Don’t Believe (in) the Straw Man

1.

A straw man/target is a misrepresentation with a definite purpose: to stand in place of the real in order to receive violence.

A straw man characteristically cannot respond to this violence.

Ergo, a straw man is a sort of victim by design. An object, not a subject. It cannot be otherwise.

2.

In the realm of discourse, a straw man is a misrepresentation of another’s argument, someone else’s line of reasoning or their conclusions.

Unlike a literal straw target, a rhetorical one doesn’t have to be created with intention. One can accidentally misrepresent someone’s argument. In fact, we all often do.

If we can generally be said to believe (in) our own claims, then if our misrepresentations of others’ arguments are not checked, it seems we nevertheless go on believing them.

At some point along this trajectory of utterance and belief, we reify the straw man; we conceive of it as and move through the world as if it were real. We believe in our strong man.

3.

A straw man is a misrepresentation, but as such it is still a representation standing for some entity. It’s not a complete fabrication.

Since our straw man is itself a hypothetical utterance, then it must imply a hypothetical speaker. A person.

Ergo, our straw man entails not only a misrepresented utterance but also a misrepresented speaker.

4.

It’s probable that the majority of straw men are formulated in absentia. The subject is not present.

In that case, our straw man characteristically cannot respond to its misrepresenter (us). We make claims about this person and her/his utterances, but we allow no reply from the object in question.

Because we are presumably aware of the real someone (the referent) whom our straw man misrepresents (though perhaps not of its being a misrepresentation) the inevitable result will be to form a prejudgment of that real someone or people like them in the real world.

If violence can be defined as something like the radical removal of an actor’s choice in a situation, then believing in a straw man is akin to enacting a form of violence, since our straw man is by nature not able to respond.

This is the basis of prejudice, of othering: a straw man of the mind.

#

Appendix

majority of Americans (56 percent) say the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life — an uptick in recent years. …

But Robert Jones, the founder and CEO of PRRI, pointed out … that Americans are basing those opinions largely on people they don’t interact with.

“Muslims make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population,” he told host Maureen Fiedler, “and they’re also heavily concentrated in just a few cities around the country.” … 

[W]hen asked in an August 2011 PRRI survey, seven in 10 Americans said they have seldom or even never had a conversation with anyone who is Muslim in the past year.

(Amber Phillips, “Americans Are Increasingly Skeptical of Muslims. But Most Americans Don’t Talk to Muslims,” The Washington Post, Nov. 24, 2015)

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Believe (in) the Straw Man”

  1. I enjoyed reading this Jedd, but the one item that bothered me a little was the Appendix. I’m not sure it’s the best example for a straw man, just because there is plenty of statistical information out there about the opinions of those 1% of americans who are Muslims and their majority opinions about fundamental american philosophies, which are over 50% negative. I had a muslim colleague a few years back, but knowing that person did not give me any better idea of their way of life or his deep beliefs about american or religious values. Because of that, the statistics are a better gauge of muslim thought (on a general whole group basis) than my friendship with the person at work. However for me to apply the general percentages to individuals is wrong because everyone is unique. That would be prejudicial. There is something to be said for people accepting that a group they belong to (either race or ethnic or other) can have a reputation. it’s an unavoidable human nature. But those beliefs can be changed by individual behavior, and we can’t judge any individual based on the preconceived and general beliefs about a group. It’d be nice if we could drop all groups (races and ethnicity) and focus on people, but it’s like humans need to categorize types of humanity. Individuality is being lost because society forces people to perpetuate their group’s image. It’s sad.

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    1. Just to clarify–a rhetorical straw man refers to the REASONING by which one makes a claim, not the truth value of the claim itself. I can make a highly flawed argument in terms of reasoning, and the conclusion may still have truth. So that needs to be clear when we talk about accuracy.

      [Edit: Not trying to say “I’m right even if I’m flawed so shove off!”…Just realized how that could totally come across wrong. I’m speaking in general terms, and what I was going for didn’t seem to work.]

      I think we agree when you say that one can’t properly generalize from an individual case, and that it’s equally problematic to judge an individual based on a generality. What I’m not so sure about is whether it’s inevitable that we judge heuristically, like you seem to be describing. In writing this, I admit an assumption (or, maybe, a hope) that with a self-critical mindset, we can avoid prejudice, at least to some extent. But I know that’s not something everyone can accept, and it’s possible I’m wrong. (Part of writing this mini-essay is sort of making a milestone in my continual thinking on this topic, which I anticipate will evolve.)

      Part of my assumption is also that the key to avoiding this reification of the straw man in our heads is critical discourse, being exposed to objections from peers as well as, vitally, from those voices that belong to the subject(s) in question. Statistics may be helpful for quantitatively apprehending something in broad strokes (at least in terms of the subject of Muslim beliefs, say), but I think one should still be critically conscious of the fact that those survey responses are still constrained by the choices given by the survey writers, for example, who are perhaps not Muslim; there are then limits to our knowledge which I feel like the straw man erases with an illusory certainty. That’s sort of the trajectory of my thinking, in any case.

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