An important consequence of attacking straw men instead of real arguments in their strongest form is that doing so prevents serious discussion of whatever issue is at stake. The bar for moral, social, and political discourse in this country isn't that high to begin with, but attacking straw men lowers the bar even further.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum provided us with some examples of the straw man fallacy in his attacks on President Obama's position on education and John F. Kennedy's position on separation of church and state. Here is what Santorum said regarding Obama's views on college education:
President Obama said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob! There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.Obama did not say he wants everybody in America to go to college, so attacking him for holding this position is irrelevant to either proving Obama's position is wrongheaded or for proving any of the other claims Santorum makes about getting a college education, creating jobs, or indoctrination. What Obama actually said was:
I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American.Santorum's straw man ploy was matched by others who characterized Santorum's position as being against education, which it isn't. Comedian Jon Stewart, for example, asked of Santorum: “You’re against people educating their kids because it’s fancy?” We can forgive Stewart, since exaggeration is an expected part of comedy. But others who distorted Santorum's position are as guilty of the straw man fallacy as he is.
Regarding JFK's position on separation of church and state, Santorum said:
To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live [in] that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?I admit that it is difficult to follow what Santorum is saying, but it seems clear that he is characterizing Kennedy's position on the separation of church and state as meaning that people of faith have no role to play in our political life. In actuality, Kennedy's position was put forth to defend the position that a person's faith should not disqualify him from public office. Kennedy never said that he wanted people of faith to have no role in the public square. I remember the speech well and Kennedy's point was clear: if elected I will not be taking orders from the Vatican. Here's what Kennedy actually said:
That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.Nothing in this speech comes close to Santorum's distortion.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
It may seem obvious that the popularity of straw man attacks is due to the ease with which one can dispose of a distorted or false position compared to dealing fairly with complex issues and arguments. But we shouldn't underestimate the role of incompetence, indifference to the truth, or ignorance. Some may use this tactic because they don't know the actual position of the one they're attacking, but they may not care, either. Their goal is to look good or make some point of their own and the fact that to do so means misrepresenting another is of little concern to them. Some, like Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart, have little concern for egregious distortion, partly because of their role as political pundits and partly because of their role as entertainers. Limbaugh's latest straw man was spewed forth against Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke who took public her campaign for contraceptive coverage at Georgetown, a Catholic university in Washington. Many Republicans and Catholic Church leaders denounced the Obama administration’s contraception mandate without distorting the mandate significantly in the process, but also without generating much useful debate on contraception as a moral and political issue or on the right of government to mandate insurance coverage. Limbaugh, on the other hand, in his trademark coarseness lowered the bar several notches by saying on his syndicated radio program: “If we’re going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.” Fluke's stated position is that the university health plan for students should cover the cost of contraceptives. Limbaugh's characterization of that viewpoint as paying her to have sex is a gross distortion of what Fluke was arguing for. To add insult to the straw man attack, Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" and then complained that Democrats were outraged at his gratuitously vulgar choice of words.
Sometimes people falsely accuse others of committing the straw man fallacy. Leonard Pitts, for example, accused Rick Santorum of making a straw man argument on gay marriage:
Santorum took the same header into non sequitur and illogic that gay marriage opponents often take, i.e., if we legalize this, then we must also legalize polygamy.
It is a line of “thinking” which conveniently ignores a glaring fact. Namely, that there is not and never has been a large culture of people who felt biologically driven toward polygamous behavior, much less who seek social sanction for it. Santorum raises a classic straw man argument, tries to win the debate by stoking fear of what has not and will not happen.The reference is to a response Santorum gave to a question:
Asked by a college student why he opposed the right of same-sex couples to wed, he responded that there was no compelling reason to allow it and suggested that it was akin to legalizing polygamy.
“So, everybody has the right to be happy?” he said. “So, if you’re not happy unless you’re married to five other people, is that OK?”I agree that Santorum has created a straw man: he is suggesting that the best argument in support of gay marriage is that everyone, including gays, have a right to be happy no mattter what the consequences. This is not a very good reason for supporting gay marriage. It may be true that one of the reasons in support of gay marriage is that gays have a right to the pursuit of happiness and not allowing them to marry infringes on this right. But the pursuit of happiness has never been considered justification in itself to do whatever one thinks will make one happy. In any case, there are much better reasons that have been given in support of gay marriage, but Santorum ignores them. Maybe he doesn't know what they are. Maybe he doesn't care what they are. His comparison of legalizing same-sex marriage to polygamy is irrelevant and just muddies the water. But Pitts suggests that the straw man is created by Santorum's appeal to fear about what has not and will not happen. Claiming that some terrible consequence will occur if an action is taken, while providing no evidence that the awful thing will happen, is usually called a slippery slope argument rather than a straw man. Pitts also seems to be suggesting that the biological attraction many people have for members of their own sex is the main reason, or at least one of the main reasons, in support of gay marriage. That view is about on par with Santorum's view that the pursuit of happiness is the main reason defenders of same-sex marriage give. Pitts seems to be suggesting that if a significant number of people were biologically driven to have several partners at once, that would justify polygamy. I don't think so. On the other hand, there might be some good arguments other than the biological one in defense of polygamy that both Santorum and Pitts are overlooking.
One of the more reprehensible forms of straw man attack is the one conjoined with the availability bias and the representativeness bias. I'm referring to the times that opportunistic media vultures take advantage of some catastrophe or tragedy. Liberals and conservatives are equally blameworthy on this count.
After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, fundamentalist Christian evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson shoehorned the events to their agenda. They claimed that "liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters bear partial responsibility...because their actions have turned God's [sic] anger against America." According to Falwell, his god allowed "the enemies of America...to give us probably what we deserve." Robertson agreed. The American Civil Liberties Union has "got to take a lot of blame for this," said Falwell and Robertson agreed. Federal courts bear part of the blame, too, said Falwell, because they've been "throwing God [sic] out of the public square." Also "abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God [sic] will not be mocked," said Falwell and Robertson agreed. [Hear these men talk it out in mp3.]* [Note: the sic indicates that the media from which these quotes were taken capitalize 'god' and that Robertson and Falwell use the word as if it were the name of someone.]A similar abuse of fairness occurred after U. S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others were shot--six fatally--in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Arizona, by a mentally ill young man. Jane Fonda and other liberals put the onus on Sarah Palin and Glen Beck, blaming their harsh rhetoric and Palin's use of crosshairs on a map targeting Gifford's congressional district. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, blamed the Tea Party movement for the shooting. It should go without saying that Robertson, Falwell, Wasserman, and Fonda did not make their claims based on evidence, but on the first thing that popped into their heads, which was a stereotype of people and groups they consider enemies or opponents and whose views they then went on to misrepresent. There was some discussion in the media and the blogosphere about mental illness, violent crime, and the ease with which guns can be acquired, but the discussion of these important issues could hardly be heard above the din of media vultures with agendas.
Finally, a refutation does not become a straw man attack simply because it contains an occasional exaggeration or error in representation of another's argument. You are not excused from answering a critic's strongest arguments against you simply because your opponent didn't get every little detail about your argument correct. A refutation that confronts several of the main points of an argument, but which also attacks a minor point or gets some detail incorrect, does not thereby become a straw man attack.