One of the many perplexities of the study of argument is that people often (but not of course always) deploy bad arguments to favorable audiences. You don’t straw man an opponent to their face–you do it to people disposed already to find your interpretation acceptable.
This raises an interesting question: I’m guessing that at least sometimes these audiences know that you’re doing it. They know you’re lying to them about your opponent’s view. Do they just not care? Or do they put up with it for “strategic” reasons?
This question came up yesterday in regard to Trump’s constant lying. It turns out, according to one report, that his supporters just do not care. An excerpt:
Robin Pierce, the owner of a menâ€™s clothing store in Newark, said he doesnâ€™t think anybody wiretapped Trump. But Pierce, 70, was almost gleeful as he offered an explanation for Trumpâ€™s claim.
â€œI think Trump just did that to freak them out â€” they were giving him bad times, so he gave them bad times. Mess with their brains,â€ he said.
He broke into a loud laugh.
â€œI like that,â€ he said. â€œBecause weâ€™ve had so much crap in Washington for years, and now we have someone shaking â€™em up really good.â€
Well, this is not reassuring. But here’s some research on point:
This research â€” and those stories â€” highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but weâ€™re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial â€” compassionate, empathic, generous, honest â€” in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence â€” and socially sanctioned deceit.
â€œPeople condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,â€ saidÂ George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the countryâ€™s leading scholars of the presidency.
Unsurprisingly, people who tend to view these issues as a part of a contest or argument-as-war narrative are likely to act accordingly. This means foregrounding group-cohesion or coherence of a simple message has higher strategic value than getting some opponent’s view just right.