Diary 2016 (March 12th)- Straw men

“Anything that is Hindu, India, Bharatiya, you object… You went to an Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon concert and now you are objecting to a world cultural event”

This was the response of Venkaih Naidu, the Union Minister of Urban Development, Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and Parliamentary Affairs to allegations of environmental damage caused by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s World Cultural Festival. India’s environmental watchdog, the National Green Tribunal, has ordered Sri Sri’s Art of Living Foundation to deposit a fine of five-crores ahead of the event (which he has refused to pay). The organizers have been accused of altering the topography and the natural flow of the Yamuna through extensive construction of roads, ramps, pontoon bridges and accumulation of debris. There were also questions raised regarding the deployment of the army at the event. I do not know if the army deployment is regular in events of this sort.

The current administration is adept at turning any criticism of the government into an insult to India and Indians. Many are falling for the ruse. Debates are continuously re-framed, to create straw men, which can be more easily tackled.

Based on two papers ( Two Forms of the Straw Man and Straw Men, Weak Men, and Hollow Men) which expanded the scope of the straw man fallacy, I have tried to summarize the varieties of its manifestation. I could have done it in three sentences but I felt the formal representation was important.

Straw man fallacy: A fallacy committed when a person misrepresents an argument, theory, or claim, and then, on the basis of that misrepresentation, claims to have refuted to position the person has misrepresented.
Traditional representational form: : Two speakers (A and B), B’s position (p) or argument (a), A’s misrepresentation of B’s position (p*) or argument (a*), and A’s argument that takes advantage of the misrepresentation (m)…A commits the straw man fallacy when she replaces p (or a) with p* (or a*), thereby erecting m, and then proceeds with m as if she were refuting p (or a).
Selection form or weak man: An arguer A and an opponent B, a position p defended by B with arguments x, y, and z. A is guilty of the weak man when, in arguing against B’s position p, A selects the weakest of B’s arguments x, y, and z, refutes that argument, call it x, and claims to have defeated B’s overall case for p. OR A might select the weakest arguments from among arguments of several different arguers (B, C and D). In this case it’s not the weaker or weakest of on interlocutor’s, B’s, arguments, but the weaker or weakest of arguments against A’s views, which is a position which B holds (and which C and D hold as well)….B, perhaps, is sophisticated, and she holds that p on the basis of arguments x, y, and z…. C and D, however, though they get B’s arguments, when they try to give them, they muck them up. C holds that p on the basis of distorted and more criticizable arguments x*, y*, and z*. And D just holds p on the basis of x*. A does not need to distort standing arguments for p…all he needs to do is find and pick on the members of the opposition that are more mistake-prone or less careful.
Hollow man: Fabricating an imaginary opponent with an imaginary and impossibly weak argument, and then defeating the argument. A may have his view that not-p and there may or may not be some B who criticizes A’s view. A invokes a class U, representative of the standing opposition. A attributes an exceedingly bad argument (w*) either directly to B or to U, responds to w*, and then claims to have defended his view. This strategy admits of some variation of attribution of w*, from a very specific B, to the vaguely defined class U. The employment of this version of the hollow man is signaled by extremely general descriptions of one’s opponents in U — they may be relatively specific by ‘‘Liberals,’’ or ‘‘Republicans’’, and they may be very general, such as with a ‘‘some say’’ or ‘‘you know someone out there thinks’’.
…straw man arguments have an ad hominem character to them, especially as they are deployed not just in the face of an opponent in an adversarial dialogue, but also in monological portrayals of adversaries.

These days the quality of political discourse, whether in the US or in my country, India, has degenerated to such an extent that Hollow man is most commonly prevalent.

Here too, the government’s response falls within the Hollow man category. No one had raised objection to the Festival because it was organized by a Hindu religious leader or because it promotes Indian spirituality and culture. The questions raised were the environmental impact of the construction for the event. But since the opposition and the liberal intelligentsia has accused the government in the past of saffronizing Indian history and questioned the attitude of members of the government and the ruling party towards the minority Muslim community, here also the environmental objection must be a smoke-screen for the real reason for the protestations.

The government’s critics have also been guilty of this at times. I have previously made it clear where I stand on the JNU fracas. But the rhetoric emanating from the campus and many supporters has been disappointing. In his speech, Kanhaiya Kumar reported a conversation he had with a police man about the need for eliminating caste. The policeman apparently said there was nothing anti-national with what you just said. He talked about improving the lot of the farmers, about eliminating poverty, implying that the government is against those worthy objectives. Whatever the BJP’s faults, maliciously intending to keep the poor where they are is not one of them. It was mostly about constructing these straw men and then demolishing them. Intelligent, pointed criticism of specific government policies would have been another matter.

Then there were insinuations of planned conspiracy. I have too much faith in t human ineptitude and stupidity to believe in conspiracy theories. He resorted to repeated references to his underprivileged background. The government’s motives for the hard-handed crackdown might have been its antipathy to the left and tendency towards majoritarianism. But Kanhaiya’s arrest definitely had nothing to do with his poverty. This was not much better than the hard-selling of the chaiwallah (tea-seller) background of our honorable prime minister.

It was as irrelevant, as the government’s aggressive, jingoistic nationalism and the mentions of soldiers dying on the front or taxpayers’ money being wasted. If Hitler and Stalin are how the two sides address each other, then there’s not even a remote possibility of conversation.

In the two papers quoted above, the authors also discuss the conditions for straw men arguments to succeed.

The representation form of the straw man argument depends on the audience not detecting the difference between B’s argument (a) or position (p) and A’s misrepresentation of them with a* or p*. The audience must be inattentive in the sense that any nuance of p does not register or is deemed inconsequential. In the selection form of the straw man, however, A’s argument depends on the audience being unaware of the variety and relative quality of opposition to A’s position.
…many straw man arguments are not made with unbiased or indifferent audiences in mind, but rather are made as theater for those with whom the speaker already agrees. The speaker and her implicit audience already share an understanding (or at least suspicion) of the vice and ineptitude of the opposition, and the act of responding to distorted, the weakest, or invented arguments of the other side is an act of pseudo-engagement. It is the illusion of having deliberated with those with whom they disagree, play-act at having done one’s homework. It is a false reminder of just how right they are and how benighted (or mendacious) the opposition must be to continue their resistance

It reflects poorly on politicians when they use straw man arguments. When they do so successfully, it reflects poorly on us. In Two forms of the Straw man, the authors bemoan the political ignorance among the American population, notwithstanding improved access to information and proliferation of political analysts and commentators.

A similar story has been playing out in many countries, including India. Individuals feel they are more knowledgable, while swimming around in the echo chambers of like-minded people. The nature of the internet and social media algorithms have amplified the problem. Daily doses of validation dull the critical faculties. As commentators mushroom across mainstream and alternate media, few try to seek out primary sources to verify information. There is passion, emotion, anger, but thought and engagement are in short supply.