By Grace Hemmeke, Right to Life of Michigan Events and Outreach Coordinator
If you train with a straw man, you’ll be surprised how scary the opponents can be in the real world. The straw man fallacy is the fallacy of reducing an opposing argument to a much easier argument to defeat a stuffed dummy of the original. For example:
Pro-abortion person: “Abortion can benefit poor women who can’t afford to have a child.”
Prolife person: “But abortion always stops a beating heart and always ends an unborn life!”
The prolife person in this example used a straw man fallacy. They did not address the pro-abortion argument. Instead, they attacked a different argument, a much easier and simpler argument to defeat.
People tend to fall into the straw man fallacy without realizing it. A prolife person might skip to what they think is the heart of the matter as the prolife debater in the example did. But this does not help the conversation to flow or reach a conclusion. Straw man fallacies turn an argument into a slogan shouting competition, as suddenly each conversationalist or debater is found adrift, no longer talking to the other. They are instead answering questions that were never asked or drawing conclusions that have no basis in the argument. In the example above, the prolife person is not wrong – however they are not addressing the concerns of the pro-abortion person. The pro-abortion person will respond with frustration since they now feel as if they have been misinterpreted or ignored.
If you have ever been told that you “hate women” or “only care about babies in the womb” you will understand how a gross oversimplification can ruin a conversation and hurt feelings. The response is easy. Stay calm and act as if you have not been attacked personally. Say, “That’s an oversimplification” or “That is not what I am arguing.” Then reiterate in different words what you were arguing. After that, you’ll find out if your opponent really wants to debate, or if they just want to insult you.
On the other hand, it’s very easy for even a well-intentioned person to fall into the straw man argument and use it for their own benefit.
It can be easy for a prolife person to assume automatically that someone arguing for abortion is 100%, totally, hopelessly wrong in the entirety of their argument. But this assumption only leads to generalities, and while arguing against generalities is fine, it’s easy to fall into a caricature of the thing you are arguing against – even more so if you do not take the time to listen to the other side’s description of what they believe.
How do you know what you’re arguing against? Or are you arguing against the enemy in your mind, your image of an abortion supporter? And if you don’t occasionally compare your image of an abortion supporter with the real thing, how do you know that your image is right?
If you’re not listening to your opponent, you might be using a straw man argument. This also applies to written materials. If you disagree with someone on the basis that “you heard their book was bad” then you are probably reducing their arguments to a straw man for your destructive pleasure.
Another way to easily fall into the straw man argument is when you are faced with an argument or a point that you haven’t considered before and that sounds like it might be reasonable. If a pro-abortion person says that they don’t believe abortion is good, but that they think it should be legal in order to help abused women in an already broken or bloated legal system, your answer will require more thought than: “Abortion is anti-woman.” This doesn’t address what the pro-abortion person brought up, and it casts the abortion supporter as hateful or harmful to women, when in fact, their concern expressed the exact opposite sentiment.
If you stick to your talking points without adapting to counterpoints, it’s possible you are using a straw man fallacy.
It is also possible to knowingly use a straw man fallacy in order to make a point, contrast arguments, or for some other reason. While contrast is a good rhetorical device (“Giving birth to an unborn child allows a child a chance at life, when abortion never does”), lying via a straw man is never appropriate. If you want to point out that the abortion industry is generally anti-woman and anti-child, do not try to cast the specific person you are speaking with as anti-woman and anti-child. Rather, point to specific incidents, statistics, and other examples where the abortion industry or pro-abortion people with a record of doing so have acted in a manner which intends harm to women and children. As a side note, remember that stating “Planned Parenthood has long track record of covering up surgical complications” is not an argument against abortion, just an argument against Planned Parenthood covering up surgical complications.
Shakespeare once wrote that to curse your enemies you must:
“Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is.”
This is the essence of the straw man fallacy. You may be arguing against a great evil, but exaggeration to the point of lying about a person or a position is never helpful. Represent the opposing view, then show how that honest representation is an untenable position to hold.