Death to straw men

United Methodist Internet conversation is plagued by many logical fallacies. We invoke the slippery slope. We appeal to authority. We roll out the band wagon. The one that always comes to my mind first, though, is our rampant use of straw man arguments.

This is so common that it almost appears to be required, as if the Book of Discipline mandated its use.

The moves are simple. First you over simplify or mischaracterize a competing argument. This is setting up the straw man. Then you knock the straw man down, leading to the conclusion that your alternative must be the better argument.

The only solution I know for this problem comes from the counsels of active listening. When we want to describe the position or argument of a person with whom we disagree, we must first ask that person if the argument as we have described it fairly represents what they are trying to argue or say.

Only once we can construct our opponent’s argument in a manner that strikes them as fair should we critique it.

Now, of course, it often happens on the Internet that we cannot engage in the kind of back-and-forth that would allow us to get that kind of acknowledgment. But that should be a goal in all we do.

It is not as fun as knocking down straw men, but it is certainly more in keeping with the law of love.


6 thoughts on “Death to straw men

  1. A good reminder. I think we also need to be careful about charging a logical fallacy on someone because it’s often a means to simply shut down conversation by means of labeling it as X and therefore I won’t respond.

    For example, I’ve yet to hear a progressive honestly engage someone who asks them about how they would respond to the polygamous group who comes to them seeking to be married, or the father and adult daughter who wish to be married, or any number of other such scenarios. Rather than answering how they would counsel (and what sort of authority they would cite) such people in their church they always (in my experience) invoke the slippery slope fallacy and refuse to say anything more. Am I missing something in that? To me it seems like a convenient dodge.

    1. Chad,

      I am of one accord with you that we should not be trying to shut down conversation. I suppose it is always valid to say that we don’t wish to have a discussion. But once we enter one, we should do our best to have Christian conversation, which, I believe, precludes the kinds of moves you describe.

      Having said that, I am hesitant to describe the motives of people you have been engaged with that I have not. I do not know, for instance, if they are avoiding honest engagement and would be reluctant to make a sweeping generalization to that effect.

      In my own experience, I have written Bishop Talbert and Adam Hamilton asking them about the polygamy question because it is one that I seriously have a hard time discerning a distinction in the logic being offered by them. Talbert’s response was simply that he had no interest in my question. He was dealing with the thing he was dealing with. Hamilton wrote back that he had no direct experience with the question coming up in an actual pastoral setting, so had not really thought about it. On this blog and other places, I have some other interactions around those questions. For the most part, they have not gone very far because it is difficult to really unearth the differences that lie beneath the presenting issue of disagreements on a question of sexual ethics.

      I do think labeling such questions “slippery slope” fallacies might be valid, if we then go on to discuss why and how that is or is not the case. It is possible that I am unintentionally engaging in “slippery slope” reasoning by asking the question. If I am, I hope people would discuss that with me.

      What I fear we might fall into doing rather than that is label someone as using a slippery slope argument and then go one to attack their motives or suggest other forms of ad hominem reasons why the question is invalid. That strikes me as uncharitable argument, at the least, and one we do not have to look too far to find.

      I don’t pretend we will always end up agreeing or being persuaded by each other’s arguments, but it does appear to me that our witness could be strengthened quite a bit if we learned how to disagree and argue while obeying the Golden Rule.

      1. Thanks, John. I agree with you. The feedback you received from Talbert and Hamilton is interesting, and, I think, somewhat telling. I find it hard to believe that men of such stature and who think much on many things haven’t thought about this. Once upon a time I avoided those sort of questions in large part because I knew the answer would make it impossible to win over those who might be on the fence for full inclusion. But I don’t know that to be the case for them, although I have my suspicions.

        thanks for these reminders. you are always a delight to read.

  2. In a lot of these discussions, we cannot agree on a common set of facts or even what would constitute a desirable outcome. Some discussions seem characterized by tolerance of everything except “intolerance” which winds up meaning “I’ll happily talk with anyone who agrees with me” which is no way to reach understanding. Obviously, none of us are perfect (or even all that close) but if we try to operate based on facts then you have a chance for mutual understanding even if you don’t have agreement.

  3. Self perceptions also play a role in “straw man down”.
    Take the latest study from The American Bible Society that records:
    “The majority of adults (69%) consider themselves moderately or somewhat knowledgeable of the Bible”.

    Put that group in the ring with heavyweights and it would be a shock to their psyche and an injury to their ego to find how little they know. That would most likely lead to an attack on the person presenting an opposing view.
    Straw Man down.

    Logical fallacies site interesting.

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