It’s not uncommon to be in the middle of an argument, discussion or debate with someone and feel that you’re just not getting anywhere. There can be many reasons this might happen; but sometimes it just feels like you keep having to re-explain your position. No matter how many times you do this, you find your conversation partner just seems to hear something different. You might be talking past each other, or just have different definitions for important concepts; but it’s also possible that you are doing battle with Straw Men.
Let’s talk about beer. Let’s imagine a discussion between Alex and Robin. The conversation goes: -
Alex: People should be allowed to drink beer.
Robin: No, allowing people to be drunk all the time is bad for both people and society, so it should not be allowed.
Now when we look at this, it might not be immediately obvious what just happened; and it’s likely to be even less obvious amidst the cut and thrust of an energetic verbal exchange. Alex only said that people should be allowed to drink beer; however Robin argued as if Alex had said that people should be allowed to be drunk all the time. It’s much easier to argue why people should not be drunk all the time; and Robin has made it easier to argue with Alex by creating this Straw Man version of the argument.
The basic structure of the Straw Man Informal fallacy goes as follows. You take position X. The person you are arguing with will argue against position Y as if this was position X.
Position Y will be like X but different in important ways, and likely different in ways that make it easier to argue against.
The straw man is like a combat training dummy. Which would you think was the easier fight, a knight, or the training dummy? When people make Straw Man arguments they are attacking the easier target, not the actual issue.
When somebody summarizes an argument thoughtfully before offering a counterargument, the resulting debate tends to be more meaningful and productive. Much of what passes for argument in our society consists of people badly misrepresenting each other's arguments and responding to points that another person is not making. This inevitably leads to frustration and anger and a feeling of being rhetorically manipulated instead of honestly challenged.
Not everyone creates a Straw Man on purpose; it’s possible that there is a genuine misunderstanding; or perhaps there are just incorrect assumptions being made. It’s possible your conversation partner hasn’t noticed they are creating the Straw Man. Watch out for phrases like ‘So you are saying…’, ‘What you mean to say is…’ or ‘in other words…’; these are often moments when a Straw Man can sneak into the conversation. Always listen carefully to what your conversation partner is saying, and especially what they are saying you are saying.
The Steel Man.
Unlike the Straw Man, the Steal Man is a more positive conversational habit. It is the practice of making sure that not only do you understand your conversation partner’s argument by repeating it back to them, but also help them to make it as strong as possible.
Let’s look at another conversation: -
Robin: I think drugs should be legalised.
Alex: Do you mean all drugs should be legal, presumably you would agree that some drugs should still be at least restricted. Perhaps you mean to say that you think that some recreational drugs should not be illegal.
Robin: Yes, that is what I meant. I am speaking about Cannabis specifically.
Alex: So you think that Cannabis should be legalised, is that correct?
Alex: And would you advocate for similar age restrictions, such as we already have in place for tobacco and alcohol for example.
Alex: Great, I disagree but I think I understand your position.
In this example Alex was able to Steal Man Robin’s argument and they are now in a much stronger position to have a productive conversation. If Alex had instead chosen not to do this, and instead Straw Man the argument, the conversation could have gone like this: -
Robin: I think drugs should be legalised.
Alex: So you want to give heroin to children, you are a monster!\
Learning to take the time to Steal Man your conversation partner’s position can take practice but is hugely beneficial. It might feel good to beat up Straw Men but if you are ever going to be serious about having actual conversations, you need to learn to test your ideas in combat with the Steal Men.