When I wrote about fallacies last week, I had a moment of hesitation when it came time to describe the straw-man fallacy. Why? Because the Internet has a habit of misusing the words “straw-man fallacy” in the same way that most people misuse the word “literally.”
A straw-man is a deliberate misrepresentation of another person’s argument. It is not synonymous with “argument I don’t like.” That’s how most people on the Internet use it. “You’re wrong about ______. It’s a straw-man.”
Sorry. You’ve mislabeled the fallacy. No million dollars for you, but you do get a lifetime’s supply of Turtle Wax and this beautiful handbag as parting gifts. A straw-man is not an argument that happens to be wrong. When the Catholic Church said, “No, Galileo, the Sun goes around the Earth. You can see it with your own eyes,” they were were wrong, but it wasn’t a straw-man.
Let’s review the straw-man fallacy once again.
A straw-man is a deliberate misrepresentation of another person’s argument. It is not what happens when you don’t understand another person’s argument. This is what a straw-man looks like. And just for fun, I’ll make it a straw-man conservative.
Mr. Republican: “I believe this tax cut will lead to more economic growth and therefore better living conditions for our low-income neighbourhoods.”
Mr. Democrat: “Ladies and gentlemen, my opponent wants to take away the assistance programs that are keeping low-income families from falling into abject poverty. He cares nothing for the poor and is actively working to keep them down.”
You can’t infer that someone hates the poor just because they want a tax cut. A straw-man is a relevance fallacy. A person’s views on taxation and poverty are related in only the most incidental way. You can make the argument that a tax cut will only make things worse for the poor; that’s fine. But you can’t infer Mr. Republican’s views on the poor from this one statement alone.
Mr. Democrat’s argument is an attempt to make Mr. Republican look like a monster so that people won’t vote for him. It’s a deliberate misrepresentation. That’s a straw-man.
Now, let’s continue with what a straw-man is not.
Suppose Mr. Democrat pulls up Mr. Republican’s voting record. And he learns that during his last term in office, Mr. R voted against extending unemployment benefits for low-income families, voted against health-care programs for low-income households. Suppose the voting record shows that the tax cuts Mr. R supported largely benefit the wealthy while simultaneously resulting in higher layoffs and fewer benefits for working-class families.
Suppose Mr. D took all this information and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, my opponent does not care about the poor.”
That is not a straw-man.
Because he’s not misrepresenting Mr. R. Even though Mr. Republican has not directly stated his views on the poor, you can infer what those views might be from consistent patterns in the voting record. It logically follows that someone who consistently supports policies that benefit the wealthy while undermining the poor is not interested in helping low-income families.
You can criticize the logical implications of your opponent’s arguments – even if your opponent is not aware of these implications – so long as you can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that these implications follow from statements your opponent has actually made.
“But reasonable doubt is subjective.”
Yes, that’s true. So there is a certain amount of subjectivity in whether or not something is a straw-man. But the fallacy applies when your argument is an obvious, deliberate misrepresentation of your opponent’s argument. Stop misusing the term!
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