Tag Archives: Straw Man

Straw Sorbo

Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame and other entertainment ventures of playing a philosophy professor) has given a kind of critique of the California Coronavirus lockdown rules. Governor Gavin Newsom had imposed a 10PM curfew as numbers of infections had risen sharply in the last weeks. Sorbo, critiquing the rule, tweeted:

The folks at Breitbart thought it was fuggin’ hilarious. The joke, as I understand it, is that the hour of 10:00 is the threshold, and Sorbo narrowly avoided it. Of course, for the joke to actually criticize the curfew, you’d have to think that the curfew’s justification hung on things being radically different between 9:59 and 10:01. But that’s not what the justification for the rule is. The justification is that whatever happens later than usual dinner hours is unnecessary and likely more risky. And so, the penumbral zone between normal dinner hours (5:00 to 8:00?) and not (later than 9:00?) will admit of some relatively arbitrary line-drawing if we have to do it. Assuming there needed to be a curfew, the line was drawn at 10, likely to give as much room to err on the side of tolerance. (That’s how vagueness stuff works, right?)

So the joke works as a kind of straw man, then. Instead of constructing the reasons and attributing them to your straw man, and then turning to criticize them, one just announces a criticism — and the felicity conditions for that criticism produces the shitty reasons all by themselves. Clever!

The thing here is that this straw man argument is just so clearly crappy, and the joke sucks. So why did the folks at Breitbart love it so? (And Sorbo’s Twitter followers loved it, too.) This is what John and I in the new book on the Straw Man (now with a press, and we’ll see how things go!) have called the EFFECTIVENESS PUZZLE about straw man arguments. How in the world do they work when they very clearly misattribute the reasons criticized? We’ve got a whole variety of answers to this puzzle, but the big idea with this case is this: this straw man is not erected to be criticized for the sake of folks who sympathize with the lockdown rules — it’s erected and knocked down for the sake of an audience who already opposes those rules.

That is, the audience for this straw man already is committed to the fact that the rules are stupid and mere exercises of power. They are not out to convince anyone of anything, but to express an already held commitment and share it. Let’s call it the EXPRESSIVE ROLE of straw manning — it’s like a shared gripe session about one’s political foes with one’s allies. You mock up a picture of the hated ones and just beat it up together. And it doesn’t matter if the mock up accurately depicts the opposition or their reasons — it just matters that everyone in your audience already agrees that they are wrong, stupid, laughable, and need to be opposed. So with these kind of straw man arguments, the inaccuracy of the representation of the other side is beside the point — the negativity of the depiction is the point.

Of course, you can see that this is the case with Sorbo’s later tweet:

Err… it did work. Infection rates went down. Remember all that ‘flatten the curve’ business in the spring? To think that ‘worked’ meant that the virus was eradicated is, well, to get the situation all wrong. But that’s a whole other kind of intentional misinterpretation, isn’t it?

I don’t agree with this, but. . .

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election there were countless takes about how it was a repudiation of elites and liberals who didn’t take working class white people‘s concerns seriously. In the ensuing years, enterprising journalists from every corner have done the Cletus Safari, as Ed Burmila calls it, where they venture into some diner in a dying Midwestern Rust Belt town to hear the denizens’ concerns over immigration or political correctness. After years of this kind of reporting appearing in the New York Times and all, some newspaper editors seem to believe that if you live in the Midwest, you’re white (and maybe eat 10-egg breakfasts at a diner). One political editor at the New York Times said as much.

Now there seems to be an argumentative version of the Cletus Safari. Tom Scocca, writing today at Salon, identifies the form. While the journalistic version consists in filling the pages of the paper with reporting on the thoughts and impressions of all of those forgotten people no one hears from, the argumentative version summons these impressions into a point of view that occupies some important dialectical space. Scocca writes:

At the end of June, after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got criticized for writing this passage:

What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t.

This was straightforwardly in the spirit of what the accused El Paso gunman would write, about “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” But Stephens, a self-styled Never Trumper who claims to be offended by the president’s vulgarity and bigotry, didn’t believe he had written any such thing. In a follow-up column, calling his critics “Jacobins” and their complaints “preposterous,” and comparing himself to the target of Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate, he explained that people had willfully misunderstood his effort “to channel the negative way ‘ordinary people’ might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates.”

Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).

I often think that all argument is really meta-argument. Your moves are moves about moves in arguments as much as they are moves within an argument. The straw man (hollow man version actually) illustrates this point nicely. It’s like you’re saying: “By bringing up these racist ideas, I’m not asserting them, I’m merely making sure the argument we are having is conducted with respect to both sides.” Stephens should get extra points for invoking the very meta “free speech” defense, where a criticism of a view is conflated with the idea that the view shouldn’t be heard at all.

It’s all extra meta because Stephens casts himself as adjudicating the middle ground between people with racist ideas (not him!) and other (equally made up) people whose sole obsession is political correctness and silencing free speech. It’s a double straw man, with Stephens right in the reasonable middle.

Interestingly, this move–the straw man argument invoked to establish a bothsiderist meta position, was identified by Whately in his 1855 Elements of Logic. Aware that spectators of arguments often don’t pay careful attention to what they’re seeing or hearing, it is often enough, as he points out, to suggest there is some view without having to put it into any particular detail. The point of invoking the unattended or ignored view is not to examine it, but to force conciliation or some kind of draw in the minds of the onlooker (pp.241-242).

*I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, thanks for listening.

The cure is worse than the disease

Image result for the horse's mouth

The intuition that political polarization is caused by lack of access to dissenting views has much to recommend it. First of all, if you don’t know what these views are, you can’t learn about them. Second, if you only know strongly dialectical or distorted (straw man) versions of them, you’re unlikely to find your opponents to be reasonable people with plausible views. The obvious antidote to this would seem to be to sit and listen to dissenting voices in their own words.  Let’s call this view, “the horse’s mouth” Looking into the horse’s mouth will have a moderating effect; for,  people are eminently reasonable, so if you just listen to them in their own reasonable words you’ll be compelled to admit that (and so abandon your polarized, straw man versions of their view).

Now comes science to spoil everyone’s intuitions. Some political scientists have tested whether this decreases polarization. The long and the short of it is that it doesn’t and it may (though this result was within the margin of error) increase it. From their paper:

Social media sites are often blamed for exacerbating political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. We conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views. Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant. Despite several limitations, this study has important implications for the emerging field of computational social science and ongoing efforts to reduce political polarization online.

This is disappointing in part because things were looking good for the horse’s mouth view. For it has recently been shown that another representationalist paradox–the backfire effect–had failed to replicate. In the “backfire effect” study, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that attempts to correct mistaken information would backfire in certain circumstances. The idea, in other words, is that exposure to facts is not sufficient for correction and may in fact make one retrench.

Naturally, we should be cautious with such results, as the authors themselves warn:

Although our findings should not be generalized beyond party-identified Americans who use Twitter frequently, we note that recent studies indicate this population has an outsized influence on the trajectory of public discussion—particularly as the media itself has come to rely upon Twitter as a source of news and a window into public opinion (47).

In closing here I might venture a hypothesis for why people didn’t moderate their view. Prominent politicians on Twitter, from what I’ve observed, produce content for a partisan audience.  Often that partisan audience is already polarized and it isn’t particularly well-informed. Content that appeals to them, viewed by an observer, might only tend to confirm the worst views about them.  If you see a bunch of tweets urging you to “lock her up,” you can hardly be blamed for thinking them to be idiots.

Self straw manning

Image result for straw man

This is a continuation of Scott’s post from yesterday, where he observed that you can perform a kind of self straw man. You say something vague, knowing that you’re going to be “misinterpreted” and then you complain that you have been misinterpreted.

This kind of move–and I’ll give a slightly more subtle version of this in a moment–nicely illustrates the Owl of Minerva Problem for fallacy theory. The Owl of Minerva problem, as Scott and Robert Talisse describe it over at 3 Quarks Daily, runs like this:

But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

The introduction of a metavocabulary will change the way we argue and it will, inevitably, become a thing we argue about.  The theoretical question is whether there is any distinction between the levels of meta-argumentation. The practical question is whether there is anything we can do about the seemingly inexorable journey to meta-argumentation. I have a theory on this but I’ll save that for another time.

Now for self straw manning.  This is a slightly more subtle version of yesterday’s example. Here’s the text (a bit longish, sorry) from a recent profile of Sam Harris by Nathan J.Robinson.

A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam,[4] but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.[5]

Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.[6]

It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?

Sam Harris is certainly a divisive figure. I’d also venture to guess that he is smart enough to know his audience, some of whom (such as Robinson here above) strongly disagree with him. He might be expected, therefore, for the purposes of having a productive debate, to make his commitments absolutely clear. This would involve, one would hope, avoiding bombastic utterances bound to provoke strong reactions or misinterpretations.

But, crucially, arguments are not always about convincing new people to adhere to your view, but to strengthen the attitudes of your followers. It seems to me that just such a tactic as the self-straw man is ideal. You get an opponent (cleverly, this case) to embody the very stereotype of the unreasonable, ideology-driven mismanager of fallacy vocabulary by setting up a straw man of your own view for them. They’re drawn to that but not to your qualifications and so the trap closes.

It’s all interpretation

There seems like there should be a name for the dialectical trap of saying something controversial, but then acting hurt that those who object to it interpreted it as controversial.  Talisse and I called a very closely related stategy spitballing, that of covering the dialectical space with too many things to respond to.   Consider the following case.  President Trump has been the target of a defamation lawsuit by Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump years ago.  Daniels’ lawsuit has been dismissed, and Trump goes to Twitter:

So he calls Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ when announcing the case is dropped. The President has a long history of saying nasty things about womens’ appearances, so he was asked about it by the AP in a recent interview.

Trump also did not back down from derisively nicknaming porn actress Stormy Daniels “horseface” hours earlier.

He says “you can take it any way you want,” when asked if it was appropriate to insult a woman’s appearance.

Such an off-base reply.  The question wasn’t what the statement meant, but whether the President stands by the statement given what it clearly means.  Moreover, what are the options for my preferences to interpret this statement, to begin with?  Is there another option, perhaps less misogynistic, to interpreting calling a woman ‘horseface’ to be a way of maligning her looks?  Maybe it’s a shorthand that rich guys use to show that they know someone who looks like they own horses… you say “Ah, Sterling… he clearly has a wonderful set of stallions at home… see his regal horseface?”  But still hard to take it in these lights when the expression is next to calling Danels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, a “third rate lawyer”.

The question is what’s the problem?  Here’s a shot.  The problem is along two lines.  The first is just that it’s a form of incorrigibility — you get caught doing something that someone objects to, and even if you think it is fine even under their interpretation, you just say they are interpreting it all wrong.  So this is the ‘out of context’ play with verbal indiscretion — you make the game of nailing down exactly what you said just more costly than what’s worth the points of making the objection.  In this case, making explicit what the problem is, what the interpetive options are, and so on, is just more work than is worth it.  (At least for the reporters… I’m an academic… this is my JAM!)

The second part is the trap element.  The trap is as follows — if Trump has said that we can interpret the claim as we see fit, if we interpret it as offensive, that’s evidence that we’ve chosen to interpret the claim as something bad.  But who would do such a thing, except someone who suffers from an irrational, uncivil bias?  And so, by saying that this unqualifiedly objectionable piece of language can be taken as we wish, Trump, by his lights, is testing us for whether we choose to blindly resist him on everything and act all offended when we do that, or we just see that Stormy Daniels is as ugly as he thinks she is, and we agree.

But the point, again, is the trap — once you choose to be offended by interpreting his statement in the offensive way — how is he really responsible for the objectionable stuff.  The only apology he would owe, then, would be that he’s sorry that people can’t help themselves but to interpret him in a nasty way all the time.

With charges of straw man, those who make the challenge take on particular dialectical burdens.  One of them is to point out how the view that’s been straw manned is not only better than the representation, but that better view was accessible to those who performed the straw man.  Namely, that a reasonable interpretation was available that did not suffer from the problems with the represented view.  But here’s the problem with the Trump case here with the trap — he hasn’t offered any alternative that’s a reasonable interpretation that’s not misogynistic.   Not a surprise, really.  But it’s useful for the theory of fallacy.