Fallacy Zoo: The March of the Straw men


The deployment of straw men is often used to craft the illusion of a strong argument. The metaphor is one in which your opponent will surreptitiously substitute your actual argument for a weak passive dummy and then rapidly demolish it. It conjurers up images of assault troops marching out to do battle against a field of dummies made of straw.  These representations of the real enemy are totally safe, will not shoot back, and are quickly overcome.

The real-world illustration of this is where those who seek to defend a specific position or make an argument do so by outlining a very weak watered down variation of the opposing argument and then proceed to rip this substitute to shreds.

We have in the Guardian a classic example of this yesterday. The writer Francis Spufford attempts to defend faith by vigorously battling an atheist straw man.

He claims to have listened to all the arguments and is familiar with Dawkins and also Hitchens, yet he starts out by simply listing the ridicule that is often deployed in Facebook or Reddit and then attempts to assert that as the core of the atheist objection against batty beliefs. For example …

…That we’re infantile and can’t do without an illusory daddy in the sky. That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds. That we teach people to hate their own natural selves. That we want people to be afraid. That we want people to be ashamed. That we have an imaginary friend, that we believe in a sky pixie; that we prostrate ourseves before a god who has the reality-status of Santa Claus….

… then proceeds to claim …

Those are the objections of people who care enough about religion to object to it. Or to rent a set of recreational objections from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

The flaw here is that such rhetoric are not in any way stating the actual objections of those who criticize the daft claims being made by those who believe.

The actual objections, the real reasons that non-believers will verbally attack believers, is due to the highly immoral actions of believers. If belief did not attempt to interfere by labelling gay people as immoral and wicked, harassing women who seek abortions, or opposing the teaching of sex education, but instead just believed their crazy stuff without attempting to impose it on the rest of us, they would not be in the spotlight. Instead they demand special privileges, such as unelected seats in the house of lords, the creation of state funded ‘faith’ schools that only those who buy into their bullshit can attend, and demonize any who do not agree with them. Should I stop there? Not if I have any sense of basic human decency, because we should not forget to mention that people are dying in Africa of AIDS due to the opposition by those of faith to the use of Condoms. As an individual who was also born and educated in Ireland I am also ever so conscious of the fact that to this very day the belief that prevails there feels itself to be above the law and still refuses to permit the names of known abusers of children to be disclosed. We need not look too far this very week to also find some truly horrific examples of stoning or deaths or threats of death being deployed by some Islamic factions.

The real reasons for the deployment of criticism, and the real substance of such objections by non-believers have very little to do with the statements of ridicule that Mr Spufford attempts to assert as the atheist position – his argument is a classic straw man.

If you do take the time to read all of Mr Spufford’s article then I should warn you that it is basically one long whine, a considerable degree of waffle, and an attempt to defend belief as a form of emotional assurance.

As for straw men, it is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways, we need to not only be on the lookout for the deployment of straw men within opposing arguments, but also guard against deploying them within our own arguments.

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