My old friend Paul Ryan gave a knock-out speech at the Values Voter Summit last week. He structured the entire speech around this central idea: “The Obama administration is justifying a second term based on straw man fallacies.”
As a debate coach, I train my students to hawk straw men out, expose them to the judge, and parade them about. I also train them to never build a winning argument on a straw man, because winning with such nonsense is really not winning at all.
If you have time, watch this excellent speech, and then let me explain what a straw man is and how you should respond to it.
What Is a Straw Man?
A straw man is a logical fallacy. It is when one person paints a picture of the opposing view in a way that is easy to knock down. He creates an imaginary opponent – a punching bag full of straw – and then puffs himself up after punching it over.
Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC is a great example. Paul Ryan isn’t the only person to call him out on it. Brit Hume complained that the speech had a “significant number of straw men” (see Politico article here). Hume pointed it out like this:
Obama: “My opponents insist that there is no other way to help the economy other than give tax cuts to the rich and remove all regulations.”
Really? What opponents? Who is giving no alternatives? Who wants to just give tax cuts to rich people? Who wants to remove all regulations? As Hume put it, “Who across the political spectrum is saying that?”
The answer: no one. It is a straw man. And Paul Ryan is very nearly making it a campaign platform.
You Hear This All the Time
You probably hear straw men all the time but don’t realize it. Usually when someone tries to belittle you for the opinion that you hold – sort of like putting you in place – you are being set up to be knocked down. It isn’t very nice, and you probably feel offended.
“Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re ___________.”
Fill in the blank. You’re biased/racist/judgmental/egotistical/jobless/desperate/poor/rich/etc. The person who uses the straw man is setting you up to be easily knocked down. It appears to be ad hominem (a personal attack, which is another fallacy), and it is close. Ultimately, what the person is trying to do is frame your viewpoint into something that person can easily reject.
How to Respond
The straw man is answered just like Brit Hume did it. Point out that no one is saying such things, or that there is no one that fits the character of the straw man. This will force the person making the fallacy to do one of two things: (1) attempt to find the loon who is such a radical, or (2) be more accurate about the picture he is painting of his opponent.
Ryan responds to the straw men by explaining exactly as it is. It’s brilliant. When you are met with someone who paints you in the worst negative light, you don’t need to take the hit. Respond like Ryan. Here’s a transcript of the video above taken from here:
RYAN: You say things like this, and our opponents will quickly accuse you of being anti-government. President Obama frames the debate this way. Because here again, it’s the only kind of debate he can win, against straw man arguments. No politician is more skilled at striking heroic poses against imaginary adversaries. Nobody is better at rebuking nonexistent opinions. Barack Obama does this all the time. And in this campaign, we are gonna call him on it. The president is given to lectures on all that we owe to government, as if anyone who opposes his reckless expansion of federal power is guilty of ingratitude and rank individualism. He treats private enterprise as little more than a revenue source for government.
Bottom line: a straw man is a lazy attempt to make an argument, and a cheap shot. In an election year, an informed and well-educated public should make the best choice possible for our leaders. Using straw men to persuade the masses should anger the masses. They offend our intelligence and assume that we’ll fall for them.
Question: What other logical fallacies do you find evident in political speeches?