In the realm of logic and debate, a ‘straw man’ is a very common form of argument. It is a great way of derailing the conversation. It is an argument that gives the impression that it is countering a position put forward by someone else. But in reality it is going against an argument that has not been advanced.
A straw man argument is a great way to distract people from focusing on the actual issues that are under discussion. They can generate a lot of attention about something very insignificant, and lead people to believe that the discussion is about something it is not.
In various online discussions further to the ‘Reclaim the Night’ march on Monday evening, there have several straw men running around. Some of them have been more ‘successful’ than others.
There is the ‘violence against women happens in other countries’ straw man. No one has said that the women of Vanuatu are the only ones in the world to suffer harassment, violence and sexual assault in their homes, at their places of work and on the streets. That argument has not been put forward, so there is no need to counter it. Those who have spent time researching the level of rape is in countries such as Australia or the USA could use their ability to learn about how these issues have been addressed in other countries. There may be lessons we can learn from countries in Africa, Asia or elsewhere about how we can make our country a safer place for women and children.
And then there is the ‘not all men’ straw man argument. ‘Not all men are rapists’, ‘not all men beat their wives’, and ‘not all men commit incest’. Those who marched on Monday night did not and would not claim that all men are rapists or wife beaters or child abusers. This is a straw man, because no one has put forward an argument that all men are these things.
Writing in Slate magazine in 2014, Phil Plait identified a number of reasons why using the ‘not all men’ straw man argument is unhelpful. Number one, we already know that. We know that not every man is a rapist or violent. We don’t need you to tell us that. Number two is that it is a very defensive argument. People who are busy thinking of how to defend themselves can’t listen to the other person properly. Number three, using the ‘not all men’ straw man does not take the conversation forward. It derails or diverts it. No one was marching on Monday evening because they are worried about or frightened of men who are not a problem.
It’s easy to think these arguments are put forward by people that don’t really understand what the argument or discussion is about. That somehow they have missed the point. That might be the case sometimes. But people who actively want to manipulate a discussion and use up people’s thinking on something unimportant will often introduce straw men. Leaving less attention for the important topic, the one that really requires thinking, discussion and, often, action.
Once you know how to identify a straw man, you will see and hear them everywhere. They are sociable creatures and like to hang out where people are talking about things. They used to congregate on the ‘Letters to the Editor’ page. Now, they prefer Facebook.
So keep an eye out for straw man arguments, they are everywhere. It is easy to think that because they are so common and shouted so loudly that they are the biggest and best.
Next time you come across one, in the newspaper, on Facebook or anywhere else, my advice is to strike the match of reason, set fire to the straw man and use it to light your way forward.