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 »

Some thoughts about Poe’s Law

The website LandoverBaptist.com has posted headlines that run from the goofy (“What Can Pastor-Fred-Phelps-001 Christians Do to Help Increase Global Warming?” and “New Evidence Suggests Noah’s Sons Rode Flying Dinosaurs”) to the chilling (“Satan Calls Another Pope to Hell” and “Trade Us Your Voter’s Registration Card for Free Fried Chicken from Popeye’s”). The site is designed to parody the racism, scientific illiteracy, and religious bigotry widely attributed to American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. But, judging from the site’s posted mail, it seems that the general public does not recognize that the site is parodic. Most email responses begin by chastising the authors for not knowing the true meaning of Christianity, for having misinterpreted some quoted Bible passage, or for being hypocrites with respect to some point of contention. Very little of the posted mail actually confronts the owners and writers at Landover with what they are doing: presenting a grotesque, overblown, and bombastic parody of Christian religious life. LandoverBaptist.com’s mail bag has entries from its first days, and there has been a consistent failure on behalf of the writing public to recognize that the site is a parody. What gives? Poe’s Law (Wiki).

Nathan Poe is widely credited for formulating the eponymous law. He first noted a particular difficulty in an entry on a Christianforms.com chat page regarding creationism:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake (it) for the genuine article.

This is to say that unless there are unmistakable and explicit cues that one is being ironic or sarcastic, many parodies are not only likely to be interpreted as earnest contributions, they will, in fact, be indistinguishable in content to sincere expressions of the parodied view. The law can be fleshed out in a few ways, but the following thought capture the core of the Poe’s Law: For any webpage which parodies religious extremity, if the webpage has no overt cues of its status as parodic, no appeal to the page’s content can distinguish it from that of a webpage with sincerely expressed religiously extreme views. That a webpage is filled with Biblically-inspired scientific illiteracy, racism, or sexism doesn’t mean that the poster sincerely believes such things; the page might be a parody. Yet the problem is that this works in reverse as well. Blatant errors and blinding ignorance may mean that the poster is truly an immoral idiot. For every crazy thing on LandoverBaptist.com, there’s something just as (or maybe more) crazy on Godhatesfags.com. Looking just at the content, one cannot tell the difference between them.

Now, our objective here is not that of determining whether Poe’s Law is true. Our interest rather is in the effects of accepting it as true. What happens to interpersonal argument when disputants generally accept Poe’s Law? What are the effects of believing that a parodic expression of an extreme view is indistinguishable from a sincere expression of an extreme view?

To get a handle on the issue, consider first the straw man fallacy.

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