Straw man fallacy is committed when a person replaces a argument with a misrepresentation of their own devising. Generally this is done to more easily discredit or counter another person’s position. The misrepresentation of the original argument is much easier to defeat, just like a “straw man” is much easier to defeat than a real person.
The origins of the term are somewhat uncertain, but most people believe it refers to dummies used in early military training or weapons practice. If you’ve ever seen the movie Return to Snowy River, there is scene where both the protagonist and antagonist show their skills against such training dummies. But whatever the actual origins, we are probably more familiar with this logical fallacy than we realize.
In formal debate, the proper response or proof against this fallacy is to simply show how the misrepresentation of the argument is not accurate and to restate the actual argument. The person who committed the straw man fallacy is then burdened with responding to the actual argument. Unfortunately in the real world, someone with a “straw man” and either the loudest voice or a particularly emotional appeal is likely to win the argument despite committing a straw man fallacy.
It is sad that so often in our world today people would rather presume to know your position and argue against their straw man perception. It has been said before by others wiser than me, but we have genuinely lost the ability to listen to someone else, in an argument or debate, with an ear for understanding. I think people on both sides of many of the debates in the public sphere today would find themselves much closer together on the core of their desires if they simply listened to the other side trying to understand the real positions (and the reason behind them) rather than just presume to know.
But we are much more concerned with being right, being respected, or being heard than we are about getting along or listening to someone else. We want validation of our position more than we want to find common ground, or at least learn to agree to disagree and yet remain friendly. One of my facebook friends has a circle that has done this more effectively than I’ve seen anywhere else. They come from different backgrounds and have a variety of political persuasions and therefore disagree on many issues. But they still are friends and can hang out and enjoy each others company. It is refreshing.
I genuinely think the world would be a better place for everyone if we took the time to genuinely listen to those who disagree with us and understand why. We do ourselves a disservice when we presume to know the other person without actually speaking with them.
I leave you with these wise words from a wise straw man. Remember, sometimes it is better to remain silent and listen to a different perspective than to let your words show how little you actually understand of the other perspective.