Have You Ever?
Have you ever been in a dispute and noticed that the person you’re arguing with is not actually arguing the same point as you? Perhaps they latched onto a small part of your main point and dedicated their whole tirade to disputing that one minute detail. Or maybe they exaggerated your position on the argument and labeled your stance as too extreme. In these situations, it might appear that your opponent’s argument is sound because they do in fact present valid points in their favor. However, they are attacking a misrepresentation of your position, so no progress on the original argument is actually made. These types of situations are incredibly frustrating because the two sides of the debate end up engaging in two different arguments, but both feel as though they are correct in their assertions.
When someone replaces their opponent’s argument with a slight misrepresentation, giving the illusion that they are responding to the real proposition, they are said to be “standing up a straw man.” The “straw man” , the false argument, is then attacked as if it were the original contention. This is fallacious thinking because the argument under discussion is not properly refuted or even fully addressed.
The Straw Man Fallacy
The straw man fallacy occurs when one person distorts or disregards elements of their opponent’s argument and responds to the distorted point. Therefore, they are not responding to the original argument, but rather an unrelated, extreme, or less relevant point. This is known as attacking a straw man since the false argument merely resembles the original contention.
Straw man arguments have existed since people began arguing with each other. Aristotle noted instances of this type of argument as far back as the 300s B.C.E., but it was not formally recognized as a fallacy until relatively recently. Social theorist Stuart Chase first explicitly identified the straw man as an informal fallacy in his 1956 book Guides to Straight Thinking. An informal fallacy, as opposed to a formal fallacy, is an error of reasoning rather than an error of logic. As such, a straw man argument might be a perfectly logical and valid argument, but the fact that it attempts to refute a point other than the original proposition is erroneous.
Straw man arguments are sneaky because it is not always obvious when they occur, and, if used successfully, they can distract from relevant arguments. They are often employed by politicians to evade controversial topics or uncomfortable questions. A well-known example is then-Senator Richard Nixon’s 1952 “Checkers” speech. Nixon, a candidate for vice president at the time, was accused of illegally using tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal spending. In a televised public address on the issue, Nixon turned attention away from the donated money to a dog that was gifted to him by a supporter. He garnered sympathy from the audience by mentioning how much his young daughter loved the puppy, named Checkers, and how he intended to keep it for her. This is a straw man argument because, although he spoke about gifts he received as part of the campaign, Nixon focused on Checkers rather than the misappropriated funds, which was the real issue at hand. Nixon ultimately gained public support following the speech. He went on to become vice president and later President of the United States.
The “Checkers” speech demonstrates the danger of straw man arguments in high stakes situations. It is frustrating for those who recognize the straw man argument, and it can lead those who do not recognize it to false conclusions about the resolution of an issue. It can be tough to identify at first, but it is a common phenomenon. Most people are guilty of committing the straw man fallacy at times, which emphasizes the importance of careful listening during contentious discussions.