As a person with opinions, and even more as a person who voices his opinions on a regular basis, I often face people who disagree with me. That's all fine and dandy, after all, controversy and philosophical discussion is (usually) enlightening for everyone and something to be encouraged. But there's one thing that inevitably happens in a controversy, regardless of the subject ? wherever you go, you're bound to see a straw man or two. I intend to explore this, as well as give a theory I have as to why people are so prone to building straw men.
First, I guess I should explain what ?straw man? means in this context. The straw man fallacy is a logical fallacy ? a mistake or untruth ? commonly mentioned in the context of argumentation and logic theory. The straw man fallacy has this form:
- Person A makes a claim.
- Person B distorts or exaggerates A's claim and then attempts to disprove or argue this distorted claim instead of A's original claim.
- Having done so, B establishes that A's original claim must be false.
In other words, the straw man fallacy is committed when someone takes someone else's argument, turns it around so that it looks like the other person's saying something he's really not, and then argues that instead. The name ?straw man? stems from step two: Person B builds a ?straw man? that resembles the original argument, but is ? like most straw men ? easier to knock down than the real thing. A few examples is always good:
A: Religious or mythical beliefs should always be scrutinised and criticised, just like scientific claims.
B: Are you saying people should be persecuted for their beliefs? Wake up, this is the 21st Century, everyone has a right to their own beliefs!
A: Our nation must have a pro-active stance in this war.
B: Why do you want to send thousands of our young to die in battle?
A lot of the time, straw man fallacies are easy to spot, as they can appear outright ridiculous and detached from the original claim; they are usually easy to refute in those cases, as this disconnection can easily be pointed out. Sometimes, however, straw men are more subtle and hard to spot; in those cases, the discussion sadly tends to derail and end up far away from the original argument, which is by then forgotten ? this is of course exactly the point of the straw man to begin with! When a person knows he can't argue something logically, his only chance is to divert attention away from the topic ? or so my theory states.
Before going further, there is one additional concept that needs be explained: cognitive dissonance. This concept is from psychology, and has a whole branch devoted to it, originally proposed by a psychologist named Leon Festinger at some point in the 20th Century. Cognitive dissonance is basically a state of mind brought upon by a conflict between what one believes/knows (one's existing cognition) and new information (a new, conflicting cognition). If a person is of a particular belief, and is later informed of a fact or some other new information that disagrees with this original belief, the result is a state of dissonance. Now, dissonance is a so-called ?negative drive state? ? it is a highly undesirable state for a human to be in (much like hunger or fatigue). Anyone caught in this state would immediately try to exit it.
In order to escape cognitive dissonance, something typically has to change. There are two reactions that are most common: either the person would have to adjust what he knows about the subject and resolve the conflict through absolution, or he would have to reject the new information and dismiss it, thus remaining safe in his previous knowledge. The former is, as perhaps is obvious, much harder than the latter, because it involves the person admitting to himself and perhaps to others that he has been wrong, or tricked, or whatever fits your context; in any case it involves an admittance of error. It might be worth pointing out that this doesn't mean the former is always the valid choice; it happens that the opposing view is incorrect, and that it needs to be disputed and dismissed. Other reactions might involve complete distantiation from the topic: one suddenly does not wish to discuss it at all, preferring uncertainty to dissonance. Another way is to pre-empt cognitive dissonance by avoiding anything that might provoke dissonance completely.
In any case, cognitive dissonance is something people face all the time. It is my opinion, however, that even though dissonance can be seen as a negative drive state, it's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you know how to deal with it. The reasons for this are simple: If you were in the wrong cognition, you must adapt and change to the new one ? it must always be better to be right than to be wrong (this is about as axiomatic as it gets, isn't it?). If you were in the right cognition to begin with, the new cognition should be refuted by logical reasoning (if not else, to relieve the other party of any misconceptions ? and perhaps put them in a state of dissonance!). Therefore, opinions must be constantly challenged, new ideas tried and discussed, until it can be determined what the right cognition is.
So what does this have to do with straw men? Now that we have all the prerequisites, I'm going to explain my theory.
Controversies always include conflict; indeed, that's the very essence of a controversy. Because of this conflict, dissonance is bound to crop up repeatedly during the discussion; one side will posit claims that the other side doesn't agree with, causing them dissonance; they will then either adapt to or refute the claims, perhaps leading to dissonance on the part of the other, and so on. And invariably in arguments, at some point a straw man is going to rear its ugly head; it's almost uncanny how sure you can be about that.
Sooner or later, one side is likely to find themselves overwhelmed by evidence; it becomes impossible for them to logically argue their point any more within the domain of the discussion. They have reached a point where their dissonance can no longer be resolved through arguing the claim any more; their only resorts are to cop out or admit they were wrong ? both being a form of defeat. This is of course a difficult thing that we would often go to great lengths to avoid; so, what do we do?
Why, we construct a straw man, of course. Usually this straw man consists of a regular old exaggeration of the claim, or perhaps bringing up claims that were never mentioned in the first place but seem relevant or implied, or coming up with brand new points entirely. This will give them some refuge, as they can continue to argue a point ? not the same point, mind you ? hoping that the original one will be forgotten. This derailing of the topic is extremely common, especially in public discussion fora, such as on the Internet, and horrifyingly efficient. If the erring party manage to derail the conversation enough, they can usually crush some completely irrelevant argument that the original author never claimed, and even emerge the victor in the eyes of onlookers!
As we see, it seems that cognitive dissonance and straw men are closely knit; of course, that isn't to say everyone who offers a straw man suffers from cognitive dissonance, or that every dissonant person is going to construct such a fallacy. But, the connection is there, and it might shed some light on the reasons why people even start constructing such fallacies to begin with. As for ways to combat this behaviour so that it never happens to begin with... all I can really recommend is that you stay as verbose as possible throughout the entire discussion. Point out exactly what you mean and make sure there's no doubt what you mean by your words. If someone should try to stray from the topic, point out that what they're saying is irrelevant and bring them back on topic; usually it helps to demand that they answer a previous, well-formulated question (providing you've asked one ? it takes some foresight). Be on the lookout for anything that might be a straw man, and be unrelenting and don't let your opponent even begin to construct one; it's a sure road to disaster.