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Monday, September 21, 2020

Bad arguments #6 - The straw man

 ‘Hannah, tidy your bedroom.’


‘Because with the mess it’s in you can’t find anything. Remember you lost your English essay the other day and got into trouble for not handing it in on time?’

‘Oh, right, Dad, so you’re literally saying that if I don’t tidy my room like this afternoon I’m going to fail all my GCSEs and end up living on the streets?’

Of course, Hannah’s Dad isn’t saying that. But saying that he’s saying that makes his case for her tidying her bedroom look ridiculous and harder to believe. Hannah is using a very common bad argument; the ‘straw man’.

A straw man is an inanimate object made out of straw which looks like a man, but is not. Because it is made out of straw it is easy to pull apart, and does not fight back. Similarly, a ‘straw man’ argument looks like a certain argument but is not that argument, and has been made in such a way that it is easy to pull apart. It is a distortion of the other side’s argument which makes it absurd and therefore easy to demolish. It is tempting to resort to using the straw man argument to attack the other side when you are under pressure, because it offers a quick win. Tempting, but unwise; it prevents you from engaging with the actual arguments, and judges will notice this and mark you down for it.


 Let’s take an example of a straw man argument from a debate.

The motion is ‘This house would make the use of racist language a criminal offence.’ The proposition has defined ‘racist language’ as language which demeans people of colour on the grounds of their race.

In a point of information, an opposition speaker says: 

‘So, if this motion were carried, anyone walking into a cafe and asking for a ‘black coffee’ could end up walking out in handcuffs.’ 

This makes the proposition’s proposal look both ridiculous and tyrannical: how can describing the colour of a drink be a crime? But the proposition’s definition of the motion is not ridiculous or tyrannical, because describing the colour of a drink does not demean anyone on the grounds of their race, and these are the grounds they have chosen for denoting language as racist. So, although the opposition speaker is right to say that arresting someone for speaking out loud what coffee without milk looks like would be absurd, she is wrong to say that this is what the proposition is arguing for. She has built and dismantled a ‘straw man’, but has left the real man untouched.

How should you deal with a ‘straw man’ argument?

Gently but firmly (if possible, without sounding petulant) guide the conversation back to what you are actually saying. So, in the example above, the proposition speaker could say:

‘Cafe goers would not be criminalised under our proposal because, as I have said, we would only criminalise language which demeans people of colour; using the word ‘black’ to describe coffee does not do this. Language that actually does demean people of colour, however, has serious consequences because …’

So, to sum up:

  • Engage with the arguments as the other side are actually making them; distortion and ridicule make your rebuttal less strong.

  • If the other side use a straw man argument, patiently reiterate and reaffirm your argument as you actually made it.

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