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The Straw Man




Evening Times Editor I win a lot of arguments in the shower.

I suppose it helps that I’m the only one in there, with my audience of shampoo bottles watching on as I internally debate the issues of the day. It could be about anything, really, from how schools should approach dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to whether or not time travel is actually possible. Either way, I always make valid and cogent points and my imaginary opponent on the other side of the issue doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s not that I don’t see the other side of the coin, it’s just that the other side of the coin isn’t making a very convincing argument in our debate (the fact that the other side is being represented by an invisible non-existent person in my mind doesn’t help. This is also commonly referred to as a Straw Man Argument. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s from a logical fallacy built around the idea that I’m giving you my opinion, while at the same time I’m poking holes in all the arguing points that someone who disagrees with me in a theoretical debate on the matter. “Beating a straw man,” as it is sometimes called, might make you feel better about yourself as the shampoo bottles watch on from the shelf, but in the end it’s a flawed argument.

The thing is, people often launch these straw man attacks, not in the shower, but in the public forum. These days, it’s usually done on social media. I can give a one-sided argument on what I think is right and then dismiss all of the potential arguments against me before anyone can bring them up. The thing is, dismissing them doesn’t make them any less valid. Just because I brought them up before you did doesn’t mean they’re not relevant. Here’s an example.

I may or may not have robbed a bank. I get arrested. I go to trial. The evidence against me is not a slam-dunk, but it’s pretty convincing. However, I might not have done it. That’s pretty grainy surveillance video, and I have a pretty solid alibi, but there are some eyewitnesses who have identified me. Now, the prosecutor get up in front of the jury and says something like, “I submit you you that if you can’t take the evidence presented here and give me a guilty verdict, we might as well open up all the banks and just let people take however much money they want, because no amount of evidence would ever be enough to convict them.”

You see the issue? The argument suddenly isn’t about whether or not I’m guilty. It’s about whether or not we should even try to prosecute bank robbers. You see this with other issues, like the legalization of marijuana. Someone will say, “If we’re going to legalize marijuana, we might as well legalize all the drugs.” That gets people to thinking that we’re on a slippery slope where all drugs would be legalized and you can pick up a gram of cocaine at Walmart on your way home. Or legalizing gay marriage will lead to people marrying their dogs, or trees, or… didn’t Dennis Rodman already marry the City of Chicago a few years ago?

There’s a similar idea known as The Empty Chair. It’s an old-time political tool, sometimes used in old vaudeville acts for laughs, where someone literally debates with an unoccupied chair, asking questions and pretending to get answers that the asker can then mock for being stupid or wrong. This was actually used not too long ago by Clint Eastwood, of all people, at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he pretended to be interrogating then-President Barack Obama about his policies. Eastwood, of course, “won” the argument, but Obama still won the election.

I guess today’s latest straw man arguments center around things like vaccines, election fraud, gender identity, party politics, and the like. The 2022 version of the straw man is a social media post with the comments turned off. “Here’s what I think … don’t tell me what you think.” We’re all going to have different takes on different issues. Even when we agree on something, like say, “COVID-19 is bad,” we can’t even agree on how bad it is. And even when we are looking at the same data, we’ll spin it to meet our argument. What’s the difference between a 97 percent survival rate and a 3 percent death rate? Perspective. That’s it. The same 838,000 Americans are dead either way, including nearly 200 right here in Crittenden County, but to get my point across and “prove” my way is the right way to look at it, I’ve got to convince the shampoo bottles that they’re looking at it all wrong.

And by the way, time travel is totally possible.

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