By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
I recently wrote a series on confirmation bias. It’s an extremely common error that people sometimes make when they look for evidence that supports their preconceived beliefs and ignore evidence that doesn’t.
However, an equally common and pervasive error — and one that seems to be ubiquitous in modern political discourse — is the so-called “straw man attack.” That occurs when a participant engaged in a debate or argument distorts his opponent’s position for the purpose of attacking and defeating a more vulnerable version of the challenger’s views.
Suppose, for example, that Jack and Jill are arguing about gun control. Jack takes up a position that in order to combat gun violence, there should be tighter restrictions for gun ownership in America. If Jill is intellectually dishonest, she might attempt a straw man attack by accusing Jack of being a Second Amendment abolitionist. She could argue that Jack just wants to deny Americans the right to bear arms.
She then uses that distorted perception to paint Jack as someone who wants to oppress people, is naive to the threats of tyrannical government or just doesn’t believe in democracy and freedom. This tactic opens an entire menu of easy (and lazy) arguments that Jill can deploy to convince a listening audience that she’s doing battle against a different position than the one Jack actually espouses.
Incidentally, this is actually the primary defense strategy of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Rather than address the rational and reasonable arguments from many gun safety advocates, the NRA has a long history of condemning its critics as traitors to the Constitution who want to rip guns out of the hands of responsible, law-abiding Americans. The facade over their game of deception is paper-thin.
The ‘Straw Man’ Attack in Politics
The same thing happens with respect to talking points on democratic socialism and the policy proposals of progressive leaders like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders (I-VT) has long advocated for the elimination of fiscal subsidies for big corporations and the wealthiest individuals.
He has also proposed redirecting those funds to more worthy causes like raising the minimum wage, subsidizing the costs of higher education, combating climate change and ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care. And Sanders openly wears the title of “democrat socialist,” which he describes as a political perspective aimed at using a nation’s available resources for the maximum benefit for the largest number of citizens.
But Sanders’s opponents — including those on the right and even some conservatives on the left — exploit the negative stigma that the word “socialism” has earned from the failed economies and oppressive regimes like the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and Venezuela. They label Sanders a “communist” and a fearmonger who, with his allies in Congress, would destroy the United States were they ever to rise to power. This underhanded tactic — distorting Sanders’s actual positions for the sake of confusing voters into rejecting and even despising him — is about as transparent as it gets.
‘Straw Man’ Attacks Occur in Both Political Parties
To be fair, straw man attacks occur on both sides of the political aisle, though I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that there tends to be less intellectual honesty coming from the right than from the left these days. Regardless, a far better — and nobler — way of addressing disagreements is to embrace the opposite of a straw man — a steel man.
A steel man is just what it sounds like. It is viewing the arguments of an opponent in the strongest (not weakest) possible light in order to understand their merits and reasoning, and discover whether, on balance, one’s own views are really superior to those of others.
Consider a sports analogy: If you were training to become a boxing champion, and you wanted to prove to yourself and the world that you truly are the best, you would want to fight an undefeated champion like Floyd Mayweather when he is at his best. You wouldn’t want to fight the man when he’s nursing a sprained ankle or just getting over the flu. No, you would want to fight him when he’s as good as he’s ever going to be, so if you win, you’d know it was the result of your merits and ability and not any extenuating circumstances.
We can do the same thing with arguments. Instead of accusing gun safety advocates of being traitors and promoters of tyranny, we can try to empathize and emphasize the best parts of those arguments.
In our earlier scenario, Jill could embrace a steel man approach and recognize that Jack’s motivation is ending gun violence, something we can all get behind. She could acknowledge that Jack’s proposed means of accomplishing this — new restrictions like better background checks — seem reasonable.
And if these changes served to prevent even one death, would they not be worth it? By framing Jack’s argument this way, it allows Jill to confront the very best points that her opponent has to make, so she can measure the strength of her own position against them.
The same is true with Sanders. Instead of throwing around labels like “socialist” and “communist” — which his opponents conflate knowing they incite raw emotions and inappropriate presumptions in voters — they could evaluate Sanders’s ideas and opinions on their merits.
Would it be better if people could make more money for a better quality of life? Sure. Ought we protect the planet and its health for future generations? Of course. Should Americans have the opportunity to get an education and to receive life-saving medical care when they need it without worrying about bankruptcy? I think most politicians would say so. The question, of course, is how best to achieve those ends.
Honest, intelligent minds can still disagree on the details. But at least by acknowledging that the causes Bernie Sanders champions are good-natured and well-intentioned — and that he isn’t a nefarious villain who hates America — those who disagree with his positions can test their mettle against the very best version of what Bernie is proposing.
If they prevail, great. If not, so be it. But in either case, we all arrive at a better understanding of the truth, and those involved in the discussion will have maintained their integrity.
Let us never place our ambitions to win over our loyalty to truth and honesty. If we can reject straw men and embrace steel men in modern discourse, we do a great service in promoting rational, well-informed decision making in our society. And that ought to be something we should all aspire to.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.