The hollow man

In general, one commits the straw man fallacy in a situation of criticism–when one challenges someone else's argument in anything other than its true and charitable form, one is in danger of committing the straw man fallacy.  Let me give an Al Gore example.

  • Al Gore argues that curbing carbon emissions is critical to reducing the impact of climate change.  He points to numbers and charts and data and stuff like that.  I see what he's saying, he saying we should get rid of all of our cars!  

The claim after "I see what he's saying" obviously bears little resemblance to what Al Gore is saying.  It's funny, in fact, how often that claim–oh, I see what you're saying!–precedes a straw man.  It's like a straw man warning.  

Anyway, back to what I was saying.   The straw man fallacy admits of a couple of variations.  You might call the most common variation the "misrepresentation" form.  It consists in the distortion of an opponent's actual position.  Take the above example.  Al Gore argues for more sensible carbon policies, but he does not advocate the rapid elimination of the automobile.  Another form, recently discussed by Bob Talisse and Scott Aikin, involves selecting the worst of an opponent's argument for attack.  This one lacks the outright stupidity or dishonesty of the misrepresentation form, although it involves the false claim that the weak argument is the strongest one.  Talisse and Aikin call this "the weak man" argument. One other common form of the straw man, the one I see today in the work of a dear friend of the NonSequitur dot com, involves completely inventing an opponent and an opponent's argument, and then attacking that and claiming victory.  Call this the hollow man argument.

This is just what George Will does today.  He writes:

Reactionary liberalism, the ideology of many Democrats, holds that inconvenient rights, such as secret ballots in unionization elections, should be repealed; that existing failures, such as GM, should be preserved; and, with special perversity, that repealed mistakes, such as the "fairness doctrine," should be repeated. That Orwellian name was designed to disguise the doctrine's use as the government's instrument for preventing fair competition in the broadcasting of political commentary.

Because liberals have been even less successful in competing with conservatives on talk radio than Detroit has been in competing with its rivals, liberals are seeking intellectual protectionism in the form of regulations that suppress ideological rivals. If liberals advertise their illiberalism by reimposing the fairness doctrine, the Supreme Court might revisit its 1969 ruling that the fairness doctrine is constitutional. The court probably would dismay reactionary liberals by reversing that decision on the ground that the world has changed vastly, pertinently and for the better.

The only problem is that, as has been pointed out all over the place, no one advocates the fairness doctrine.  Will doesn't even name one person who supports the fairness doctrine in his article.  Yet he concludes:

If reactionary liberals, unsatisfied with dominating the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood, were competitive on talk radio, they would be uninterested in reviving the fairness doctrine. Having so sullied liberalism's name that they have taken to calling themselves progressives, liberals are now ruining the reputation of reactionaries, which really is unfair. 

This is really appalling, even for Will.  Normally he can muster at least a straw man.  But I wonder whether his inability to find someone to slime is a step forward or a step backward.  

11 thoughts on “The hollow man”

  1. HOLLOW MAN, love it, John.  So the difference between Hollow and Straw man arguments would be that Straw man arguments bear a *resemblance* to the original stated views, but are nevertheless constructed in ways that facilitate their criticism, and Hollow man arguments bear no resemblance relation to anything an interlocutor says (but is still constructed with the express intention of knocking it down). 

    A functional story of how one responds to these sorts of arguments may help with drawing the distinction.  If speaker A presents argument a, and B responds to A by constructing argument a*, the question is how we distinguish straw from hollow versions of a*.  I like the resemblance criterion, but that’s slippery.  A’s appropriate responses may help here.  If A’s appropriate response is to remind B that she must respond to a, which is different from and superior to a* in some way, then we have a case of staw manning.  If A’s appropriate response is to ask B to what B is referring when attributing a* to A (something like: “where did you get that?”), then we have a case of hollow manning. 

    Another case of hollow manning: George Bush when he notes that those who are skeptical of nation building in Iraq lays this egg: “There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly”

  2. Interesting facts:
    “Yes, the Obama campaign said some months back that the candidate doesn’t seek to re-impose this regulation, which, until Ronald Reagan’s FCC phased it out in the 1980s, required TV and radio broadcasters to give balanced airtime to opposing viewpoints or face steep fines or even loss of license. But most Democrats – including party elders Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and Al Gore – strongly support the idea of mandating “fairness.””

    ” A Rasmussen poll last summer found that fully 47 percent of respondents backed the idea of requiring radio and television stations to offer “equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary,” with 39 percent opposed. Liberals, Rasmussen found, support a Fairness Doctrine by 54 percent to 26 percent, while Republicans and unaffiliated voters were more evenly divided.”

    jcasey, so which one is it then?

  3. Very nice BN–back the unsubstantiated allegations of one blowhard with the equally unsubstantiated allegations of another blowhard.  There is only slightly more attribution in that piece than there is in the Will piece–which is to say not very much. Will, you should remember, did not name one single person of any consequence who is on record as supporting the fairness doctrine. We might also point out, by the way, that Will is on record supporting some kind of ideological balance at institutions of higher learning–and in his article screams about media bias. This guy is only slightly more able than Will. He at least can muster up a poll. If you want to refute the claim that no one supports this, look beyond the right wing commentosphere. Get me the speech by Nancy Pelosi urging and advocating and end to free speech on the radio.

  4. I’m not defending Will’s overall argument. I’m just trying to answer your statement “no one advocates the fairness doctrine“:
    So here are some direct quotes:
    1. Democrat Senior Senator Dianne Feinstein from California (view source)
    2. Democrat Senior Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) (view source)
    3. Pelosi (view source)
    4. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) (view source)
    5. John Kerry (view source)
    6. Dennis Kucinich (view source)

    I mean, if I can’t trust my philosophy professor who can I trust?

    Anyway, Will’s problem is that he’s playing a guessing game once it comes to why some liberals want to bring back the fairness doctrine. And I think here you are spot on. He is definetly guilty of inventing the opponent’s reasons; while in my opinion he does not invent an opponent.

  5. Also, without seeing the poll and how the questions were posed, it is impossible to know whether people were being asked about a generic notion of “fairness” (and who, after all, is opposed to “fairness”?) or an actual reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine. Furthermore, it is unclear how informed the people polled were/are with regards to the doctrine itself, what the various arguments are for or against it, etc. So again, in the absence of a named individual in a position of policy influence explicitly advocating the doctrine, the histrionics of Will and others of the neocon Quisinart (given the circularity of their reasoning, it hardly seems fair to call it a “movement”), the claim bears the earmarks of a “hollow man” fallacy.
    (Recall, BN, that a claim can be true in its conclusion and fallacious in its presentation. Perhaps it is possible to “fill in” Will’s hollow man with a real individual in such a way as to construct a <i>valid</i> claim. But Will does not do this, hence the fallacious nature of his argument.)

  6. I think the Hollow Man is a very useful tool for diagnosis. This sort of fallacy seems even more popular than the straw man. The straw man, at least, shows that the perpetrator is engaging in some sort of dialogue with a real opponent, even if the perpetrator fails to address the opponent’s actual position. The Hollow Man allows the perpetrator to do away with any real dialogue whatsoever. If the above piece by Will is an example of a Hollow Man, then the liberals he refers to do not actually exist. One way to avoid the Hollow Man is to not claim that anyone holds a particular view, but rather to claim that if someone held this view, they would be wrong to do so. If WIll had simply made the argument that the fairness doctrine is bad, and demonstrated that liberals (especially those in power) support the fairness doctrine, then he might have been on to something. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he assumed that the fairness doctrine is bad without any sort of argument, assumed that liberals are in favor of it (when they in fact are not), and concluded that liberals are bad based on these assumptions. Will not only invented his opponent (Hollow Man), but he straw manned the it as well!

  7. BN’s response above got swept up by spam patrol (likely for the links).  Apologies. 

    In any case, while he’s correct to point out that it’s false to say “no one” supports the doctrine, it’s fairly obvious that it’s going nowhere and that no one is seriously interested in it.  While the people in the quotes gathered by BN don’t qualify as nobodies, they don’t exactly say “they’ll be bringing a bill” or that “the bill is coming to floor.”  It’s not, in other words, a serious argument. 

    Double fault then on Will for not even picking on one of these.

    Imagine, however, for a moment if one right wing radio blowhard had to consider an opposing argument.  While perhaps this shouldn’t be a legal requirement, it is minimally a moral and intellectual one.

  8. Then, of course, there’s this:

    “Today, the doctrine has almost no support from media-reform advocates. According to Mark Lloyd, co-author of the CAP report, “I don’t think there’s any movement [to restore the fairness doctrine] at all. … We don’t support it. ” Craig Aaron of the media-reform group FreePress says, “[I]n reality, the fairness doctrine as it existed is never ever coming back.”

    Responses from the offices of most of the Democrats who have been pegged as fairness-doctrine proponents — Schumer, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and others — have ranged from a firm denial that the issue is a priority at all to disbelief at finding themselves at the center of a manufactured controversy. “Somebody plucked this out of the clear blue sky,” says the press secretary for New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat who was questioned about the issue by a conservative radio-show host a few weeks ago. “This is a completely made- up issue.” Senator Durbin’s press secretary says that Durbin has “no plans, no language, no nothing. He was asked in a hallway last year, he gave his personal view”–that the American people were served well under the doctrine–“and it’s all been blown out of proportion.” In fact, as recently as last year, the House voted by an overwhelming three-to-one margin to temporarily prohibit the FCC from imposing the dead policy; 113 Democrats voted to support the move.”


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