Critical Thinking Glossary: Straw Man Argument

by Grace Taotua

A bit about The Foreword: 

The Foreword is an online platform and weekly newsletter featuring career(ish) advice, recommendations and insights from people you admire, haven't met yet or want to get to know. Each week, our guest wraps up a Q&A by nominating someone they admire; be it a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger. The next newsletter that lands in your inbox features this person, creating a global chain of fascinating people who offer practical pearls of wisdom. It's chain mail you'll actually want to receive, promise! 

The Foreword's Critical Thinking Glossary 

With the internet at our fingertips, we have more access to ideas than ever before. Concepts that were once relegated to the world of academia are accessible to any app-dweller who takes an interest.

In our Critical Thinking Glossary series, we'll deep dive into a term, idea or phrase that might help you better understand a concept and unpack your ways of thinking. Sometimes the vocab we use online can be a touch overdone (Normalise! Gaslighting! Problematic!), but hey, that's the nature of our fast-paced, illuminated internet culture. We don't necessarily subscribe to every one of these notions, but it's fun to explore the sea of ideas floating around out there. At the very least, you'll look super smart at your next function (team with Flex Conversation Cards for extra points). We'll take a look at the concept from different angles and give you some prompts in which to challenge yourself, giving you: the good, the bad and the puzzling. 

Next up: Straw Man Argument 

WTF is it?

A straw man argument AKA a straw man fallacy occurs when someone takes another person's point, distorts it or exaggerates it, and then attacks the distortion as if that is really the claim the first person is making. 

It's a common tactic, especially in the digital age, that may be conscious or unconscious. You’ve likely been involved in a discussion that involves a straw man fallacy at some point, whether it was used by you or against you.   

When someone uses this tactic, it gives the impression that they are engaging in the point at hand or refuting an argument, while not actually addressing the issue at all. This is why the person is said to be "attacking a straw man".

It differs slightly from the “whataboutism” technique, which is the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue entirely. Don’t worry, we’ll explore that one later down the track too ;) 

Some examples of a straw man argument… 

The point made

Sex education in schools should take a holistic approach and be inclusive of LGBTQI+ students.

The straw man response 

So you're suggesting that we encourage underage sex and push agendas on students?

The point made

I think capitalism is a destructive and dangerous system.

The straw man response 

So you're saying we should live in a communist society?

The point made

I disagree with many elements of Marxist theory.

The straw man response 

I can't believe you think we should have a class system.

The point made

We need to significantly reduce emissions in the next 12 years to avoid the dangers of climate change.

The straw man response 

I really don’t think the world is going to end in 12 years because of climate change.

The good (how can this term be used to instigate positive reflection) 

Since this is a tactic we see often both online and IRL, it’s helpful to have a term that can help us identify and navigate arguments. It can also help us recognise when we are using a straw man argument ourselves. 

The bad (how could this term be counterproductive)

Tbh, it took some mental gymnastics to critique the term, but upon reflection we found a few ways in which using the phrase “straw man argument” could be counterproductive. 

  1. Is the term too reductive? Could framing yourself as the voice of reason and your opponent as an irrational actually be a powerful way to expose their underlying beliefs and dig deep into the heart of the matter?
  2. Could prescribing a label to someone’s communication style in the midst of an argument only push them further into their way of thinking and away from understanding? 

The puzzling (how can I interrogate this concept and my own actions?)

  • When an argument gets difficult or I feel like I’m not getting my point across effectively, do I tend to create a straw man argument? What could I do instead? 
  • What phrases could I use to pull someone up when they’re using a straw man argument without causing them to get defensive? 
  • What topics of discussion do I tend to deflect? Why could that be? 

Some tips if you want to avoid using a straw man argument:

  • It's normal to feel defensive, and our instincts can tell us to deflect when faced with an opinion we don't agree with. Take a moment before retaliating. 
  • Realise that you may never agree on a particular issue, but escalating and attacking the issues around it isn't likely to result in a productive argument. 
  • Avoid making assumptions and building an intentionally weak argument from someone’s points to avoid having to critically challenge your own and other's opinions.
  • Re-express your opponent’s position, and then ask them whether they agree with your description of their point before you start arguing against it.
  • Recalibrate and find common ground by mentioning any points that you agree on or anything you have learned from your opponent.

How to counter straw man arguments: 

  • Distinguish between a straw man argument and someone genuinely questioning your point. Assume the best intentions of your opponent to create a "steel man argument". 
  • Point it out. Call out your opponent on their use of the straw man, by explaining why their interpretation is untrue, and how it warps your original stance.
  • Ignore the straw man presented to you and continue to advocate for your original position. For example, "You know that's not what I was suggesting and I think that will derail the argument, so I'll address the original point."
  • Use clear and categorical language with as little opportunity for misinterpretation and distortion as possible.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you ever built a straw man, or has someone derailed your argument with this fallacy? DM us at @the.foreword. We’re always down for a chat. And stay tuned for more bite-sized idea explorations as part of our Critical Thinking Glossary series here on the Flex Factory blog. Cya!

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