The straw man fallacy is a classic. You might have heard it mentioned in casual conversation before. It’s when someone misrepresents an opposing argument, making it easier to defeat. For example, a nutritionist might argue that fried food is bad for you. An objector might then say, “That’s absurd. Everyone needs food to survive. Frying food is a perfectly valid way to prepare it. You wouldn’t want uncooked raw meat, would you?”
This is a fallacy. The nutritionist never said people should go hungry, that frying food is an invalid method of preparation, or that meat would be better raw. He just said fried food is unhealthy, which is true. So… who is the objector arguing with? He’s arguing with a straw man, someone who doesn’t exist—a man who hates fried food so irrationally that he’s willing to condemn it at any cost, even if that means people starve to death.
It’s much easier to win an argument against a make-believe nutjob than the real person sitting in the room with you. This is why the straw man fallacy is so popular. Everyone wants to be the noble knight defeating the evil dragon. But you can’t do that without a dragon, so what happens when there is no dragon? You have to make one up.
Tilting at Windmills
The famous novel Don Quixote comes to mind. In it, we see a man who longs to be a knight in shining armor in a time when such things are antiquated. But he doesn’t care. He decides he’s going to be a knight anyways, imagining windmills as towering giants he must defeat.
When we imagine our opponents as worse than they are, we become unnecessarily antagonistic towards them. We falsely attribute evils upon them so we can show others that they are wrong and we are right. But life isn’t black and white. Life is full of nuance and humans are complicated creatures.
This reminds me of the ninth commandment:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”Exodus 20:16 (ESV)
Most of us think this means, “Don’t lie.” That’s true, but it means even more. Condemning someone for a position they don’t hold (by using a straw man) is a form of bearing false witness. You’re misrepresenting them to onlookers and purposefully ignoring the truth (the nuance of their actual position) so you can get the outcome you want and win the argument. It’s dishonest and manipulative.
The obvious example of the straw man fallacy is the discourse surrounding modern-day politics. Invariably, you see both sides go at each other’s throats with the most ridiculous straw men imaginable regardless of the conversation at hand. The media pushes this dichotomy constantly.
To liberals, anyone who voted for Trump is a deranged, hateful, racist, sexist idiot who wants to let schoolchildren be shot to death, steal elections and taxpayer dollars to feed corrupt right-wingers, take away all social programs and civil rights protections, and gleefully kill LGBTQ people in cold blood.
To conservatives, anyone who voted for Biden is an unhinged sexual deviant who wants to pervert and manipulate children, steal elections and taxpayer dollars to feed corrupt leftists, take away all of our constitutional rights, and gleefully kill babies in cold blood.
Have you noticed that it’s rare to find anyone like this in the real world? Sure, they definitely exist. But more often, you get people with a unique mix of ideas. Some will be taken from friends, family, or personal experiences. Others are copied from TV and social media. Still others are original perspectives (Who would have thought?). But everyone is a person created in the image of God with their own view of the world. It’s important that we not lose sight of the human (who isn’t made of straw) in the midst of the outrage, no matter how justified.
“With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.”Proverbs 11:9 (ESV)
How Straw Men Are Made
I think it’s worth asking where these straw men come from. They don’t really exist until we invent them. We find ourselves at odds with a person or idea we refuse to deal with honestly, so we conjure these straw men from our own imagination, puppet them around, and use them to slander people. Where does that leave us?
“A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”Luke 6:45 (CSB)
Jesus makes it clear that we are solely responsible for that which comes out of us. The words and actions we express are the sloshes of water that leap from the edges of the barrel of our heart, filled to the brim with our very souls. We should not take it lightly. We will be held accountable.
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”Matthew 12:36-37 (ESV)
So be careful what you say to make sure it’s the truth. It doesn’t matter if you’re quoting an enemy or a brother. Bear faithful witness to their actual argument so you can address it properly. A man who can’t even bear to repeat something accurately is hopeless to defend the truth with his character, much less his speech.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Enter your email to keep in touch with me. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.