The moment we distort a person’s intention, statement, gesture or action for our own personal gain we are using, consciously or unconsciously, the straw man argument − a frequent fallacy.
The straw man argument is a centuries-old sophism, mentioned in Aristotle’s writings. The term “straw man”, however, began being used only mid-twentieth century. The argument is often used in any field (even if the media gives us the feeling that it is mostly being used in politics), because it’s always easier to erroneously present your opponent’s statement or to exaggerate it in order to attack it, than to prove your own position with logical arguments. For instance, X says that the state apparatus is oversized and a downsizing of the number of public servants is in order, and Y confutes him by saying X wishes to see public servants starving to death. Another example would be: the public figure P admits before the press that he/she is a practicing believer. The analyst A comments on P’s statement, saying that they’re dealing with a person who believes in superheroes, magic and superstitions. By distorting P’s statements, A used the straw man argument.
Nevertheless, this fallacy is not reduced just to turning certain affirmations into hyperbolae, in order for them to be easier to confute. This can also be used in reverse, by trivializing an opponent’s affirmations to escape the difficulty of justifying the debated problem. In 1952, while running for office as vice-president of the United States of America, Richard Nixon was accused of using large amounts of money from the campaign fund for personal use.
Later on, Nixon made the following comment in a public speech: “There was a puppy cocker spaniel in the box. (…) Back with white spots. Our youngest daughter (…) named him Checkers. And the children, like all children, love this dog and I would like to say that, regardless of what the critics have to say on the matter, we will keep him.”
Evidently, Nixon’s critics were not referring to the dog received as a gift, but his answer influenced the public to a great extent and helped Nixon win those elections.
I am positive that, following the examples, most of us have realized how often we come across this sophism, either if it’s being used against us or even by us.
Apparently practical, but immoral
Using this fallacy is tempting. It’s the easy way to escape difficult situations, but it’s definitely not the right one. In a speech, we must use solid arguments, based on concrete information, not on rhetorical or logical tricks. Even if used often because it’s considered to be a popular persuasion tool, this fallacy is not fair for the opponent and it can lead to the loss of credibility of the one using it in front of a certain part of the public which may be able to identify it. We should also point out that this technique may fail and may backfire on the one using it. In situations where the public is interested in the debated themes and resorts to the critical inspection of affirmations, the straw man argument tends to fail.1
How do we confute the straw man argument?
The best way to confute the straw man fallacy is to express ourselves in a clear manner, so as not to leave room for interpretation and to hinder the effort to distort the affirmations we’ve made. Secondly, in case the straw man argument is being used, we can react in two manners. The first one involves accepting the challenge of the sophistic argument and picking up the speech from the altered statement. This option is sometimes useful because it may cause the opponent to get tangled up in his own false arguments. However, one should bear in mind that such an option may be interpreted by the ones witnessing the discussion as a confirmation of the ungrounded and manipulating accusation, and it may thus become difficult to argue that the opponent was using a wrong reasoning.
The second and most useful manner is to confute the straw man argument on the spot, to repeat our stance and to unequivocally show why this is not consistent with the opponent’s affirmation. A good self-defense method is to invite the opponent to clarify the way in which he interpreted our affirmation – what exactly in our speech made him use such a fallacy.
We must point out that the straw man argument may also be used unintentionally, due to misunderstanding someone’s statements, gestures or actions. For a good discussion it’s elegant to explain the fallacy before we confute it. This way the opponent is given the opportunity to correct himself and to present another counterargument.
In case we made an exaggerated statement without realizing it, it’s necessary not to overlook it and, at the first occasion, to set the record straight and offer a new and correct perspective on the previously faulty statement. In order to avoid these kind of situations from the beginning, it’s useful to make sure we understood the interlocutor’s position correctly. We can always ask whether we understood his message correctly and, only when he approves, we can resume our statement. Such a conduct leads to a civilized and productive discussion, based on a real desire to have a rational debate, one which is not dominated by personal interest but by an honest quest for the truth.