The Strawman Argument: Information and Examples
Synopsis: Description and examples of strawman fallacy, a fallacious argument that distorts an opposing stance to make it easier to attack. By blowing down the man built of straw - something invented to look like a man but built to be easily destroyed - attention is shifted from the actual point, attracted as attention tends to be to the careless destruction easily created. Political debate is not the only popular place for a strawman fallacy. Blog posts, talk radio and podcasts, and dinner table talk are all other popular places for misrepresenting an argument or opinion to attack an easier target.
A strawman argument, or strawman fallacy, is a fallacious argument that distorts an opposing stance in order to make it easier to attack.
A strawman argument is malicious and clever in that it bends an opposing stance rather than completely ignoring it. It takes the actual point or argument being made and blows it up into something extreme, something related to but not the same as the opponent's point, creating an illusion of debate while inflaming emotions and denying an actual, potentially insightful discussion.
By blowing down the man built of straw - something invented to look like a man but built to be easily destroyed - attention is shifted from the actual point, attracted as attention tends to be to the careless destruction easily created.
Person A: We must focus on peaceful nonviolent solutions.
Person B: So, you would take all funding from the military and leave us at the mercy of our enemies?
Person A: A healthcare system for all is a danger to the free market.
Person B: You don't care that people get sick, and even die, due to their lack of access to healthcare.
Anyone who has attempted to watch or have a political debate has been exposed to a variety of strawman arguments. They are used by politicians and political pundits more, I think, than actual arguments. It is unfortunate how well it works, even as we recognize it being done before our eyes.
Certainly, though, political debate is not the only popular place for a strawman fallacy. Blog posts, talk radio and podcasts, and dinner table talk are all other popular places for misrepresenting an argument or opinion in order to attack an easier target.
Person A: Men are hit left and right with images of sexy women so we shouldn't fault them for thinking about sex so often.
Person B: I can't believe you think we should blame the victim and that women should dress more conservatively if they do not want to be harassed.
Parent: You can't go to the party because you have school the next day.
Teenager: You don't want me to have friends. You don't trust me with my own life.
Because a typical strawman argument invents an extreme position to attack, emotions are quickly heated and sophisticated thinking becomes more challenging; the lizard brain is engaged. Complex thinking is what a strawman tactic intends to avoid.
One way to recognize this sort of fallacy, whether from yourself or another, is in its blanket statement style. "Anti-vaxxers don't care if their kids, and ours, die from diseases we can protect them against." or "Anti-vaxxers are people who claim science gets in the way of their god." Neither of these addresses the true issues brought up by people with questions about vaccines, but they are emotion-inciting statements that incorporate an element of some of the arguments.
A few other examples:
"The opposing party want to take our guns away." In most cases an opposing party is addressing potential reform ideas to existing gun laws.
"They only want to have control over women's bodies." This is often said when someone defends the right to abortion, generally offering several complex reasons.
"The body positive movement is an excuse for being unhealthy." This has been said in response to people advocating for more diverse body types being positively included in our ads and entertainment for a variety of intricate reasons.
A strawman fallacy is used purposely as a tactic in many debates, blog posts, discussions, and essays. But it is also often used because the complexity of an argument or position eludes understanding from the opposing party. To state it more clearly: the opposing party does not comprehend the fullness of an argument but thinks they do.
Person A: We must limit the use of plastic straws but not at the expense of people with disabilities who require them.
Person B: You do not care enough about climate change to use alternative tool.
Many people with disabilities require straws in order to drink and hence will speak up on this point during a debate on single-use plastics, particularly plastic straws. However, the strawman argument then becomes these people do not care enough about climate change. But the reality is many people in the disabled community are more vulnerable to pollution and natural disasters, hence they are often the most passionate advocates with a better idea of what is truly needed regarding climate change.
So, if an opinion is: "A plastic straw for everybody is wasteful, but making certain they are easily available for those who require them encourages a sustainable society." A strawman counter argument might be: "It is necessary for all of us to make changes in the fight for climate justice, but you are unwilling to find a new way and clearly don't care about the urgency."
Some reasons people use a strawman argument:
1) To excite an audience. It is an easy way to avoid an actual debate on an issue and instead create emotional reactions that keep an audience engaged and even enraged.
2) To make your opponent appear ridiculous with their extreme belief.
3) To use the opportunity as a jumping off point for a specific sound bite of your own.
4) As part of a "slippery slope" reasoning. The idea is: if we entertain argument A we will end up at argument B. The problem with using a strawman argument in this case is it jumps to a conclusion based on a misrepresented extreme point rather than engaging in a true intelligent discussion.
5) Sometimes the complexity of an issue, or the experience you need to fully understand it, eludes someone. They end up arguing a strawman because it is how they themselves understood the original point. In other words, it is not always a purposeful tactic but sometimes simply because an argument was not fully comprehended.
In the disability community, for example, there are worthy arguments against legalizing assisted suicide. However, people who are strong advocates for assisted suicide tend to be well-off, able-bodied, and well - fear of becoming disabled, and of becoming chronically unwell, makes it challenging to comprehend the stories told by disabled people who live this way and who know their own lives are being misrepresented as less than, and who know normalized assisted suicide puts them most at risk. Their lives while living them, and their chances of continuing to live them. In short, someone who does not understand what it is to live with a disability, or the complexity of how disabled people know legalized assisted suicide will affect them, might imagine they do. And in so doing, create a strawman fallacy to argue against. Like presuming people with disabilities are afraid that legalizing assisted suicides means their doctors and families might want to get rid of the burden of them. This is not the actual argument being made by most people opposing legalizing assisted suicide, but it is easier to argue and even understand than the complex story being shared.
"Most disability rights advocates who oppose legalized assisted suicide are not afraid that our families are out to get us, or that doctors are lining up to kill us. We are afraid that a society that refuses to expect and to provide for incurable conditions will abandon us and our families after we are no longer of apparent value to society." ~ Carol J. Gill, Ph.D.
"Doctors are lining up to kill us," is the strawman here and is extreme while, "A society that refuses to expect and provide for incurable conditions will abandon us," is complex, requires more thought and understanding.
Why it's important to recognize and avoid using a strawman argument:
When you recognize a fallacy used against your own point or idea, it is worth pointing out. It will help you remain on track with your own position, it may help the person you are debating realize they misunderstood you, and if you have an audience, it will help them understand what you want known.
In your own arguments and idea sharing, as well as that of others, it is of great value to avoid letting a strawman fallacy misguide a discussion or debate. It will help you be a better interpreter of ideas, it will engage and exercise neurons in your brain, it will add legitimacy to your perspective, and it keeps sophisticated careful listening and speaking in practice.
Discussion and debate are practiced skills; hence it is a good idea to practice. Cooperation and growth rely on our ability to communicate our ideas, needs, and rules thoughtfully. Learning to be a clear and candid communicator, and to be an open minded listener, are valuable skills worth continually honing.
In contrast to the strawman fallacy, a steelman argument (also known as steelwoman argument) is the strongest version of an argument, sometimes called the principle of charity. The goal of steelmanning is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to others' statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available.
Gaslighting: Definition, Examples, Recognizing the Abuse
Tsara Shelton, author of Spinning in Circles and Learning From Myself, is a contributing editor to Disabled World. You can also keep up to date with Tsara's latest posts by following @TsaraShelton on X.com.
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Disabled World is an independent disability community founded in 2004 to provide disability news and information to people with disabilities, seniors, their family and/or carers. See our homepage for informative reviews, exclusive stories and how-tos. You can connect with us on social media such as X.com and our Facebook page.
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