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.

6 thoughts on “Friendly fire”

  1. I imagine you’re right, John — to a certain degree. Is the dumbing effect also under-researched? Assuming most participants/observers follow sources of their own ideological inclination, what is the real effect of straw manning from the perspective of the opposition? Do those who identify the straw — with voices seemingly not as loud as the speech of those who buck up the troops — make an actual difference? I’m speculating a lot, but that’s because I would like to know.

    My guess is that it is often more beneficial in the political arena to straw man, even if you, the protagonist, realize your failing and know you might get caught, because the majority of your audience (including the opposition, I speculate again) will ignore any challenges to your argumentation and logic.

    One way of looking at this is how successful (statistically, I suppose) are straw man arguments at achieving their goals? Have there been studies of this sort? If they continue to be successful, then why should a political commentator or official stop using them? “To aspire to some farfetched ideal arena of perfectly rational opponents? Bah! I want to be right/win! I don’t care if my men are made of straw.”

    (Another way of looking at this is as an appeal to more critical thinking education.)

  2. Hi Sean,

    You’re right–straw man arguments are very effective, therefore useful (many of Fox News’s personalities exist pretty much to do this). But the research shows (I’ll dig it up), it’s effective on your friends, but not on your enemies. Most (not all, sadly) will recognize a straw man of their own view, but they’re less inclined to notice it when it’s done to their opponent; indeed, they’re often primed with narratives, authorities, and interpretations of that opponent that make this very hard. If I’m trying to engage my opponent, however, wherever she is, then straw manning will not work.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone’s arguments are good ones. I think in fact the arguments against welfare caricatured above are terrible, just for different, perhaps less dramatic, reasons.

  3. Hi John,


    Now, I’ll assume my opponents recognize a straw man of their own position. But (to take a minor point I made above and make it slightly more significant) aren’t most of my opponents not even listening to me? They don’t watch/read the pundits on my side, so I don’t have to fear much reprisal for my caricaturization of them. Really, I just have to cater to a “large enough” platform that will agree with me. (If I’m in a “small enough” minority, there are probably too many opponents watching me, so I will have to be more diligent with my words.)

    I’m beginning to realize that straw manning is, as you said, very effective and difficult to defeat in the broad, fuzzy world out there. It may only be a matter of finding and keeping the right balance in your audience.

    Has there been any research about the effectiveness of straw manning in situations where the troops pay attention but only some portion of the opposition does? I can imagine that kind of research is hard and maybe inconclusive: you can’t necessarily control what media people naturally follow.

    Is there a field that studies the social/statistical effectiveness of good and bad argumentation? Can we answer questions like: what threshold of a diverse audience will agree me such that I can get elected/be popular on TV?

    Anyway, sorry for the off-topic-ness, but your article got me thinking…

  4. Hi Sean,

    Good points. I imagine the straw manner might be playing a numbers game: she can presuppose the agreement of most of her audience, but she’s banking on the ignorance or convertibility of a marginal slice of listeners (using, perhaps, the crowd’s affirmation of the accuracy of the straw man view).

    On the data, yes. I’ll look for that this afternoon and post it.

  5. Before the Data arrives (later today), I will offer my agreement to what John has said. To persuade someone you have to address their actual argument. Straw manning may rally the troops or win over neutral observers, but it will never convince the other side.

    So yes I am in agreement, and have nothing to add to this discussion.

  6. Hi Sean,

    Now I remember where I saw it: it’s in a paper Scott and I coauthored in 2011. Here’s the relevant passage with the citation:

    Effectiveness of straw man technique fluctuates with the audiences upon whom they are deployed. It is clear that antecedent familiarity with what the arguer’s opponent had said is a factor. Further, there is empirical evidence that personal stake in the outcome can change the scrutiny of straw men arguments. Bizer, Kozak, and Holterman have noted that in testing rhetorical persuasiveness of straw man arguments, ‘‘although the technique was relatively successful among people who lacked motivation to process the message carefully, it was ineffective… or backfired… among people who had such motivation’’ (2009, 225).

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