Straw Man fallacy

I. Definition

The Straw Man fallacy, also been called the Aunt Sally argument in Great Britain, creates an illusion, based on erroneous reasoning. A person introducing a “straw man” changes the subject of the original argument in order to distract his or her opponent and argues about the deceptively substituted idea instead of the original point.

The new argument is often, although not necessarily, a gross generalization, oversimplification, or exaggeration of the point originally brought to the table. Just as a physical Straw Man in a farmer’s field is meant to scare away vermin, the Straw Man argument is also a ruse that lacks substance but appears valid if one does not examine it closely.

The construction of the Straw Man is as follows:

  • Person 1 presents position X.
  • Person 2 substituted a technically irrelevant argument Y as if it determines the truth of X
  • Person 2 gets person 1 to argue about Y instead of X
  • Person 2 wins argument Y, appearing to win argument X

II.Examples in Politics and Media

Examples in Politics

The Straw Man fallacy is common in modern political debates. It is used most often in emotionally charged situations where a politician is trying to defeat an opponent and win voter loyalty by inciting the emotions of the audience. In televised debates, where there is a time crunch, their response can serve as a way to waste time and let the clock tick down to zero, similarly to an offensive line kneeling with the football in the last minutes of a game, in order to wait out the clock without giving the other team a chance to score. That time as the clock ticks down can be used by politicians to quickly incite their base, so it may not matter to them if what they say has any actual relevance to the topic at hand.

One Straw Man argument could be based on arguments for banning guns in schools. Instead of arguing why guns should be allowed in schools, an opponent could suggest that the pro-ban debater wants to repeal the 2nd Amendment, the right to bear arms. Then, he or she would argue all the reasons why the 2nd Amendment should not be abolished instead of addressing the issue of guns in schools.  Although the two topics are arguably related, arguing for gun bans is not literally arguing for changes in the constitution.

This technique can make the victim (the argumentative opponent) flustered and shaken and if they go down the rabbit hole to argue against the Straw Man, it may appear to the uninformed viewer that the substituted topic is a valid one.

An example of this in the modern political climate could be Senator A stating that we cannot afford to add funds to the defense budget at this time (argument X). Senator B then says that Senator A wants to leave the country defenseless (argument Y), and goes on to argue about all the reasons why the nation needs defense. In conclusion, Senator B wins, perhaps passing a bill that adds funds to the defense budget despite the fact that the country cannot it; Senator B managed to win without actually arguing about the financial issue with the policy.

Examples during Debates

During the 2016 debates, Donald Trump, knowing that immigration was a hot topic at the time,said that Hillary Clinton was for open borders. Of course “open borders” is not the same thing as immigration. Then Trump went on to attack this Straw Man of his own creation explaining why open borders is a dangerous situation in the age of terrorism. Clinton had previously stated in discussions with a Brazilian bank that she was for open borders in relation to trade and energy, not immigration.

Hillary Clinton also stated that Bernie Sanders intended to dismantle Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. This exaggeration disguised as an oversimplification conveniently left out his plans to rebuild Medicare and the Affordable Care Act in the form of a universal health care system. Thus, the implication that Sanders would destroy those systems for good was a Straw Man.

The average voter does not typically examine political candidates’ statements closely during their campaigns, so the Straw Men tend to work. People, for the most part, hold onto emotionally charged sound bites about certain candidates and that’s what they take into the voting booth. And the 24-hour news cycle further drills those sound bites into their everyday consciousness.

Examples in Film, Theater, and Advertising

Although the Straw Man shows up predominantly in politics, it’s been represented in the arts over the years. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle returns to the village from the Beast’s lair and shows the Beast to the villagers in the magic mirror. She explains that he is gentle and kind (the true argument). Gaston, having failed to win her heart, jealously declares that Belle is as crazy as her father (the Straw Man) and says that the Beast plans to destroy the village. This instills fear into the villagers and gets them to rally against the Beast.

Straw Men also appear everywhere in advertising. The “Where’s the Beef?” campaign put out by the fast food chain, Wendy’s, in 1984, is a good example. The proper argument would be, naturally, that Wendy’s food is better tasting, healthier, and / or more affordable.  But they never demonstrate any of these things in the ads. Instead, they create the myth that their competitors don’t put enough meat on their hamburgers (the Straw Man) by showing representations of their competitors’ burgers—poor, pathetic looking hamburger patties barely visible between the buns. Then, they make the case that they have the biggest patties of them all with images of hamburger patties spilling out from between the bread complete with fresh lettuce and tomatoes.



 

III. Origin of the Straw Man Argument

The Straw Man fallacy has only been described as such in print since the 1950s, but the concept has been around since Aristotle. In Topics Aristotle mentions “that in argument, it would be inappropriate to interpret as someone’s position an opinion that he did not express or is not committed to, in virtue of what he said.”



 

IV. How to Avoid Engaging in the Straw Man Argument

When encountering a Straw Man argument, the best thing you can do is stick to your guns. Stay on a straight line. Make sure to use clear, precise language when stating your argument for the original position X. When the opponent attempts to change the subject to argument Y, call them out – perhaps, even pointing out the Straw Man – and explain to them what a Straw Man is. Going down the rabbit hole of arguing against position Y can be a slippery slope. Any amount of time wasted arguing against the Straw Man can be misconstrued as giving a kind of validity to it. Precise language and constant, firm, re-stating of the original argument can make it more difficult for the opponent to take words out of context or substitute words to help their argument.

In A Rulebook for Arguments, Anthony Weston holds that sympathy is a good quality to have when dealing with Straw Man arguments – because a Straw Man may indicate that your opponent and you do not actually agree on the essential point beinig argued over: “Generally, people advocate a position for serious and sincere reasons. Try to figure out their view—try to understand their reasons—even if you disagree entirely . . . In general, if you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you probably just don’t understand it yet.” Even if it is a Straw Man you’re up against, it should be advantageous to understand why the opponent set up that particular Straw Man and how it relates to the original topic. Straw Men are meant to catch you off guard, so the best defense comes with remaining calm, rooted, and collected.

 

Quiz

1.
Are liberals or conservatives more likely to make a Straw Man argument?

a.

b.

c.

d.

2.
In Great Britain, the Straw Man fallacy is also referred to as:

a.

b.

c.

d.

3.
The idea behind the Straw Man argument was first alluded to by which philosopher?

a.

b.

c.

d.

4.
What is the most effective way to avoid a Straw Man argument?

a.

b.

c.

d.

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