The Burning Man Fallacy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

One commits the straw man fallacy when one distorts an interlocutor’s argument or claim in a way that makes it more easily criticized. In effect, one replaces an actual opponent with one made of straw – a new figure that is easily knocked over and who cannot fight back. For example, consider:

Students request that there be a bar on the college campus for informal gatherings and receptions. The administration opposes the bar because they “refuse to subsidize student bacchanalia.”

The problem here is that the request for a bar, even from college students, is not identical to a call for wild, destructive drinking binges. The administration has constructed a straw man of the students’ request.

The straw man fallacy comes in a variety of forms. These range from the standard version captured in the case above, to the selectional weak man, the hollow man, and the iron man. However, a unique kind of straw man is perpetrated when one creates a pastiche of distortions of one’s dialectical opponent – it is not composed simply of a single distortion, but rather a slew of mischaracterizations bent on representing one’s opponents in the worst light. We call this the burning man. In deploying the burning man fallacy, one not only stuffs an opposing figure with straw, but then proceeds to surround it with more tinder and additional flammable material, with the intention of committing the view at issue to the flames, along with whole traditions, movements, and ways of thinking.

One famous example of the burning man is found in Meletus’ exchange with Socrates in Plato’s Apology. Meletus’ charge is that Socrates is a representative of everything wrong with intellectual life in Athens. According to Meletus, Socrates is an impious physicist who holds that the sun and moon are mere stones, that he is not capable of raising children, that he intentionally corrupts those around him, and that he is an atheist. The problem, of course, is that Meletus has depicted Socrates as if he were Anaxagoras the physicist. Meletus has taken a collection of bad representatives of the intellectual climate in Athens and just thrown them all at Socrates. These are all bad things (by hypothesis), but none are accurate with respect to their target, and they are deployed not just for the sake of a criticism of one of Socrates’ views, but for the sake of a full rejection of everything about him. It is less an attempt at conviction along evidential lines, but more through a repudiation of the kind of person that Meletus claims Socrates is.

Let’s turn to a more current example. This tactic of burning the man is common when specific disagreements are tips of icebergs reflecting larger cultural divides. And once a disagreement at hand is seen as a manifestation of the cultural divide, all the bad images of the culture that one abhors now accumulate around one’s dialectical opponent. It happens quickly, and it yields little more than revulsion with those on the other side.

Sean Hannity of Fox News is a master of the burning man. Recently, he presented in one short 10-minute piece a characterization of the “crop of 2020 Democratic hopefuls” as collectively:

pushing to give 16-year-olds the right to vote, even though you can’t drink until you’re 21. They’re promising to stack the Supreme Court so they get enough justices that think their way and will legislate from the bench. And they’re proposing an end to the Electoral College . . . . Government-run health care and complete takeover of the health care industry — yes, run by the state. . . . And government-run education – now they’re going to add pre-K and college education. They haven’t done a better enough job with kindergarten through 12th grade? And they will have government consolidation of all guns and gun laws and government-run clean energy through the government takeover of the energy sector . . . . Government-run universal income, government-paid-for vacation, government-sponsored healthy food

. . . . [T]hey will tell you how to run your business. There will be government promises for everything and for everybody — you’ll never have a worry in the world. But you also will give up all of your freedom.

The strategy here is to collect a set of views – specifically those objectionable to his preferred audience – and pile them together into a heap of disagreeable ideas. His strategy is to show not just that any one of the commitments is wrong, but that they come as a wholesale package of something not to be argued against, but simply reviled. He concludes that:

Democrats don’t share the values of our framers. They want power for themselves, and they want it at all cost . . . . It is a blatant, dramatic, frightening attempt to alter America in ways that will make it unrecognizable and forever destroy the greatest economic wealth creation system in the history of the world.

It’s pretty dramatic stuff, and the rhetorical strategy is to enable the aggregation of outrageous commitments to overwhelm. We’ve already termed the strategy of overwhelming an opponent or audience with ideas, arguments, objections, and proposals as swamping, and the burning man uses much of the same strategy. Instead of one particular line of higher quality reasoning, the sheer quantity of claims, combined with the intensity of outrage that they provoke, takes on a quality of its own.

The burning man, then, not only distracts from the actual claims and arguments given by particular interlocutors, it’s also a way of preventing oneself (and one’s audience) from even hearing those claims and arguments in their non-distorted forms. In repudiating those people as if they were simply a collection of objectionable commitments, one forecloses further exchange with them.

With the burning man, the two general problems with straw man fallacies come into especially tight focus. Not only does one distort the picture of one’s dialectical opponents, but one does so in a way that disables argument with them. If we value a culture of critical exchange, both of these results must be resisted. As another cycle of national political campaigning begins, we ought to be wary of claims about what “the Democrats” or “the Republicans” believe.