The straw man fallacy
by The Editor
SERIES: South African public discourse is awash with bad logic and poor reasoning. So much so that much of it is not even identified, let alone criticised. Illogical Logic is a series designed to look at the different kinds of crooked thinking out there, to identify and understand each in turn and, hopefully, to help promote better argument. In this edition we look at the Straw Man.
The Straw Man Fallacy
The Straw Man is another common logical fallacy, particularly prevalent in political discourse and current affairs. Essentially it constitutes a kind of misdirection, similar to the way in which an ad hominem attack works. It allows someone to define an imaginary target, then attack it and claim victory, all the while leaving their actual opponent untouched, but tainted. A Straw Man is also known as a Red Herring.
A Strawn Man is the false or generalised description of a person or archetype, unrelated to or inaccurate in the characteristics it ascribes to an opponent. By then focusing one’s argument on that false description, criticising it and perhaps even logically to reveal it as flawed, the impression is created an opponent’s argument too has been rightly broken down. However, because it was the Straw Man that was attacked – and not one’s actual opponent – none of the implied criticism applies and nothing of any real value has been said about one’s opponent at all.
In practical terms: imagine two boxers in a ring; the one, instead of focusing his fight on his actual opponent, brings into the ring a cardboard replica, one distorted to portray his opponent as weak and feeble, he then proceeds easily to destroy the cut-out and claim victory. In truth, however, his opponent remains untouched and certainly nothing like the caricature over which he triumphantly stands.
A typical Straw Man fallacy takes the following pattern:
• Person A presents position/argument X.
• Person B presents position/argument Y (a distorted version of X).
• Person B then attacks position/argument Y.
• Therefore, Person B argues or implies, position/argument X is false/incorrect/flawed.
Of course, the more extreme position Y is presented as, the easier it is to tear down. Thus, a Straw Man is often absolutist in nature, defined by phrases such as “all A’s are B”, “every single A is B” or “no A’s are B’s”. By being so extreme, the Staw Man is easily disproved because it requires only one counter-example or exception to prove it wrong – a falsification or counter-position the person who set it up then takes much delight out of deriding or arguing against respectively.
One could argue logical fallacies fall into two broad categories: those which are deliberately deployed – in order to manipulate debate – and those created subconsciously or by mistake, the consequence of poor thinking or bad reasoning. In the overwhelming number of cases, a Straw Man is set up unintentionally but, in error or by design, it effect is to distract attention away from the poor or weak nature of one’s actual argument and, in turn, from the strength of an opponent’s position, by drawing it towards some inconsequential and usually emotional aside.
It lends itself to archetypes – which are by nature absolute and extreme – and so, very often, you find a Straw Man present in debates that concern prejudice of one kind or another. Racism is an excellent example. So too debates about religion or culture; along with any discussion about those ideas that inevitably accompany such debates – things like offence, bigotry and respect.
For example: claims such as all people of a certain race or culture share or do not share certain attributes, or all people of a certain group feel offence at a certain idea, constitute a Straw Man; indeed, generalisations almost always constitute a Straw Man of one sort or another.
If one’s opponent does not identify a Straw Man for what it is, their reasoning becomes misdirected, draw into some false paradigm of their opponents creation. If, however, it is spotted and revealed for what it is, one can render an opposing argument null and void, for its entire premise can be pulled from under it.
It is worth saying something about the moral imperative that almost always acompanies any argument built around a Straw Man. Because any Straw Man is by its nature absolute, revealing it as flawed often also involves some moral statement about it – fundamentalism, after all, lends itself to unethical behaviour – so, in tearing down a Strawn Man an opponent will often go out of their way to appear morally vituous in doing so, describing the Straw Man they have established as ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, ‘unjustifiable’, etc. When an opponent is not this explicit, they will imply they are morally superior, positioning themselves in way that makes them appear more virtuous.
Finally, it is worth distinguishing between a Straw Man and a stand-alone generalisation. The very purpose a Straw Man lies in the intention to pull it down, once it has been set up. So it is never left as it is. A generalisation, stereotype or archetype is simply left standing, seemingly a self-supporting idea designed to make a point in and of itself, whatever its veracity.
Writing for the British Guardian newspaper, South Africa’s Jonny Steinberg recently produced this article.
It opens with the following:
“For as long as anyone can remember, white South Africans have feared that a wild and dangerous black man would get his hands on too much power. He would be charismatic and he would be angry. He would be coarse, garish and corrupt. The ranks of his followers would swell. He would convince them that everything white people have always had – the swimming pools, the cars, the holidays by the sea – should be shared, not at some deferred time, but now, right now.
This fearful vision is wired into white South African DNA. From the extreme left to the far right, there isn’t a white leader in the last century who has not warned of a racial timebomb. Around dinner tables and at barbecues, generations of white South Africans have died a thousand deaths, imagining the black leader who will turn on them.
And so, when black South Africans voted the African National Congress (ANC) into power in 1994, the organisation’s gentility and grace seemed a rebuke to these rude fears. Nelson Mandela opened his arms and forgave. That his forgiveness was genuine was apparent for all to see. That he could forgive without losing honour was the secret to his magic.
His successor, Thabo Mbeki, was an altogether different creature, brittle and secretive and quick to take offence. He saw white racism wherever he looked. He was also a self-proclaimed prophet with some alarming ideas. But Mbeki was a far stretch from the ogre of white nightmares: he was evidence that black leaders could be difficult and opaque, not that they could be scary.
So used were white people to these genteel black leaders that when the character of their nightmares stepped into the real world in 2007, they mistook him for a clown. Julius Malema was lean and young and casually dressed, his taste for champagne and Breitling watches as yet unacquired, and from the moment he opened his mouth, it was clear he was offering a dare. I will bring the roughest streets of this country on to the national stage, he was saying. I will promise violence and anger. Do you have what it takes to take me on?”
That description, of white South Africans, constitutes a powerful example of a Straw Man. Steinberg suggests: “For as long as anyone can remember, white South Africans have feared that a wild and dangerous black man would get his hands on too much power,” and that “this fearful vision is wired into white South African DNA”, that “From the extreme left to the far right, there isn’t a white leader in the last century who has not warned of a racial timebomb.”
It meets all the relevant criteria. It describes an archetype, it is extreme (“for as long as one can remember”, “isn’t a white leader in the last century”) and, in turn, it attributes to every member of a particular race, a set of generic and homogenous characteristics.
Having set up his Straw Man, Steinberg then proceeds to use it as an extreme counter-position from which he can justify his analysis, in order to achieve two things: first to suggest white South Africans were all seduced by Mbeki’s intellectualism and, because of that, that they were unable to recognise Julius Malema for the threat he really was.
Of course, that is not true. First, not all white South Africans – no doubt only a tiny minority – held the kind of bigoted view of black leaders Steinberg suggests; second, there were many who recognised Mbeki for the autocrat he was from the start, simply because they were right-minded democrats. As a result, not everyone dismissed Julius Malema as a clown.
But one can already see how effective Steinberg’s generalisation is: any counter position is forced to argue in the same racial terms he has established in his Straw Man argument – the attitudes of white South Africans and, from first principles, any debate on the issue becomes a racial one, as opposed to one concerning the real point of contention: how Julius Malema established so much destructive power, so quickly.
As with most logical fallacies, hidden away in the deception, there is some truth – no doubt there were some white South Africans who perfectly fit Steinberg’s analysis. But by projecting that incidental truth onto an entire demographic, he creates a powerful Straw Man which, in turn, defines the nature of any response, misdirects the debate from the core subject and, ultimately, gives his argument the appearance of cogency and effect. On closer inspection, however, its first principles are warped.
In their book ‘The Art of Deception’, Nicholas Capaldi and Miles Smit argue that the use of a Straw Man – they refer to it as a Red Herring – requires one to keep two important things in mind: “First, although it is a side issue, it must be related at least indirectly to the issue you are discussing, otherwise the audience will not accept it.” More pertinent to the example used above, they continue, “Second, the issue you introduce must have sufficient emotional appeal to catch attention immediately. It should be so strong that you can make it work as long as you want.” Well, what could be stronger and more emotive, when it comes to South African politics, than some grand racial analysis?
In ‘Thinking from A to Z’, Nigel Warburton says the following about the Straw Man fallacy:
“Sometimes it is a deliberate ploy; in which case it is a disreputable form of rhetoric. More often it involves a degree of wishful thinking stemming from widespread reluctance to attribute great intelligence or subtlety to someone with whom you disagree.”
Steinberg was not in an argument with anyone, but it is worth remembering he was making his case in a British newspaper and so, the appeal of generalisation and stereotyping must have been greater simply because the fear of close examination was less.
Julian Baggini, in ‘The Duck that Won the Lottery’, takes it one step further: “If we attribute hopelessly inadequate or repugnant views to others, the virtues of our own commitments seem obvious.” And there can be no doubt, Steinberg’s argument does suggest he sees through and is above it all this racial nonsense.
Some good commentary on and examples of the Straw Man fallacy can be found in:
• The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking [Nicholas Capaldi and Miles Smit; 2007]
• Thinking: From A to Z, 2nd Edition [Nigel Warburton; 2000]
• The Duck that Won the Lottery and 99 Other Bad Arguments [Julian Baggini; 2008]
• Straight and Crooked Thinking [Robert H. Thouless; 1953]