The Cunning Linguist: Man of straw, feet of clay

Image via Thinkstock
Image via Thinkstock

How to avoid misrepresenting your opponents

By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor

If the stereotypes are to be believed, online forums are little more than dung-smeared gladiatorial arenas where the illiterate masses hurl insults at one another morning, noon, and night—not the best place for an intellectual debate. But millennials consume more Internet media than anyone in history, so tons of important conversations are consequently evolving out there in the blogosphere. In order to make this new venue a useful one, it is important for aspiring keyboard warriors to understand the fundamentals of logical argument. Today’s lesson: the Strawman Fallacy.

Obviously, nobody likes to be wrong, but arguments don’t necessarily exist to decide what is right or wrong. In an academic setting, arguments are meant to further collective understanding of a subject. To do this, people have to argue both for and against that subject without letting their egos get involved. From this, it follows that, although you may prefer your position, you must be open to criticism from other perspectives.

Those who do not like being criticized often misrepresent their opponents’ claims in order to more easily refute them. This is what’s known as the Strawman Fallacy, so called because it is similar to beating up on a straw dummy. The dummy can’t fight back, so you look like the obvious winner, when you are not actually fighting your real opponent. These arguments are easy to construct, but also easy to dismantle.

Say you propose the argument that the government should increase funding for construction projects. In response, your opponent jumps down your throat, claiming that you must want to defund social welfare to accomplish this. That is a Strawman Fallacy because you never specified from where the money was being repurposed. Your opponent is trying to divert the argument to another topic by assigning opinions to you that don’t accurately reflect your position.

Dealing with Strawman arguments is usually a simple affair. In most cases you only need to restate your points and call out your opponent for being intellectually dishonest. However, there are those who think they are adept logicians but are really just jerking off. I like to call them “Master Debaters.” They will accuse you of Strawmanning them the moment you point out the critical flaw in their reasoning, even though your observation was absolutely correct.

Dealing with these people is difficult because it can lead to Strawman fights, where both parties continue accusing one another of misrepresentation with no end in sight. The best way to avoid that is to be judicious in your use of the Strawman accusation and to be cautious not to use it reflexively when your opponent really has found a glitch in your thinking. That just makes you look like a tosser.

Being humble is one of the hardest things in the world to do, especially about our deeply held beliefs. That’s why logic is the great equalizer. It doesn’t care who you are or how hard you believe in something. It only cares about your ideas. The most important element of an argument is to be honest—not just with your opponent, but with yourself. If you misrepresent your opponent, you are only demonstrating that your ideas cannot stand on their own merits. And if that’s the case, why believe in them to begin with?