A strawman is a fallacious argument that distorts an opposing stance in order to make it easier to attack. Essentially, the person using the strawman pretends to attack their opponent’s stance, while in reality they are actually attacking a distorted version of that stance, which their opponent doesn’t necessarily support.
For example, if someone says “I think that we should give better study guides to students”, a person using a strawman might reply by saying “I think that your idea is bad, because we shouldn’t just give out easy A’s to everyone”.
Because strawman arguments are frequently used in discussions on various topics, it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about strawman arguments, see examples of how they are used, and understand what you can do in order to counter them successfully.
How a strawman works
In general, the use of a strawman consists of the following three stages:
- First, person A states their position.
- Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position, while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions.
- Finally, person B attacks the distorted version of person A’s position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original argument.
Essentially, person B creates a strawman, which is a distorted version of their opponent’s original argument, which makes it easier for them to attack their opponent’s stance.
This means that there is a flaw in the premise of the strawman argument, since the stance that it addresses doesn’t accurately reflect the stance that it was originally meant to address. As such, the strawman fallacy is considered to be a type of an informal logical fallacy, and specifically a type of a relevance fallacy, since the person using it is attacking a stance that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.
Note that, in some cases, the use of the strawman might involve a slightly different process. For example, the person using the strawman might not present the distorted version of their opponent’s stance before attacking it, but will instead use an attack which simply addresses the distorted stance directly.
Examples of strawman arguments
The following is a typical example of a strawman argument:
Teaching assistant: the homework assignment was much harder than we thought, so I think we should give a few extra points to students who completed it.
Professor: that’s a terrible idea. If we give everyone a perfect score for no reason, students won’t bother working hard in the future.
In this example, the professor uses a strawman argument, by misrepresenting their assistant’s stance in three ways:
- The professor argues against giving everyone a bonus, while the teaching assistant suggested giving it only to students who completed the assignment.
- The professor argues against giving students a perfect score, while their assistant suggested giving students only a few extra points.
- The professor argues against giving students a bonus for no reason, while their assistant suggested giving them the bonus because the assignment was harder than expected.
In doing all of this, the professor makes it much easier for themself to attack their assistant’s stance.
Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter whether the overall claims of the professor who is using the strawman are true or not (i.e. that if everyone got a perfect score for no reason, then students won’t work hard in the future). This is because the professor’s argument is a fallacious misrepresentation of their opponent’s stance, meaning that it’s entirely irrelevant to the discussion in the first place.
Another example of a strawman is the following:
Alex: I think that a bigger portion of our company’s budget should go to customer support, because we’re currently struggling in that area.
Bob: if we spend all of our money on customer support like you’re suggesting, we’ll go bankrupt in a year.
In this example, Bob is using a strawman, when he distorts Alex’s original stance in order to make it easier to attack. Specifically, while Alex proposes that the company should spend a bigger portion of their budget on customer support, Bob attacks the idea that the company should spend all of their budget on customer support, which is a different, much more extreme stance (i.e. a strawman).
Types of strawman arguments
There are countless ways to distort an opposing view when using a strawman. Common ways to do so include:
- Oversimplifying, generalizing, or exaggerating the opponent’s argument.
- Focusing on only a few specific aspects of an opponent’s argument.
- Quoting parts of the opponent’s argument out of context.
- Arguing against fringe or extreme opinions which are sometimes used in order to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t actually use.
In addition, there are various other ways in which people create strawman arguments, which can be as minor as changing small details in their opponent’s original statement, or as major as completely fabricating claims that their opponent has never made in the first place.
However, all of these techniques share one thing in common: they all involve someone distorting the opposing stance, in order to make it easier to attack.
As such, strawman arguments are relatively simple to recognize in discourse. Essentially, when you realize that there is a mismatch between someone’s stance and the stance that their opponent is attacking, it’s a clear sign that a strawman is being used. Nevertheless, in practice it can be sometimes difficult to notice or to be sure whether this type of argument has been used, especially if the person who is using the strawman knows what they’re doing.
How to counter a strawman
A good way to minimize your vulnerability to strawman arguments in the first place is to use clear and definitive language, with as little room for misinterpretation as possible. This makes it more difficult for your opponent to distort your stance, and makes it easier for you to correct them if they attempt to do so.
However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a strawman against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they truly want to, so it’s important to know how to respond to the use of a strawman argument.
In general, there are three main strategies you can use:
- Point out the strawman. Call out your opponent on their use of the strawman, by explaining why their argument is fallacious, and how it distorts your original stance. You can put them on the defensive by asking them to justify why they believe that the distorted stance that they present is the same as the one that you originally proposed; since the two are different, your opponent will either be forced to admit that their argument was invalid, or they will try to justify it by using even more fallacious reasoning, which you can then attack.
- Ignore the strawman. You can choose to ignore the distorted version of your argument that your opponent presents (i.e. the strawman), and continue to advocate for your original position. This can be effective in some cases, but if they continue to focus on the strawman, you may have to use one of the two other techniques mentioned here, in order to ensure that the discussion progresses, and in order to avoid giving the impression that you’re incapable of addressing your opponent’s argument.
- Accept the strawman. In some cases, it might be necessary or preferable for you to accept a strawman when you’re defending your stance, meaning that instead of arguing in favor of your original stance, you could start defending the distorted version of your stance, as presented by your opponent. Keep in mind, however, that the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it will be to go back and point out your opponent’s fallacious reasoning, since by defending the argument presented in the strawman you appear to accept it as your own stance.
Overall, since a strawman argument is fallacious because it distorts the stance that it argues against, the correct way to counter it, from a purely logical perspective, is to point out this distortion. This is also the most effective choice for countering the strawman in most cases, but there are some situations where it is better to use an alternative approach, by either ignoring the strawman or accepting it.
Accounting for an audience
Strawman arguments are often used during debates that are being viewed by people who are not a part of the discussion itself. The presence of such an audience is important to take into consideration when you choose how to respond to a strawman, because it can influence the effectiveness of the different strategies that you can choose from.
Essentially, when arguing in front of an audience, your focus should often be on addressing and persuading them, rather than on persuading your opponent. This is one of the main reasons why people use strawman arguments in the first place, even when they know that doing so won’t help them convince their opponent that they’re wrong.
As such, when choosing which approach to use in order to counter a strawman that is being used against you, think about which one will appeal the most to your audience. Different techniques will work better on different audiences, and some people, for example, might need you to explicitly call out the use of the strawman, while others might expect you to simply ignore it entirely.
Accounting for unintentional use of strawman arguments
When deciding how to counter the use of a strawman by your opponent, it’s important to apply the principle of charity, and keep in mind that the use of a strawman argument can sometimes be unintentional. This is because, in some cases, people distort their opponent’s stance because they misunderstand it, rather than because they want to make it easier to attack.
As such, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, when responding to a strawman you should begin your response by asking your opponent to justify their use of the strawman, instead of just attacking them for their fallacious reasoning.
Doing this is beneficial not only because it promotes more friendly discourse, but also because it also increases the likelihood that the other person will see the problem with their reasoning and accept their mistake. Furthermore, if there is an audience watching the debate, doing this can improve your image, by showing your willingness to debate in a reasonable and non-confrontational manner.
How to avoid using strawman arguments yourself
It’s important to remember that you might be using strawman arguments unintentionally. If you identify cases where this happens, and specifically if you notice instances where you distort your opponent’s views in order to make them easier for you to attack, try to keep this distortion in mind, and correct it before approaching their argument again.
One way to ensure that you’re not using a strawman is to try to re-express your opponent’s position, and then ask them whether they agree with your description of their position before you start arguing against it. This is the best way to make sure that your opponent agrees with your formulation of their stance, and is a good way to engage in productive discourse.
Now, there may be times where you might choose to use a strawman argument intentionally, for whatever reason. However, keep in mind that while this technique can be persuasive in some cases, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always the best option from a strategic perspective, aside from the inherent logical and moral issues which are associated with using fallacious reasoning.
Specifically, a study on the topic showed that as a rhetoric technique, strawman arguments are useful only when listeners are relatively unmotivated to scrutinize them, meaning that they don’t care much about what’s being said. This is because, when listeners are invested in the discussion and care enough to pay attention to the arguments that are being proposed, the strawman technique is generally ineffective, and can even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the person who is using it.
Variants of the strawman
A hollow-man argument is an argument that involves inventing a weak fictitious position and attributing it to a vaguely-defined group who is supposed to represent the opposition, before attacking it in an attempt to discredit your opponent.
As such, hollow-man arguments represent a more extreme version of strawman arguments, since while a strawman is a distorted version of an original stance, the hollow-man is an argument which is almost entirely fabricated, and which has little to do with the stance of the person that it’s meant to represent.
Hollow-man arguments can often be identified through the use of weasel words, which include phrases such as “some say…”, that are not attributed to any specific person or group. This is because the use of such phrases makes the statement vague enough that it’s nearly impossible to refute, while absolving the speaker of any responsibility with regard to their truthfulness.
An iron-man argument is an argument that involves distorting your own stance in order to make it easier for you to defend. Essentially, an iron-man is constructed in a similar way to the way you would construct a strawman (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to strengthen your own stance, rather than to weaken your opponent’s.
One of the most prominent ways to create an iron-man argument is to use vague statements that are easy to agree with, even if they don’t have much to do with your actual point. For example, consider the following exchange:
Reporter: recently, citizens have been complaining that you haven’t actually passed any anti-corruption laws since you were elected, despite your promises. What can you say about that?
Politician: all I can say is that we are working hard to make sure that we do what’s best for everyone, and I just to be sure that we end up doing the right thing. Following our moral compass takes courage in hard times, but only if we remain steadfast in our beliefs will we be able to prosper and grow strong together.
Here, the politician doesn’t say anything that is directly related to the question that they are being asked. Instead, he’s simply making abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopts this vague agenda as his stance. This means that instead of defending his true actions, he’s arguing in favor of concepts that are much easier for him to defend, such as “doing the right thing”.
A steel-man argument is an argument that involves distorting your opponent’s argument in order to make it easier for them to defend, and more difficult for you to attack. Essentially, you create a steel-man argument by carefully examining your opponent’s original stance, and then framing it in the best light possible before you move on to address it.
This is the suggested course of action under the principle of charity, which suggests that you should argue against the best possible interpretation of your opponent’s argument. One way to do this is by using the following steps, which were suggested by philosopher Daniel Dennett (and which he based on the work of psychologist Anatol Rapoport):
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Doing this can lead to more productive discussions, and increase the likelihood that your opponent will be willing to listen to what you have to say.
A note on terminology
Some scholars use the term ‘iron-man argument’ to refer to any argument which distorts an original position in order to improve it.
However, the distinction between iron-man and steel-man arguments is important to make, since the goals of these two types of arguments are completely different. Specifically, while iron-man arguments are used in order to make it easier for you to defend your own stance, steel-man arguments make it more difficult for you to attack your opponent’s stance.
This means that iron-man arguments are generally seen as a form of fallacious reasoning, which should be avoided, while steel-man arguments are generally seen as a reasonable debate technique, which should be encouraged.
Summary and conclusions
- A strawman is a fallacious argument that distorts an opposing stance in order to make it easier to attack.
- There are various ways in which one can distort an opposing argument, with some common ones being exaggerating the original argument, focusing on specific details in the original argument, and quoting parts of the original argument out of context.
- The main way to counter a straw man is to point out its use, and to then ask your opponent to prove that your original stance and their distorted stance are identical, though in some situations you might also choose to either ignore your opponent’s strawman, or to simply accept it and continue the discussion.
- When responding to a strawman, it’s important to take into account any audience that might be watching the discussion, and to choose an approach that will appeal to them.
- Variants of the straw man include the hollow-man argument, which involves inventing a fictitious position and attributing it to the opposition, the iron-man argument, which involves distorting your own stance in order to make it easier for you to defend, and the steel-man argument, which involves distorting your opponent’s stance in order to make it harder for you to attack.