The fake straw man

Typically, a straw man argument is some kind of misrepresentation (by selection, by distortion, or by invention) in order to conclude that some alternative position is stronger by comparison. We often think that last part–that some alternative position is stronger–is the key move. You use a straw man to go somewhere else with the argument.

So, for instance, “the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is communism,” distorts the ACA in favor of a more sensible, non-communist version.

This morning I was struck by an account of a strategic use of distortion that skips the last, crucial step in straw manning: the sensible alternative. Here it is:

For context, this self-retweet is meant to characterize President Trump’s approach to revisions (rather, alleged revisions) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The argument runs: NAFTA is bad (for exaggerated reasons), engage in a lengthy back-and-forth, NAFTA is fixed (when it’s the same).

You can see from the example that the distortion is almost entirely self-enclosed. In the first stage, it presents a distorted account of the current realty. So far, that’s very straw manny. But, rather than offering an allegedly more sensible alternative, it offers a second distortion, which takes us back to a non-distorted version of the status quo.

This version–I don’t know what to call it–retains all of the puffery of the standard versions: look at how dumb my opponents are! And it doubles that puffery by turning the exchange entirely into a show about how awesome you are.  You’re not as awesome if you have to share the credit with someone else.

Perhaps the more precise account is this: you distort an interlocutor’s position so that you can occupy the non-distorted version. So, the alternative position is strong enough as it is. The only problem is who is occupying it–not you. You have to steal it. To do that, you have to trick your opponent into leaving it.

There are some natural advantages to this. It’s easier to occupy an already constructed position than to make up a new one. Just ask the Great Horned Owl.  There’s got to be a real estate version of this scam. The closest I can find is the real estate practice of blockbusting, where unscrupulous developers scarred white people out of their homes in order to resell them at much higher prices to black families.

3 thoughts on “The fake straw man”

  1. This thread brings to mind a stage magician, performing an act in which an elephant is seen to disappear from the stage. The audience is in fact looking at a reflect in a mirror which drops in a puff of smoke. The audience knows at some level that it’s a trick but is willing to suspend disbelief — and if a guy in the audience starts yelling out, “It’s a trick! It’s just mirrors”, he’s the bad guy. More relevant to this sort of political distortion, sometimes people operate based upon faith, or trust, or wishful thinking, give little to no thought to the logic behind their belief, and may resent the heck out of anybody who introduces a reality check.

    I think that the analogy to the con job is correct, but that it is important to also consider the set-up: the effort that precedes the con through which the confidence man and his shills trick the mark into trusting the con man and distrusting other (actual) authorities or even the mark’s own experience.

    The set-up involves the use of distortions and fallacious reasoning (e.g., appeals to spite, appeals to ridicule) to make the marks think of the would-be interlocutor as untrustworthy, such that anything that the would-be interlocutor might claim is discounted or disregarded (“fake news!”) Once the set-up is complete, the interlocutor is effectively excluded from the conversation.

  2. Aaron, I think you’re on to something here about the audience asking to be deceived. I think that’s a critical feature of this move.

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