Earlier this week, we looked at the mechanics of argument, counterargument and refutation, for the benefit of those who need to write argumentative essays or speeches, or take part in debates. This post and next we’re looking at a couple of false moves, pretty common ones I’m afraid, starting with the straw man.
If you read a lot of opinion articles on the internet, you’ll have heard the term ‘straw man’ before: scroll down the comments section and sooner or later, one person will accuse another of having used a straw man argument. It’s in danger of being overused then, which is a shame because, unlike a lot of internet jargon, there’s a live metaphor in there. You use ‘straw man’ when you think that your opponent is not engaging with you and your arguments, but has invented some ridiculous counterargument to his own in order to be able to knock it down and make his argument look the better one. It is as if, not being strong enough to engage with an actually person and their ideas, he has created a straw effigy, much the easier to push around (and possibly set alight, a la The Wicker Man).
To illustrate this, let’s take the argument (current in Scotland at least, at the moment) about lowering the voting age to 16. This is, by the way, a fairly common topic in exams and assessments. Let’s imagine we’re arguing against it. We think that people under 18 lack the wisdom, perspective and life experience to make an informed choice. We arrive at the counter-argument and write the following
Some people argue that sixteen and seventeen-year olds are at the peak of their mental powers, thus hould be more eligible to vote than the feeble-minded elderly.
That’s a pretty daft counter argument and nice and easy for us to demolish – so fits the bill perfectly, does it not? But does anyone actually make that argument? Does anyone seriously claim that teenagers are cleverer than adults? No. So we’ve made it up then? Or we’ve at the very least deliberately characterized our opponent’s arguments as dumb and simplistic? Yes. We have presented a counterargument that no articulate opponent would present; rather than deal with our opponents’ substantive arguments, we’ve constructed a straw man, all the easier to refute, making us look big and clever, or so we think. Actually, we’re lightweight, shallow and dishonest.
An honest characterization of your opponents’ views reflects well on your own argument. It shows you have understood and considered them before you coming to your own confusion. You also look like less of a jerk. A better counterargument in our example would read as follows:
Some people would argue that 16 and 17 year olds are intellectually developed and mature enough to consider the issues that are being voted on, and they are often more passionate about politics than their elders.
But what if you find yourself unable to offer a substantial counterargument? It may be that you do not know your opponents’ arguments, or – worse – that you’re arguing a point which next to no one contests. It’s better, in fact, to know the counterarguments before starting your argument at all…
Write a paragraph with a counterargument on the topic ‘I’m not too old to…’ or ‘I’m not too young to…’ E.g. I’m not too old to learn, I’m not too young to drive…