Sunday, October 31, 2010

Of Mice and Straw Men

If you have ever watched a television debate show (or, worse, a political advertisement), if you have read a blog, if you have listened to your crazy neighbor rant about the local football coach's stupid decisions, you've probably come in contact with a straw man or two.  Even my previous post is an example of arguing against a straw man.  Basically, instead of trying to explain a valid opposing opinion, the "straw man" argument-style relies on setting up a mock opponent, and then destroying that mock opponent thoroughly.

It's an extremely effective way to anger people, more than anything, because it doesn't take a lot of insight to see when someone is misrepresenting a position.  For example, if a Republican wants to argue against, say, the pro-choice position, he's likely to represent not the valid, rational arguments for abortion, but rather he'll represent and take on the more emotional, ambiguous, and sometimes absurd ones (for example, he'll argue that Mr. Abortion doesn't value life, or that he's an atheist and a fascist, or that he hates America, or some such).  Instead of engaging with ideas, setting up a straw man is more about taking down people by implying that they have only flimsy (at best) or immoral (at worst) arguments in their favor.

Despite how it seems, I nevertheless feel as though there is a place for the infamous straw-man style.  Of course, in real conversation it's worse than useless.  But sometimes it's easiest to represent a position by explaining what it is not.  And sometimes it's important to persuade by a kind of rhetorical force - or to reinforce a sense of camaraderie with an audience - rather than to explore nuance.  We might rightly wonder if there's not a broader social issue here, in that there might be something off-kilter in a world where persuasion by rhetoric is more important than persuasion by insight and fact, but it's hardly news that how it's said is more important than what is said.

I guess the point is, however, that the straw man argument is a mouse's argument in a lion's world.  There are far subtler and more effective ways to persuade in almost any situation.  Rather, it seems to me that the straw man is reserved for times when one's own emotions get in the way.  For example, in my latest post I was concerned not so much with my actual audience as an imagined one, and in particular a small handful of people with whom I have recently had contact.  I don't even believe that my straw-man represents their understanding of science education, but because I do believe in the position I advocate, I didn't care too much to get into the nuances of their position.

Ah, so the lesson here has something to do with remembering when and where and for whom you are writing.  But it goes deeper than that.  There's also a dash of the vague-but-essential "critical thinking" that has to happen here.  A writer owes nothing to his audience, really.  If they read, it is by choice.  A reader, on the other hand, owes much to himself, and perhaps the most important part of being a reader is, in fact, not being persuaded.  If we agree with the writer, how much more important to retain a sense of objectivity, so that we don't miss the real essence of the writing for its style or its seeming alignment with our own beliefs.  At the very least, we ought not miss the opportunity for a conversation simply because we think we already know what the author is saying.

That's the irony, to me, of my own writing style, which is often reflective and exploratory, but more often (I suspect) polemical or persuasive.  I don't actually want to persuade, and I would never want to be understood to be "certain" about things.  What I write in any given post is, usually, a perspective or a position I'm trying out, something I'd like to explore and something I think my audience - limited though it is - might be interested in exploring as well.

Does that excuse straw men?  Should it?  I don't know.  What I do know is the satisfaction in taking down an argument without having to fight is not a trivial one.  No wonder there are so many arguing so loudly against positions no one really holds.  No wonder, even in our seeming duopoly of a political system, neither side seems to ever actually argue with the other.  No wonder debates are exchanges of monologues instead of conversations.  It's just so much easier that way.  It's just so much easier to be mice, hiding inside of straw men.

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