Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Bigger Story on Straw Person Attacks

On Reddit, a heavily upvoted thread discussed straw person attacks. The posters repeatedly wrote about distorting others' words. But there's more to the story.

If some ordinary stranger posts something preposterous on Twitter and we attack their claims, a straw person exists, even if you quote it exactly.

Taking a blatantly ironic comment and pretending the writer actually has that belief is also a straw person.

In short, a straw person is:

  1. twisting someone's quote or otherwise pretending others have beliefs they are unlikely to have.
  2. attacking easy, unimportant targets rather than presenting the strongest arguments that differ from your own.

The exception is if powerful individuals--billionaires, national politicians, university presidents--post preposterous ideas. It is not a straw person to attack their arguments because atrocious ideas in powerful hands have disastrous consequences.

But if all we do is ridicule powerful political opponents without addressing the strongest counterarguments to our own views, then that is also a straw person.

A cottage industry of mocking Trump's tweets and speeches now exists. That's sometimes good, but the people doing the mocking believe in neo-Marxism, neoconservatism, and other horrific ideologies. They're often merely trying to bolster their own rotten world views.

We also have a duty to focus more on what politicians do than what they say because previous behavior is a better guide than political boilerplate.

The power of contemporary establishments rests on slurs, straw person attacks, small sample claims, and other fallacies spread through the mass media. The individuals who profit from and listen to the mass media often have no idea what the strongest counterarguments to their worldviews are because they haven't heard them and don't want to hear them. Fifty-four percent of respondents to a 2016 post election Pew poll claim to have never have heard of the "alt-right." Among those who have heard of the alt-right, many make no attempt to read the strongest arguments on the alt-right. Instead, they believe what the mass media tells them the alt-right stands for. In addition, most people seem to think the slurs they call their opponents aren't slurs or that they're just "calling them what they are," though that's seldom what they are. Such behavior is a recipe for unjust wars and extreme totalitarianism.

And if the strongest arguments that differ from our own, deserve more weight than our own, then we all have ethical duties to switch our beliefs.

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