Turn away from the straw man

The prospect of the straw man looms over many an argument, the figure dragged in to dramatically ‘prove’ a point when someone feels as though she’s losing ground or feels the urgent need for a ‘win’ even when it’s nothing more than a sham. Unfortunately, many social justice activists find themselves lured into the trap set by the straw man, focused as they are on earnestly discussing a social issue and sometimes not realising that the other party in a conversation isn’t having a discussion in good faith. Given that people invest enough energy in having actual conversations with people who are willing to discuss social issues as it is, giving in to straw men is an irritating waste of time.

For many, the very notion of social justice is violently off-putting, as seen in the ludicrous resistance to ‘PC culture,’ wherein people find it deeply offensive that people should be regarded like human beings to be respected and listened to when they express concerns or discomfort with the way they are being treated. There are a variety of roots behind those attitudes and behaviours, and some no doubt come from automatic kneejerk reactions, the response to being introduced to something unfamiliar and strange. It’s disturbing to be told that the status quo has some problems, especially when you are benefiting from the status quo — and in your mind, it’s always easy to come up with counterarguments to basic facts to convince yourself that those facts are wrong.

Some people are interested in having conversations that open their eyes and push at their boundaries — I think back on myself ten years ago, or even five years ago, and how much I’ve changed as a human being by listening and talking to people. By treating them as equals to be respected, and as people with perspectives and experiences that differ from mine and therefore provide me with access to a worldview that I’ve never personally experienced. It’s made me think about my own relationship with culture and society, about the language I use, about the attitudes I hold — and I reflect back on some of the things I once believed or even proudly asserted and am ashamed of myself, as I should be.

Others, though, aren’t interested in having those conversations. They’re interested in goading people. They want to ‘talk’ for the pure purpose of upsetting people, or to ‘score points,’ believing that they’re somehow validating their own social beliefs by treating people like garbage. The goal here isn’t to have a conversation, but to argue for the same of argument, often in a very abusive way, by battering people into a corner and reiterating old, tired tropes and stereotypes. These kinds of ‘conversations’ are exhausting and they’re made more so by the fact that you never know how a discussion is going to go until after you enter it, and at that point, it feels too late.

Is someone approaching you in earnest good faith, or not? Is someone using questionable language and espousing harmful attitudes out of ignorance and lack of experience, or just to be a dick? Is someone clearly stumbling, but genuinely determined to learn and explore, or is someone purely in a conversation with the goal of making you feel like crap, and scoring points with friends, and attempting to invalidate the movements you’re working with, and for? And if someone is operating in bad faith, should you push through anyway with the goal of reaching that person?

There are all sorts of crafty rhetorical tools and logical fallacies in play in conversations with people who aren’t out to have a serious discussion, but solely to provoke you. There is, for example, our friend the devil’s argument, because we really need to derail conversations by bringing up hypotheticals and bizarre proposals completely outside the realm of the discussion, like we’re a sixth grade debate team. There’s also the straw man, the proud presentation of an argument that you’re supposed to fight so that you’re distracted from the real arguments your opponent is trying to make — so that you end up arguing against yourself while your opponent watches, snickering.

The straw man is a very real thing, and it’s worth dwelling on that for a moment — the archery target used to practice with. You aim your arrows at it and fire to hone your skills, but it also distracts you from the real target. No matter how many straw men you bring down, you won’t be taking on enemy knights or bringing home food for dinner or even shooting apples off friends’ heads at the pub for a bet. The straw man is a glittering, artificial thing, presenting itself as an easy target so that you don’t have to delve more deeply into it.

It’s not always an easy argument to identify, which is why I proceed with caution in any discussion with someone. I’ve long since stopped engaging in discussions with people approaching me with bad faith. I have no time for that bullshit, and neither should you. It’s okay to walk away from an argument no matter how much someone goads you with a stream of invective about how you can’t support your arguments and so you have to back down rather than face the discussion. That person is full of shit. You know it. I know it. That person might look all big and brave in front of friends, but honestly, I don’t really care what narrow-minded assholes think of me, and you shouldn’t either. It really is fine to say ‘this discussion is over,’ and leave.

But when I’m in a discussion with someone on that borderline, and I’m not really sure whether I’m having an honest dialogue or being led by my nose, I watch out for strawmen, because they’re a tell-tale sign. And I don’t take them on. I dismiss them. As should you, because again, you have better things to do with your time. You can identify something as a straw man, say so, and push the person you’re talking with to bring something real into the discussion or admit that having a combative argument is counterproductive and useless. We shouldn’t have to defend our basic humanity — as soon as we do, we’re already losing, and we’re really losing if we end up being distracted by circular arguments.

There’s a popular notion in this culture that walking away from an argument or flicking a ‘point’ away means that you’ve somehow lost. This misses the larger picture: This isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about having conversations and hopefully reaching people through them. If people aren’t responding to those conversations, that’s not your problem, but if the person you’re talking to is in a win/lose mindset, that sounds a great deal like a discussion carried out for the explicit sake of wearing you down, and you don’t have to take it. Feel free to set that straw man on fire and walk away.

Image: Straw Men, Robin Ellis, Flickr