assassins of Christopher Stevens to Gaddafi, and now the enforcers of sharia to Assad.

The final point about Syria is a familiar one.  (If you haven’t, take a quick look at John Dickerson’s Slate overview of the various arguments regarding Syria.)  The point is that there would be an unintended consequence of destabilizing Assad – the opposition’s not a bunch of liberal-minded democrats, but radical Islamists.  But it’s not that with the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration chose to support a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt or that there would be a terrorist attack on a consulate in Libya.  Those were the consequences of the choices, but, again, choices are under descriptions, and not all consequences are the descriptions.

Here’s the skinny

Michael Jeffries, attractive man

Putzing around the internets the other day I ran across an example of an interesting and very common kind of downplayer.  Some context, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch (see above), a clothing retailer, has claimed he only wants to sell clothes to thin, attractive people:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong (in our clothes), and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

So he’s a jerk.  Now comes the downplayer.  Reacting to the story, Shana Lebowitz of Greatist writes:

It’s truly incredible that these news stories have sparked such intense conversations about the way the media helps shape our relationship to our bodies. At the same time, it’s too easy to point fingers at Abercrombie and media outlets that glorify the thin ideal. Sometimes it seems like all we need is a couple of models and mannequins who aren’t stick-thin and everyone’s body image would significantly improve.

But that’s too easy. In reality, skinny models and mannequins don’t cause anyone to feel any way about their bodies. While we can’t always control the size of the T-shirts on Abercrombie’s shelves, we do have the power to walk through the overly cologned aisles without feeling bad about ourselves. So why don’t we arm people with the psychological tools to develop a healthy body image — even in spite of messages that can damage our self-esteem?

Perhaps it is easy to latch onto this guy’s sorry but unsurprising attitude about attractiveness, popularity, and so on.  But really, so what?  Things that are easy, however, not any the less true or worthwhile on account of their ease.

Further, note how the downplayer turns into a straw man: tweaking one or two things about stores or clothes sizes will not solve every single problem!  No kidding!  Who says it would?