If you pay attention to political rhetoric, you’ll see a lot of this. I have to admit that I find myself shaking my head in wonder waaaay too often over it. But it’s inevitable.
For those of you who don’t know what a Straw Man is, it would be a good idea to explain. First of all, it is not a scarecrow. In this context it is one variety of something called a Logical Fallacy.
Since logical fallacies are ubiquitous in political rhetoric, it may be instructive to consider some of these. As indicated, I’ll start with the Straw Man. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
A straw man is a component of an argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
- Person A: Sunny days are good.
- Person B: If all days were sunny, we’d never have rain, and without rain, we’d have famine and death. Therefore, you are wrong.
Problem: B has misrepresented A’s claim by falsely suggesting that A claimed that only sunny days are good, and then B refuted the misrepresented version of the claim, rather than refuting A’s original assertion.
This fallacy is called a “Straw Man” because in a fight it is harder to attack and beat your actual opponent than a straw representation of your opponent, which is considerably easier to attack because naturally, it neither moves nor fights back.
The Straw Man is an important rhetorical tool (if you can slip it by without anyone noticing) in partisan politics, and is easily one of the most common fallacy used. The main reason why the Straw Man is so popular is because it is useful when you have no valid counterargument for your opponent’s position, and when it is used skillfully it makes you look like you know what you are talking about, when you really don’t. Additionally, if you are particularly skillful, you can so misrepresent your opponent’s position that it becomes impossible for him or her to answer in a reasonable timeframe. This is particularly important in a verbal debate. A famous example is the Vice Presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle.
In this 1988 televised debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle made a tactical error in deflecting questions about his youth and inexperience by bringing John F. Kennedy into it, by stating that JFK was even younger when he ran for president than Quayle was at the time. Bentsen turned this around on him in a famous retort that went on to be the most telling moment of the debate, when he said to Quayle,
“I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And, Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Zing! This was an effective and memorable remark — remembered well to this day — but did Quayle ever say he was a “Jack Kennedy”? Did he really intend to compare himself to Kennedy, or was he using Kennedy merely as an example that one’s age doesn’t necessarily determine one’s qualifications? Clearly the latter! However, Bentsen, the consummate debater, was able to create a false image of his opponent’s remarks, and knocked them over with ease.