Propaganda Prop # 6 : The Straw Man

straw man

Once upon a time when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better, I got into a discussion (i.e. argument) with a relative on a topic that he had strong beliefs about. That topic was the hazards posed by certain chemicals used in growing and processing food — a hazard which, he was convinced, was nonexistent, but was merely a fraud concocted by devious scientists, or the government, or some other “them” who couldn’t be trusted. At one point, he said to me, ” if it wasn’t for chemicals, you couldn’t live.” Although I wasn’t even familiar with the term at the time, this was my first real awareness of the straw man tactic, which is the sixth in our series of propaganda techniques.

A straw man is an oversimplified substitute for an actual issue or another person’s actual position on an issue.  Although the term’s origins are unclear, the apparent idea is that metaphorically, someone constructs a cheapened likeness of another person (or position) and knocks it down, then claims to have struck down the real person (or position). I’d never said that all chemicals are harmful; I was perfectly aware, in fact, that the human body is made of them. What I was saying was that it’s a good idea to be informed about what chemicals are harmful and to avoid them if possible.  That’s an argument that’s much harder to dismiss than the watered-down version my relative threw back at me.

You’ve surely had plenty of straw men thrown in your face; there’s not much way to avoid it. If you mention to anyone, for example, that you’re opposed to the war (any war) you’re quite likely to hear someone say “How can you not support the troops?” Or “Why do you hate America so much?”. Or something like that. Mention that you favor reproductive choice, and you’ll surely be labeled “pro-abortion”, and you may even hear someone say that you support “killing babies”.  Either of which constructs a straw effigy in front of the real problem of how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In April 2010 the state of Arizona passed Arizona Senate Bill 1070, putatively aimed at curbing illegal immigration. Many citizens, not only Arizonans, expressed concern and outrage because some provisions of the bill opened the door to harassment of legal immigrants or even natural-born citizens of darker complexion.  (Do you suppose it’s just a coincidence that the bill has connections to white supremacists?) But ideological extremists who spoke of opponents to the bill almost uniformly characterized them as being anti-immigration reform, or pro-illegal immigration, or some other such straw personage, often even suggesting that those bleeding-heart libruls who didn’t like the bill should just invite all the filthy scum illegals to come and live in their neighborhoods. Now it’s certainly possible that some of these people honestly don’t know the difference between objecting to a specific law and objecting to the broad objectives the law supposedly addresses (I’m glancing in your general direction, Ms. Malkin). But some of them did a deliberate switcheroo, replacing substance with straw. Well, after all, they were taking their cue from the straw twins embedded in the bill’s official name: The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which implies that law enforcement officials strongly support the measure, and that brown people from south of the border are responsible for higher crime. Both of which are, to say the least, unsupported conclusions.

Chances are that at some time during the past few months you’ve seen this graphic making the rounds on the Internet:

OWS hypocrisy

The idea, of course, is to suggest that the participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement are sniveling hypocrites for being anti-corporation when, like the rest of us, they use products manufactured by corporations. Trouble is, the Occupy movement was not organized to protest against corporations. It was organized to protest against corporate greed, corporate crime and corporate domination of government policy. Those are things that many Americans are concerned about, including many who revile OWS.  But it’s a lot simpler and a lot more effective just to dumb down the OWS position as being “anti-corporation”. Don’t strike a match with so much straw flying around.

Almost every criticism/ attack I’ve heard directed at OWS has been a straw man. Indeed, if you’re one of those who are generally classified as “liberal”, you surely get attacked by scarecrow platoons on a regular basis.  “Liberalism” is a rather broad and nebulous concept — much more so than “conservatism”, which is itself a rather imprecise label. And since the lifeblood of propaganda is oversimplification, it makes sense that those who smear “liberals” will dumb down their talking points and employ vast hordes of straw figures to make their case. (“Conservatives”, by the way also tend to invoke reverse straw men to present their own convictions — which is to say they oversimplify them in a positive direction. They might attire their belief, for example, in a supposed Second Amendment right to own guns as “supporting the Constitution”. What they mean in is that they support their own dubious interpretation of one little segment of the Constitution.)

In fact, my absolute favorite single source of straw men is Liberal Logic 101, which has the avowed mission of pointing out the inconsistencies and stupidities of “liberals”; but the site would be more accurately called Straw Man of the Day. Let’s look at a couple of recent examples of its wit and wisdom:

liberal-logic-101-325

This one’s a double whammy: it suggests, first that “responsible adults” are the main target of firearm regulation, and second that it really matters whether teenagers “think premarital sex is okay”.  Comparing an innate biological drive with a culturally conditioned addiction,  this cutesy graphic sidesteps two genuine issues: (1) The dividing line between “responsible” and “irresponsible” adults (as if adults were the only ones affected by guns) is often crosshair-thin; and a gun blurs that line faster than just about anything else in the known universe, and (2) Teenagers already think sex is pretty okay; and they’re going to go on thinking it’s okay unless adults inflict some extremely heavy psychological damage; and it just might be prudent to be more concerned with preventing pregnancy and potentially fatal disease than with trying to reprogram their hormones. It’s an artificial dichotomy (something straw-sculpting propagandists just love) to suggest that one must choose between discouraging premarital sex or being prepared for lapses in judgment.

Here’s another gem:

liberal-logic-101-309

Is there really anybody out there who honestly doesn’t realize that President Obama has been subjected to more “background checks” than the Pope? Apparently so; and this straw men seems to be an attempt to recruit more devotees to birtherism. Or any of the other Photoshop conspiracy theories accumulating around the president. If gun owners were scrutinized with a microscope even a fraction as big as the one that has been trained relentlessly on Barack Obama, gun regulation advocates would be ecstatic. And chances are that just about everyone would be a lot happier, because there’d probably be far less gun crime.

Gosh, these are like eating peanuts — once you get going, it’s hard to stop. Let’s try one more for good measure:

liberal-logic-101-313

The notion that “Obamacare” entails the government “making medical choices for you” has been a heavily used straw man since day one, and not one sliver of its straw has worn off. “Government takeover” is the straw phrase of choice that has been brandished against the Affordable Care Act ever since “socialized medicine” started wearing thin.

These priceless bagatelles from Liberal Logic 101 always end with the observation that “Yes, they are that stupid.” Well, it does appear that somebody is trying very hard to be “that stupid” — or else just very crafty. In any case, I recommend perusing the pages of that website if you’re seeking some textbook examples of straw men.

But really, you don’t have to seek them out at all. They’ll seek you out instead. It seems that straw men are breeding faster than mosquitoes in a swamp. I seem to hear more and more and more of them all the time. Ironically, I also seem to hear more and more instances of “phantom” straw men — i.e., people falsely claiming that someone else has used a straw man.  (See, for example, the attack on one of my previous posts at TheTruthABoutGuns.com and/or my response to it.) Yes, we’ve reached that bizarre point in the so-called evolution of our species when the concept of a straw man has become itself a straw man.

16 thoughts on “Propaganda Prop # 6 : The Straw Man

  1. Reblogged this on Media Psychology and commented:
    An interesting and insightful read which examines a fallacious technique of propaganda known as the straw man. Psychologically, the straw man concept breaks things down to a simplistic level in which context is lost and decisions are relegated to “yes/no” choices, or extremes which are more difficult to defend. This technique can be refuted by clarifying one’s original positions which should cognitively equalize the discussion and reaffirm one’s position.

  2. The other danger with the Straw Man attack is that it is prone to backfire, especially if the attacker makes the straw argument too outrageously stupid. Just the other day, someone tried this move on me, and my defense was something like this: “Yes, one WOULD have to be pretty amazingly improbably stupid to believe something like that. I don’t believe you are stupid enough to think that I am actually that stupid.”

  3. One point that I think escapes examination frequently – many people use straw man arguments all the time. How many do so willingly? I see a number of anti-conservative memes – heck a number anti-anything memes that use this technique to form a point. Humans use shorthand like this almost unconsciously. Few are rational thinkers who carefully examine what they are doing. (That said, there are some incredibly rational propagandists who know exactly what they are doing as they bring their Scarecrows to life.)

    • Global Research is an organ run from left wing Israel haters in Montreal. isreal is so tiny map makers cannot even print Jerusalem on it. But even having .000000000001% of the ME is too much for many.I have read their site. Gross. Financed by saudies or iran. As is Rt.com – given their parade of leftwing freaks – only bright spot is max keiser.I would not call Rickards part of the Obama crowd. But he is right. How many scientists must be killed over there until we acnowlege it? Stuxnet – ingenious.This war can be contained; Why anyone should have tears for a religion that encourages the beating of women and hanging homosexuals is beyond me. Persia was different before the 2 legged muslim dogs invaded. Why they are in the west is a horrible error.MY only question is what is needed or when will we see au and ag at higher levels? I have been buying rounds and silver etfs but I am beginning to wonder when, if, how.JB Canada

      • Well, it’s like I said elsewhere: guns are their religion, and this is their vision of the coming apocalypse as predicted by their faith.

        The thing I find most fascinating is how Smith, and others, is able to inoculate himself against cognitive dissonance when someone tells him he’s a paranoid lunatic by accusing them of being part of the evil insane cabal, or informing them that they cannot comprehend just how evil and insane the Enemy really is.

        Because that begs the question: if Smith DOES comprehend that, is he just as evil and insane as they are? Or is HE the evil and insane Enemy no one else can comprehend, except other gun-fights religious fanatics like himself?

  4. Biochemborg,

    The problem is that people like smith have absolutely no interest in making logical arguments (as you undoubtedly know).To him it is better to get NRA devotees frothing at the mouth by portraying people who do attempt to use logic, as merely deluded liberals who are trying to suppress any and all attempts, to honor rugged individuals who are portrayed as bravely going up against fascism–allegedly in the guise of liberal politics. Undoubtedly this is a tactic often used by Despots and Tyrants when they succeed in turning the tables on anyone who would accuse them of being extreme. Like many comenters have said, there is absolutely no way they can be exposed to enough reality to cause even the slightest degree of self–doubt or logical awakening. If we try to strictly insist on using logic, hoping to someday convince them to doubt their delusional systems, it will not work! And indeed, they will undoubtedly continue to use our very attempt at reason, as a way to cast us in an unfavorable and false light.

    One would think though, that if they had any vestiges of reason left, they could not possibly believe all that they say! But the tried and true strategy seems to be, who gives a damn what you can or can’t prove! We will just keep telling big lies over and over again, until the public feels that they must be true!

    What bothers me most though, is not their insistence about making delusional thinking into a virtue, but rather their insistence that people like me do not really care about the children at Sandy Hook, and that we are really out to fulfill some narrow political agenda.

    Personally, no one in my family (immediate of extended) has to my knowledge died as the result of gun violence. And if we could somehow prove beyond a doubt that, our ARMS cause absolutely NO violent deaths, and represent no real problems in our society, then I would have no objections at all, to NRA members owning their very own machine guns, bazookas, flamethrowers, surface to air missiles, or even atomic bombs—because that is how the word ARMS would literally be interpreted—as any weapon! But, happily, when we made our laws, we seldom acted rashly, thus creating a real possibility of physical violence resulting from them.

    Once again the actual truth about many NRA members and gun advocates involves the fact that THEY are the ones merely seeking a political agenda. This is absolutely proven by the lengths they will go through lobbying efforts, and propaganda, to prevent any real progress towards making guns less harmful and/or less ubiquitous in our society!

    However, we all know that this post will be considered by gun advocates, as, nothing but an opportunity to create “gotcha” arguments composed of false straw men and faulty reasoning processes of their own.

    Some of us just want to see an end to tragic gun violence like that in Aurora and Newtown! we have no interest in using plots of deception or dictatorial control, just to get our way.

    By the time of this post, The NRA has succeeded in blocking just about any effective gun control laws with any substance. Most of us knew this would happen, but will go on pleading for sanity in this issue as long as we need to. Shame on anyone who claims we are in this for merely personal gains!–but we can be accused of being dedicated in order to prevent the most heartbreaking kind of loss possible–a parent outliving a cherished and loved child.

    Anything I say is already going thorough propaganda sausage making machine. The result is something that tastes good but has little to do with honest and real need. Any knee–jerk reactions from gun control advocates is much better than the total denial of reason itself!

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