On Straw Men and Their Audiences

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The straw man fallacy admits of a wide variety of forms, ranging from what we’ve called the weak man, to the burning man, and even to the iron man. What makes all these different forms instances of the same general kind is the dialectical core of the fallacy – the misrepresentation of the argumentative state of play between contesting sides. In most cases, one side is represented as argumentatively worse off than they actually are (though, in cases of iron-manning, one improves an interlocutor’s case). Again, it is this dialectical core that makes straw man fallacies as a class distinct from, say, fallacies of relevance like ad hominem abusive or arguments from pity. In fact, what’s interesting about straw man arguments is that they are, really, arguments about arguments. In other words, when we argue, we can commit particular kinds of fallacies, but unique kinds of fallacies occur when we reason about how we reason. They are fallacies rooted in and made possible by our meta-cognition.

A longstanding, and perhaps obvious, problem with straw man arguments is that when they are presented to the target of the straw-manning, they typically are ineffective. We generally can tell when an interlocutor has misrepresented our view. The straw man directed at you at best can function as a signal that your argument is hard to understand or that your interlocutor is dense, but when a straw man of your view is presented to you it is unlikely to change your mind about how things stand. One wonders, then, how straw man arguments function. Our answer is that straw men arguments do their rhetorical work not on the speaker depicted as made of straw, but rather on an audience of argumentative onlookers, often selected specifically for the argument by the straw-manner.

Consider the following instance of straw man arguments in currency. US President Donald Trump has consistently portrayed his Democratic rival for the 2020 election, Joe Biden, as having supported a program of defunding the police in the aftermath of police killing Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among many others. In fact, Joe Biden has not supported these measures, and has instead proposed plans for police reform.

No one familiar with Biden’s position on the matter will be moved by Trump’s representation of his views in the following tweet.

Again, this highlights the curious feature of straw-man arguments – the target of the straw man argument is bound to see the purported criticism as misplaced, even fabricated. However, although straw man arguments are posed as criticisms directed towards one’s interlocutor, they are actually are aimed at third parties, an audience that is either antecedently disposed to accept the straw man version of the interlocutor, or else sufficiently unfamiliar with the matter in dispute to fall for the misrepresentation. The key is that the straw man argument requires that its audience either not know or not care that there is an ill fit between the representation of the opponent’s view and what the opponent’s view actually is. Relying on one side of the dispute to supply an account of what the other side thinks is a recipe for all-too-convenient distortions.

Next notice a further thing about this particular instance of straw man – it depends on its audience vehemently rejecting the plan of defunding the police. For a large majority of Republicans, the proposal to defund the police is a bridge too far, effectively a proposal of anarchism. (And it is worth noting that Biden has thrown the accusation back at Trump, with this same audience’s views in mind.) But it should be clear that Biden’s own moderate position in the debate is one of consternation among progressives in the Democratic Party. In fact, were Biden to propose a defunding program, it would be enthusiastically embraced by a good many progressive voters.

The lesson, then, is that straw man arguments work not by tricking an interlocutor into accepting a distortion of their view, but rather by addressing a selected audience of onlookers.  Moreover, straw man arguments select their target audiences in two ways. First, the audience must be listeners who will not register the difference between the misrepresentation of the opposition presented in the debate and the actual views of the opposition. Second, the argument must select the audience that will view the constructed view and argument as worse, instead of better, than the actual view or argument of the target of straw-manning. When Trump straw-mans Biden on police reform, with the defunding accusation, he does so for an audience who must see this as a bad plan rather than a good one.

Note a further upshot. When straw man arguments succeed, they convince an audience that the opposition is so benighted, dishonest, untrustworthy, or unreasonable that one may simply disregard what they say. This has two related effects. First, attempts by the straw-maned interlocutor to correct the distortion are bound to fail, simply because those who have fallen for the straw man are either no longer listening, or are no longer disposed to trust what the interlocutor says. Second, once the target audience has accepted the straw man depiction of the opposition, one has free rein to construct further and even more outrageous distortions. As we noted with the burning man problem, straw men breed quickly. Often there’s little that can be done to defend oneself except to respond in kind, by manufacturing more straw men. Accordingly, even those who want to play fair and address actual issues in dispute are thus dragged into the straw-manning game.

Straw man arguments seem ubiquitous, and though it is clearly bad news overall, there is a slice of good news in them. In criticizing others’ reasoning, we show a care for good reasoning. Straw man arguments would be impotent were we not to value cogent arguments and share tools for criticizing arguments that fail those standards. The bad news, of course, is that we all too regularly fail these norms, both in reasoning about things, but also in reasoning about how others reason.

As we argue in our new book, Political Argument in a Polarized Age, the rule of thumb is simple: don’t instantaneously accept your own side’s depiction of the other side’s views. Go to the source instead. However, in the political context, the trouble is that with Election Day looming, candidates are incentivized to fix nearly exclusively on their opponents’ flaws, and sometimes, they must invent them.