Imagine that the Duke of Sherwood offered a reward for the slaying of Robin’s Merry Men. A farmer, in need of money but unfamiliar with combat, concocts a plan. Some way along a route frequented by patrols of the Duke’s men, the farmer plants one of his scarecrows and dresses it in green tights (tight tights). When the patrol is near enough, he yells a battle cry and viciously impales the scarecrow with his pitchfork, before going to claim his reward from the Duke’s men. Or not, depending on how diligent the patrol captain feeling was that day.
The straw man fallacy, in the language of debate, is much the same – rather than opposing the argument presented to you, you create a similar-but-different argument and defeat that instead. Profit.
The violent arrest of a black student at Spring Valley High School in the United States recently added fuel to the ongoing argument that there is bias by low enforcement officers against black people. That argument is only a small part of a much larger worldwide issue of racial discrimination. Matt Walsh, a blogger I read from time to time out of sheer masochism, refuted the argument of racial violence with a straw man argument.
Matt’s argument, condensed by me but in his own words, is this: “There’s a clear process of escalation here, and all of it, to this point, is 100 percent the fault of the student. Then, when she ignored the resource officer’s command to get up and come with him, he had no choice but to physically remove her.” Matt’s argument is not wrong (assuming his description of the students behaviour is accurate). People who break the rules should be accountable. That’s the beauty of the straw man, though. Because the real argument cannot easily be refuted, you create a simpler, less-threatening argument which can murdered with ease.
In this case, the real argument (which Matt did not attempt to refute) is this – the level of aggression employed largely by white police officers in America against predominantly black suspects is completely out of proportion to what is needed, and completely out of proportion to that which white suspects might expect to face. This reflects a deep-seated racial bias against black people. Indeed, Matt (though cautiously) SUPPORTS the argument he pretends to be arguing AGAINST – “For the record, I think the cop could have perhaps been more gentle.” Thank you, straw man. The farmer claims the reward from the Duke’s men before sitting down for a drink with Robin himself.
Unlike in my story, employment of a straw man is not necessarily intentional or deliberately deceitful. It often arises out of a desire (intentional or not) to simplify, or out of an improper understanding of the opposing argument, which in turn is a function of not having the time (or inclination) to properly analyse the opposing view. It is easy to do and hard to spot without practice, and it happens often that opponents find themselves trying to prop up the straw man rather than arguing their own original point. As if the Merry Medic gives the scarecrow CPR while the Duke’s patrol slaughter the rest of his allies.
If one tries, one will find a few people saying or appearing to say that the student is “innocent of all wrongdoing” and suggesting that ANY action against her was unjustified. I’ll perhaps address this – different – fallacy some other time, but suffice it to say that the existent of people who argue on behalf of the straw man are irrelevant to the argument at hand.
I will not attempt here to argue for or against the Merry Men here, though this piece likely gives away my position (In case it doesn’t, I think the evidence of racial bias is overwhelming). A proper argument for or against would reside in large volumes of corroborating statistical evidence. My intent is to raise awareness of the straw man fallacy. Much time can be saved in identifying a straw man for what it is and moving on, rather than trying to defend it.