Straw man is an informal fallacy that’s used in arguments and debates. It can also be heard in everyday conversations, especially those focused on controversial or difficult topics. When someone uses this argumentative technique, they try to assert the superiority of their opinion, side, or idea over the opposition.
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Definition of Straw Man
A straw man argument is that which purposely misunderstands and attempts to refute an argument. For example, someone who hears another’s idea wants to disagree with it and therefore pretends that the idea was different somehow, making it easier to refute successfully. Someone might use this type of argument in politics, social conversations, and even in academic settings. It is a powerful way to mislead the audience and make them believe that the person using the straw man argument has successfully won an exchange.
The term likely originated from the image it evokes of a straw man, someone without a true physical body or any strength behind his argument. It is a false argument, just like a scarecrow is a false man.
Examples of Straw Man Arguments
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church by Martin Luther
This text is commonly cited as the earliest written example of a straw man arguments. In it, he responds to the Catholic church’s arguments regarding his criticism. He describes how the Church has purposefully misunderstood what he’s trying to accomplish. They claim that he wants to stop serving the Eucharist according to a specific practice, but Luther disagrees. He asserts that he never made this argument and that it is the Church itself who wants to change this element of church services. When writing about the disagreement, according to Wikipedia, he said: “they assert the very things they assail, or they set up a man of straw whom they may attack.”
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
This famous play, which was written in 1953, dramatizes part of the Salem witch trials. There are a few well-known sections of the play. One of the best is the court case regarding Procter’s innocence. The following lines appear in the play and present readers with an example of a straw man argument:
Procter: I have no love for Mr. Parris. It is no secret. But God I surely love.
Cheever: He plow on Sunday, sir.
Danforth: Plow on Sunday!
Cheever: I think it be evidence, John. I am an official of the court, I cannot keep it.
Procter: I – I have once or twice plowed on Sunday. I have 3 children, sir, and until last year my land give little.
Cheever suggests that Procter is guilty because he works on Sunday. Rather than focusing on the actual case, he turns to a personal matter. His morality is now on trial.
Othello by William Shakespeare
In Othello, readers can find an interesting example of a straw man argument when Othello speaks to his wife, Desdemona. The following lines can be found in Act V Scene 2. They involve an argument between the two characters that reads as follows. Desdemona says:
And have you mercy too! I never did
Offend you in my life, never loved Cassio
Then Othello follows with:
By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in ‘s hand.
O perjured woman, thou dost stone my heart,
I saw the handkerchief.
Othello’s actions are controlled by rage and his perception of what his wife has been up to. He’s been convinced by Iago that his wife is cheating on him, and there’s nothing that she could say to change his mind.
Straw Man Argument in Politics
The “Checkers Speech” (1952) by Richard Nixon is one of the best-known political examples of a straw man argument. In this speech, while campaigning for vice president, he was accused of illegally acquiring $18,000 from his campaign fund. Rather than refuting these allegations, he instead turned the argument into something else—a discussion of a dog he’d been gifted. He said:
It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, six years old, named it Checkers. And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.
This is a perfect example of how politicians can use a straw man argument to avoid debating something they’d rather not talk about. Instead of being on the wrong side of the argument, Nixon turned the argument into something else entirely. After, people were thinking about the dog rather than the money. This made his critics seem unnecessarily cruel.
Why Do Writers Use Straw Men?
Writers can use this type of argument for a wide variety of reasons. Most commonly, it’s used in real-world debates. One writer might predict an argument that’s going to come up in a debate and prepare this kind of argument as a rebuttal. In another instance, a fiction writer might weave this kind of argument into their character’s lives. It’s a way to reveal something about the speaker’s personality and their willingness to do whatever they can to win. As the Nixon example proves, this kind of argument can be extremely beneficial for those using it. It can get the arguer out of a tough situation quite easily.
A straw man argument is an argument based around purposefully misunderstanding someone’s idea or opinion.
A proposal that’s meant to be discussed in regard to its disadvantages.
A witness in court who, rather than answering a question they’ve been asked, attacks the questioner’s morality or credibility.
In politics, a politician might use a straw man argument to avoid a topic they don’t want to discuss. For example, if an opponent asks them about one of their policies and they change the subject to something they’d prefer to talk about.
The best way to defeat a straw man argument is to make sure that one’s opponent stays on topic. No matter how much they talk or what they try to talk about, always bring them back to the topic at hand. This might involve asking them why they’re trying to avoid talking about the subject.
Related Literary Terms
- Ad Hominem: uses irrelevant information in an attempt to discredit someone’s opinion or argument.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Bandwagon: a persuasive style of writing that is used to convince readers of an argument or make them understand a certain perspective.
- Bias: is undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
- Concession: a literary device that occurs in argumentative writing in which one acknowledges another’s point.
- Deductive Reasoning: also known as top-down logic, is a rhetorical device and a way to build a successful argument.
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