Home > Politics > On Straw Men Turning Pinocchio

On Straw Men Turning Pinocchio

One of the most annoying things about the polarized back-and-forth banter that dominates our civil discourse is the incredibly common use of “straw man” arguments. Analysts from both sides build up a fabricated opposition position and rip it down while few, if any, of their opponents actually prescribe to the extreme version of the debate that has just been defeated. This is fairly commonplace on both sides of most issues, but the right wing news (such as Fox News and the talk radio networks) is exceptionally good at this, which is one of the reasons that I often find myself getting so frustrated while watching or listening to those stations.

However, what I find far more annoying is when those straw men make like Pinocchio and turn real because people in leadership or prominent positions stand up and fit themselves into those seemingly ridiculous straw man arguments. More and more lately, I have found that happening, giving phony straw positions the shred of credibility that they need to survive. Usually in these cases, the straw man argument still holds little water. Usually, those who stand up to fill the voice of the straw man arguments represent the fringes, not the norm. But even a little bit of substantiating information, even from the vast minority, can make a ridiculous or misleading argument seem more real.

When being trained in Psychological Operations with the Army, we were told repeatedly that credibility is your most valuable asset in information dissemination. If you get caught lying to a population, then your credibility is shot for the future. Similarly, the converse can ring true: if you can demonstrate a lack of credibility in the opposing point of view or its source, then the entire argument or sometimes even its associated ideology will begin to ring hollow.

I first decided to write this blog because I was reading a somewhat scathing report about Mitt Romney’s tax plan by the Brookings Institution and the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Reading the methods of the report, I found that the numbers would probably stand up to close scrutiny, yet an assumption or two (particularly the assumed goal of revenue neutrality) might be debatable by the Romney campaign, if forced to address them.

However, the response from the Romney team did not address the substance of the report at all. It simply counted it among a number of “liberal studies calling for more tax hikes and more government spending” by Obama. It sounds like dismissing an independent report without addressing the merits as simply being a “liberal study” would be part of common straw man arguments about liberal intellectuals or tax and spend Democrats. But then you read that one of the three authors of the report used to work for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. And suddenly, dismissing the entire report out of hand might make sense, no matter how credible the numbers within may be. The credibility of the report itself has been compromised, predictably.

Another example of this is in the Chick-fil-A debate. I’ve already given extensive attention to the issue, but the way that it has been presented through the media deserves its own mention. Many outlets viewed this as a freedom of speech issue in that the CEO should be able to think and say whatever he so wishes. However, as many pointed out, freedom of speech is about governmental action. People have every right to protest, boycott, or otherwise raise hell (legally) based on what someone says. This should never be about freedom of speech. To mask this as an issue of persecution or a lack of freedom of speech seemed like a straw man argument, right? How easy is it to simply defend a CEO’s right to their opinion rather than defend the objectives of the organizations to which the corporation made donations or the importance of exercising choice in capitalism through boycotts?

Well, then mayors in a number of major cities (Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh among them*) have made statements either vaguely or directly alluding to the idea that they would try to block Chick-fil-A from operating within their cities. Suddenly, the government was in fact attempting to restrict someone’s rights based on their beliefs. Suddenly, this actually was a First Amendment issue. That should have remained a straw man, but alas it received enough credibility to transform the issue in many circles.

* (I did not include Washington D.C. here because the mayor’s remarks in full clearly stated that despite his disagreement, there is nothing he can do to restrict/bar the business)

And finally, as I am writing this, reports are breaking that the Justice Department is giving just a sliver of credibility to the old straw man argument that Democrats do not support or appreciate our troops by suing the state of Ohio over military voting laws. Granted, the lawsuit does not aim to restrict voting rights for the military in any way. Granted the Fox News coverage is misleading and unfair. However, the lawsuit targets a law that grants special voting allowances specifically to military members by stating that those allowances should be made for everyone. The lawsuit claims that the distinction between military voters and civilian voters is “arbitrary.” And so the statement that Democrats are unsympathetic to the military is now backed by a lawsuit filed to by the administration arguing (in different terms) that our troops aren’t special. And Pinocchio turns real.

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