A longstanding way to think of straw man argumentation is to misinterpret or misrepresent what people said or what their arguments were. That’s a version of the representational straw man. John and I have also identified the selectional version of the straw man, or the weak man. That’s a case of finding a member of the opposition that has a badly stated version of the view or a poorly constructed version of their argument and go after that.
There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a bad argument, but what gets communicated with it is that you, in investing time and energy in replying to that bad argument, you’re not spending time on the better ones. That would be bad use of your time, so if you’re doing the work of criticizing the bad arguments, they must be as good as they get.
Another weak man instance is that you take imperfectly phrased versions of an opponent’s posiiton and interpret them mercilously. When we’re speaking off the cuff, extemporaneously, we may not say everything just right. And so we, except when in full-attack mode, give each other some slack. That’s a difference between spoken and written communication. And to interpret your interlocutor in the worst lights when they are speaking informally (and so, imprecisely) is a kind of selectional straw man.
Well, so here’s what happened. Mika Brzezinski said on Morning Joe today that the media’s “job” is to “actually control exactly what people think.” Here’s the clip:
Now, the context is that Brzezinski’s line is a contrastive — that Trump is trying to control what people think by pushing out the media. By “speaking directly to the people,” as we’d seen in a previous post.
So conservative media has gone straight up bonkers about the line. Tyler Durden says she’s “let slip the awesome unspoken truth” about what the media thinks they should be doing. The folks at Breitbart have made it a front page story, with the implication that the imperfect wording is really a Freudian slip.
Real Clear Politics has a follow-up to it, and Brzezinski has gone into Twitter cleanup mode
Today I said it's the media's job to keep President Trump from making up his own facts, NOT that it's our job to control what people think.
— Mika Brzezinski (@morningmika) February 22, 2017
It’s pretty clear that when folks have what Walton calls “dark side interpretation” already cued, they’ll take something like this as evidence of letting a mask slip instead of a poorly phrased bit of intellectual pushback. So this makes it an interesting case of a mix between selectional and representational straw man — it’s selectional, since they go after what she’s said, but it’s representational, since we need an interpretive attitude to take this as seriously a representation of her sincere position.
So, in a way, a lesson about straw manning. If your picture of the opposition, after interpretation, fits the worst kind of picture you may have of them, you may be a straw-manner.