Friday, August 14, 2015

Election Season and the Straw Man Argument

As the elections inch nearer, we should prepare ourselves for a waterfall of doubletalk, newspeak and lack of plain dealing. There are relatively few major bad faith arguing techniques, and if you learn what the chief cheap shots are, it will help you smell a rat before it gets into your kitchen or even worse, before you vote for it. We will be salting in these common rhetorical sucker punches over the course of the coming election season; today’s is the old standby, the straw man argument.

A straw man is an effigy, a dummy, a stuffed pair of pants and a shirt, two old boots and a hat, and when you attack it, it can’t fight back. The same is true of straw man arguments. The straw man arguer will make it seem like he is addressing a point of debate and will refute it vigorously, only he has shifted the argument slightly and is not directly addressing the point that is in play.

Let’s say a performer at an acoustic open mic plays an original song called Festering Wound in which he acts out ten minutes of a Civil War field amputation. The lady at the front table is upset because she brought her twelve year-old daughter to hear her big sister sing Michael Row Your Boat Ashore. She was scheduled next.

She says to him that she has come to this open mic before, and that it has always been quiet and nice, so she felt comfortable bringing her child. She further suggests that in the future if he’s playing an open mic and there are children in the audience, he might pick a different song, one that didn’t involve blood capsules and a hatchet.

He takes offense and says that she is a lousy parent for bringing her child into a bar. He accuses her of exposing the child to alcohol as a result of being a slave to her own irresponsible drinking. He goes on to accuse her of having no artistic vision and a quickness to censor that is worthy of a Nazi.

The author of Festering Wound has characterized a caring parent as an alcoholic who brings her child into the bar with her and lacks any artistic discrimination whatsoever. He creates an inaccurate and caricaturized representation of his opponent and attacks that instead of her argument.

Expect that kind of ugliness in the coming year and a quarter, highly skilled rhetoricians using straw men to beat the stuffing out of one another in an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.