Once while I was undergoing some management training, I was told a story describing a challenging employee who was taking a lot of uncertified sick leave, almost always on a Monday. The employee’s regular absences were putting an unsustainable burden on the rest of the team and needed to be addressed. The employee’s manager had a discussion with them about how it was important that their attendance record improved going forward. The employee immediately retorted with “Are you saying that if I get hit by a bus tomorrow I have to show up for work the next day at nine o clock?!”.
This employee had given a great example of a common fallacy: the straw man. This fallacy often arises when two people who disagree about something are having a discussion. The idea is that instead of addressing what the other person is actually arguing, you create an alternative, far less defensible, argument, and address or attack that argument instead. In other words, you build up a “straw man”, and then attack it. In this case, instead of addressing the position the manager was actually taking (“Please try to take steps that mean you will not have to take sick leave so frequently”), the employee indignantly pushed back against a ridiculous straw man position that the manager was certainly not taking (“You are never allowed to take sick leave again, even if you are hit by a bus”).
Straw man arguments crop up everywhere. Sometimes we inadvertently or subconsciously make straw man arguments. This happens especially when you feel backed into a corner: you feel like the other person may have got you, but you find something, anything, in what they’re saying that’s wrong, and push back against that. Sometimes we deliberately build up straw men. Skilled debaters can do so very smoothly, carefully drawing their audience up the garden path of fighting the straw man, while forgetting about the original argument.
Whatever about using straw men as a way of winning a debate, straw men are best avoided in real life discussions, especially with people you have an ongoing relationship with. Why? In short: they’re really, really annoying. You have almost certainly been straw manned before: there must have been a time in the past when someone seemed to almost deliberately misinterpret what you were saying. Being straw manned usually makes me feel incredibly frustrated. It means I have to waste time addressing arguments I never made and refuting positions I never took (and that I may actually abhor). Perhaps, most importantly, it makes me less likely to discuss this particular topic, or even (if things get really bad) any topic, with this person again. Straw manning might be a good way to have an entertaining debate, but it’s not a good way to change anyone’s mind. It simply generates more heat than light, no one learns anything, and everyone just gets annoyed.
The problem is that it’s not enough to just decide not to deliberately straw man, because often we do so without realising it. So, how can you best avoid straw manning? One way is to make a conscious decision to do the opposite of straw manning, called steel manning. This is where you deliberately construct the strongest possible version of your opponent’s argument, and address that instead. Look out for steel manning in OpEd pieces in print media. The best OpEds begin with the author spelling out a great case for their opposition – and then putting out an even better case for their own point of view.
In real life conversations, steel manning is best achieved through a mechanism such as active listening, more formally known as a Rogerian argument, named after the psychologist Carl Rogers. This technique involves repeating what you have just heard back to the other person, in your own words, before responding. If what you repeat back to them is actually a straw man, rather than what they are trying to say, they will let you know! Once you have both agreed that you understand what the other person is actually saying, you have your steel man, and can proceed from there.
Steel manning can be hard: if you disagree with someone on some issue, the last thing you want is to make their job easier! But if you want to have a fruitful conversation, it’s vital. Building up and tearing down straw men arguments doesn’t help – trust me, I’ve been there.
If this post seems a bit abstract, we’ll shortly be following up with some concrete examples of common straw man arguments that crop up in abortion dialogues. Stay tuned!