How (stupid) people argue, part 1 (the Strawman Argument)

Sometimes people who think they are intelligent throw out phrases like "that's a strawman argument", or "you are cutting strawmen". But what does it mean? Today we'll look at the argumentative tactic called the strawman argument (correct spelling not included).

As a whooping three members would have learned from the crash- course in rhetoric - the first thing to recognise about an argument, whether it is tactical calculation or not, is that the substance of an argument must be consistent. For this purpose, the most common (and necessary) thing people will do is to assume and predict.

However, it is easy to assume wrong things, which is called a mistake. And it's also easy to stuff your own argument with selective misunderstandings in order to make your rhetoric internally consistent - which is called a strawman. And the term is obviously chosen to reflect that you are setting up a dummy of your own making in order to hurl your perfectly tailored garden- variety tools at it.

For example, if I assert that the reader of this post is a moron, I might use that "fact" to determine all kinds of faults with the reader's understanding in order to insult them. But since I do not know that fact, or have any information to reasonably assert that characterisation as fact, I would have jumped to conclusions in order to hurl insults at a fictional character, group or mass of people, for the only purpose of reinforcing my own argument.

Here is one example of how this can be done:

But after watching that clip, you might ask yourself: what exactly is the difference between an attack and a strawman? Aren't all attacks based on that premise - you assert something about another, and use that to attack them - isn't it the same thing, and a strawman is just a more intelligent and elegant way of doing it?

And the answer to that is no. The difference between an attack and a strawman is the way you characterise your opponent to further your own argument. An attack merely discredits your opponent on a connected (or not) issue. A strawman argument can avoid that altogether by simply asserting the opponent's position, for instance to justify calling people morons.

The question then becomes - how do we know the strawman is a strawman? We can obviously determine what our own argument is - we know our own tactics. But can we determine if someone asserting that someone is a complete kneebiter is using a strawman argument?

Could it not be the case that whoever attacks a position knows what they're talking about? After all, someone arguing while saying things like "some people", "a few fine patriots", and so on, are merely using enigmatic labels like this as a euphemisms for, say, a group that actually hold these views? And simply adds these non- specific labels in a required show of restraint? Such as your average texan would do when adding a "bless him/her", after a particularly condescending remark?

The problem here, of course, is that the theoretical definition of a strawman is easy and clear. And therefore typically has nothing to do with real life.

And we're left with the question of whether most, if not all arguments based on a certain level of assumption, really are technically invalid for that reason. And, even while not the intention of the questioner, is used to lead the opponent into a certain position of their choosing.

How, then, to reconcile assertive or even adversarial argumentation with anything else than a tactic to pigeonhole your opponent to more craftily further your own position? We will look more closely at that in part two.

next: How (stupid) people argue, part 2 (the Absolutist's Position).


The interesting situation about arguments is that no person can ever define what the other truly knows. The basis of an attack is to undermine the knowledge of the other person. If you're going to define a strawman attack then you must know both sides of the argument without anything to be learned in the process before making that decision. This is precisely the reason lawyers win lawsuits when the person that they're representing is obviously in the wrong. If one can emphesize the strong points of an argument and steer clear of the weak side, then they have a greater chance of winning then the person who cannot do the same. An argument is not always won by who has the better knowledge, but perhaps who can present the facts in a more definitive way. But who says that all arguments are invalid? This is not true either. The validity of an argument can always be questioned, but that does not mean it is invalid. Therefore, arguments are only invalid when they are proven to be, whether the person be using a strawman argument or not. Perhaps that didn't make sense, but I think that it's not a cut and dry statement to begin with.


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It's incredibly easy to figure out if someone is attacking a man of straw on an internet forum. At least, when they're responding to you. Do you advocate the points they're arguing against? No? Are they acting like they're responding to you by attacking said points? Yes? Then they are attacking a man of straw. Simple stuff. Strawmen arguments aren't really invalid. It would just be incredibly annoying and pointless for someone to keep attacking a strawman that has been pointed out as such. It's a matter of etiquette, really. Given that nobody really ever intentionally attacks a man of straw, the civil thing to do if you discover that you've been doing it is to simply stop.