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. Read more »

How not to accuse someone of prejudice

by Emrys Westacott

Ob_fdeef4_capture-d-ecran-2013-04-15-a-12-45-1A colleague recently responded to a memo I circulated by telling me they considered it unintentionally heterosexist. I didn't agree. After a brief exchange of e-mails that served only to sandpaper each other's sore spots, my colleague called my attention to the following passage in Allen Johnson's book Privilege, Power, and Difference:

If someone confronts you with your own behavior that supports privilege, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them they're too sensitive or need a better sense of humor . . . Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of paths of least resistance, it probably is.[1]

The passage is well-intended and, up to a point, reasonable. But it should also be read with caution, since I believe it can easily encourage fallacious thinking and thereby harm the very cause it hopes to advance—a cause with which I fully sympathize. Of course, the tenor of the passage is to encourage a self-critical attitude, and we're all in favor of that. But the same kind of reasoning could also be used to fend off the advice being given. After all, one can easily rewrite the passage to put the boot on the other foot:

If someone tells you you're being hypersensitive or unreasonable, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them their behavior supports privilege. Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of the paths of least resistance, it probably is.

As my colleague and I found, navigating these shoals in our everyday interactions, achieving the proper admixture of knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, sensitivity, and reason, can be difficult. Still, I believe that in our attempts to manage this, it is important that we recognize and respect basic logical parameters. If we fail to do this, we do our cause a disservice.

In discussions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, heteronormativism, and other forms of prejudice, I have sometimes encountered two particular forms of specious reasoning. I will label these the appeal to subjective response and the accusation of privilege. My purpose here is simply to explain what these are and what is wrong with them.

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