October 9, 2006

Of strawmen and liars

I’ve been thinking a lot about the strawman fallacy lately. Basically, it is an attempt to win an argument by mischaracterizing the arguments of the opposition by 1) portraying their weakest argument as their strongest, and/or 2) over-simplifying or over-stating their argument(s).

Fallacies are by definition errors of logic. But fallacies are also tools of rhetoric if used strategically, i.e. employed on purpose. Politicians have always used them, sometimes strategically.

This is what I’m wondering: At what point does the strawman slide down the slippery slope from strategic fallacy to lie? And, if it does so slide, may we still call it a strawman? Does calling it a strawman at that point hide the very real rhetorical/moral transgression of of lying?

A strawman fallacy sets up this way:

Faction A claims X, but the truth is actually Y.

The claim X is a strawman if it meets one of the conditions above.

We often see it appear in journalism (strategically?) in this form (politicians use this, too):

Some say X, but the truth is actually Y.

So what if X is neither the weakest of the opposition’s arguments nor an over-simplification / over-statement of an argument? What if X is a bald-faced lie? I’m using “lie” to indicate a statement that cannot reasonably be assigned to the opposing faction, i.e. none, or few, of the members of the opposing faction make such a claim.

We may see in any political text the facts of political rhetoric, i.e. the tropes and other tactics employed by the text. These facts exist independently of ideology, although the rhetoric itself may be doing the job of winning an ideological struggle. That politician A employs fallacy Z says very little about the ideology of A. (I qualify that assertion with “very little” because it may be possible to show that certain factions employ certain rhetorical tools for particular reasons. What I’m interested in here is the employment of a certain fallacy that is demonstrably used across the political spectrum in the United States.)

If the rhetorical features of a political text may be identified outside considerations of ideology, then they are reportable facts and should be reported by the news media. Lies are also reportable facts.

6 Responses

  1. Tenoch 

    I’m hoping you can clarify what you mean by the “strategic” use of the strawman fallacy.

    Lieing is dishonest, and it is also dishonest to deliberately over-simplify the argument of one’s opponent. So, whether the “X” in your equation is an over-simplification or a blatant lie, in both cases deception is at the heart of the fallacy.

    Thus, no matter how “strategic” the use of the fallacy, the strawman is a rhetorical act of deception.

  2. Yes, the strawman, used strategically, is a rhetorical act of deception.

    It is an error of logic but not necessarily an error of rhetoric unless it fails other tests, e.g. kairos.

    Now, I’m always uncomfortable with deception. The discipline of rhetoric has long been closely associated with issues of moral philosophy. Is good rhetoric any rhetoric that works? From a Machiavellian standpoint (which seems to be our political culture’s primary moral position today), the answer would have to be “yes.”

    I’m not sure I’d equate deceiving and lying, although I think both are wrong (equally?) for at least this reason: Such communicative stances run counter to the ideals of Enlightenment Liberalism and rationalism upon which our notions of civic participation are founded.

  3. Andy,

    Realizing that you admit “Such communicative stances run counter to the ideals of Enlightenment Liberalism and rationalism upon which our notions of civic participation are founded.” I’d like to establish whether you feel “enlightenment liberalism” has proven to be a legitimate and attainable goal? Has there been any success? Is there any measurable progress in the cause?

    As far as your question goes: “At what point does the straw man slide down the slippery slope from strategic fallacy to lie?”

    I think there is a simple answer to that question. At the point that someone is cognizant of the straw man argument, meaning at the point they realize that they are exaggerating or misrepresenting by deception the true meaning of an opponent’s statement, it becomes a lie.

    In my humble opinion, there are ways to avoid a charge of outright lying when setting up a straw man argument. By providing instances which seem to suggest that the straw man is the *flavor* of numerous members of a political party, for example, and drawing a conclusion that based on these many examples it APPEARS that the opponent is suggesting or feels or supports…etc., in that case the person issuing the charge isn’t exactly stating the straw man as fact but rather as an opinion based on factual statements or events. In my opinion again, intentional deception is as equally wrong as lying because intentional deception IS lying.

  4. J- Good question re: EL (I wish I had a good answer.)

    I think it has been practiced by fits and starts. We may be in a low ebb at the moment.

    re: deception = lying

    I don’t want to go there yet, but I find it an interesting possiblity re: political speech. There is much deception in political speech. So, if we equate the two, there is much lying in political speech.

  5. Tenoch 

    Thanks for elaborating. I can agree that deceiving and lying are two acts that technically cannot always be conflated.

    As for the Straw Man fallacy, it certainly is a useful strategy of folks like Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, whose rhetorical toolbox is filled with the fallacy–that and Ad Hominem. The use of these fallacies as a “strategy” worries me, as such “strategies” serve as deceptive distraction.

    In a future post I’d love to hear what counter-strategies you might suggest when faced with the StrawMan. Is merely calling one’s opponent on the fallacy enough?

  6. A. Scott Crawford 

    “Rhetoric” is distinct in that it concerns itself with supporting a conclusion that is already assumed, and only then examines the arguments that provide said conclusion with the greatest (seeming) degree of inductive strength. Often, fallicies are used to strengthen an otherwise weak or tepid argument, somewhat akin to adding spices to obscure an otherwise dubiously prepared meals odour.

    The ad hominem and strawman fallacies are common for this reason in my opinion… and are used due to intellectual sloth more than calculation by mass media punditti across the spectrum. The fact is that it’s easier to fall back on a dumb trope one knows will play to ones audience rather than to go to the trouble of a lengthy, if more serious, defence of ones claim that bores ones audience.

    Another point. Debate club culture fosters a habit of automatically assuming polemical positions (pro v con) without merit. This is where I most often see the strawman applied, as an attempt to present a position without nuance or qualification in order to apply a well travelled counter-argument to shoot it down without addressing side issues.

    For example: I do not believe the US Federal government should adopt full coverage healthcare for all American citizens. This is not because I am against Americans having healthcare, but rather because I am skeptical such a system would not create more problems than it solves. Rather, I would like to see “universal healthcare coverage” paid for and adopted at the State level a couple of times successfully first, before attempted at the Federal level. This is a very strong argument when provided in full. Which is rare.

    The strawman is used in countless cases because it allows a complicated issue to be reduced to a thirty second soundbite. Journalists like to pretend the degree doesn’t depend on the format, but it usually does. A NightLine segment culls less than an attack ad, but way more than an hour long PBS documentary. Politicians, knowing this about the news business, manipulate policy or position to best conform to the constraints of the medium and format. It’s just a snake feeding on it’s own tail.