Straw Man

A straw man dummy impaled by arrows

STRAW MAN: “An intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.” – Oxford English Dictionary

STRAW MAN PROPOSAL: “A straw-man proposal is a brainstormed simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion of its disadvantages and to provoke the generation of new and better proposals.” – Wikipedia

When I first entered the corporate world, I heard many terms that had established meanings in business (sometimes due to wrong usage) which contradicted established definitions (see postmortem) or were so uncommon I confused them with similar words (see incent). I’ve been dealing with straw man proposals for some time now, but when I first heard it, I wanted to shout, “AW HELL NAW! DEATH TO LOGICAL FALLACIES!” But decorum and experience with business jargon stayed my tongue. And my career is the better for it.

That young marketing director had only encountered straw man fallacies—the debate tactic where you substitute an easy-to-defeat alternative for your opponent’s thesis. From recent coronavirus-centered (of course) news:

As the fall winds on, the teacher unions risk being seen as tone-deaf given the expectations for other essential employees—especially if Trump loses his re-election bid, robbing the union leaders of their familiar straw man.

“Are Teachers Unions Overplaying Their Hands?” The Dispatch, July 31, 2020

Political agnosticism aside, Donald Trump is pretty much the perfect straw man. Somewhere there is a tweet of his that is reckless, boorish, and topical enough for your argument. But chances are it will also be a non-sequitur, which is another logical fallacy altogether. Attacking “evil” Trump instead of the issue at hand is a straw man fallacy, just as to Trump’s supporters, the hypocrisy of the mainstream media, the UN, and House Democrats also serve as convenient straw men.

The term straw man proposal originates from the same source—namely, a dummy used for melee practice. While the fallacy accuses one of choosing the easily-won battle (as a great warrior said, “boards don’t hit back”), the proposal purposely sets up a weak proposal to find the flaws. Or more often, the term is used to describe a first draft the team is supposed to dissect. I guess straw man sounds more learned.

Straw man proposal as a term has some venerability, so I can let this one slide. Considering how uneducated most college graduates are on logical fallacies (evidenced by the absolutely worthless arguments I’ve encountered), there probably won’t be much confusion with the other straw man. Good thing they don’t hit back.

– Otto E. Mezzo


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