What Is a ‘Straw Man’?

My old friend Paul Ryan gave a knock-out speech at the Values Voter Summit last week. He structured the entire speech around this central idea: “The Obama administration is justifying a second term based on straw man fallacies.”

Scared of a straw man? Paul Ryan isn’t.

As a debate coach, I train my students to hawk straw men out, expose them to the judge, and parade them about. I also train them to never build a winning argument on a straw man, because winning with such nonsense is really not winning at all.

If you have time, watch this excellent speech, and then let me explain what a straw man is and how you should respond to it.

What Is a Straw Man?

A straw man is a logical fallacy. It is when one person paints a picture of the opposing view in a way that is easy to knock down. He creates an imaginary opponent – a punching bag full of straw – and then puffs himself up after punching it over.

Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC is a great example. Paul Ryan isn’t the only person to call him out on it. Brit Hume complained that the speech had a “significant number of straw men” (see Politico article here). Hume pointed it out like this:

Obama: “My opponents insist that there is no other way to help the economy other than give tax cuts to the rich and remove all regulations.”

Really? What opponents? Who is giving no alternatives? Who wants to just give tax cuts to rich people? Who wants to remove all regulations? As Hume put it, “Who across the political spectrum is saying that?”

The answer: no one. It is a straw man. And Paul Ryan is very nearly making it a campaign platform.

You Hear This All the Time

You probably hear straw men all the time but don’t realize it. Usually when someone tries to belittle you for the opinion that you hold – sort of like putting you in place – you are being set up to be knocked down. It isn’t very nice, and you probably feel offended.

“Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re ___________.”

Fill in the blank. You’re biased/racist/judgmental/egotistical/jobless/desperate/poor/rich/etc.  The person who uses the straw man is setting you up to be easily knocked down. It appears to be ad hominem (a personal attack, which is another fallacy), and it is close. Ultimately, what the person is trying to do is frame your viewpoint into something that person can easily reject.

How to Respond

The straw man is answered just like Brit Hume did it. Point out that no one is saying such things, or that there is no one that fits the character of the straw man. This will force the person making the fallacy to do one of two things: (1) attempt to find the loon who is such a radical, or (2) be more accurate about the picture he is painting of his opponent.

Ryan responds to the straw men by explaining exactly as it is. It’s brilliant. When you are met with someone who paints you in the worst negative light, you don’t need to take the hit. Respond like Ryan. Here’s a transcript of the video above taken from here:

RYAN:  You say things like this, and our opponents will quickly accuse you of being anti-government. President Obama frames the debate this way. Because here again, it’s the only kind of debate he can win, against straw man arguments. No politician is more skilled at striking heroic poses against imaginary adversaries. Nobody is better at rebuking nonexistent opinions. Barack Obama does this all the time. And in this campaign, we are gonna call him on it. The president is given to lectures on all that we owe to government, as if anyone who opposes his reckless expansion of federal power is guilty of ingratitude and rank individualism. He treats private enterprise as little more than a revenue source for government.

Bottom line: a straw man is a lazy attempt to make an argument, and a cheap shot. In an election year, an informed and well-educated public should make the best choice possible for our leaders. Using straw men to persuade the masses should anger the masses. They offend our intelligence and assume that we’ll fall for them.

Question: What other logical fallacies do you find evident in political speeches?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Mark

    There’s one thing worse than using a straw man. That is telling a lie. Paul Ryan lied about his marathon times in another recent speech. I don’t think that is good politics.

    • What’s your source, Mark? Post it for all of us to see.

  • Nina B

    Interviewer questions PR
    HH: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.HH: Holy smokes.
    http://news.runnersworld.com/2012/08/31/paul-ryan-says-hes-run-sub-300-marathon/ Runners World checked and Paul Ryan has only one run one marathon and he completed in four hours.

    My questions are the following- what is to be gained from such a statement, if it is untrue? Was it said to impress the interviewer? Is there a difference between stretching the truth and telling a lie? If he only ran one marathon, he’d remember his time, surely.
    I’d rather look at the big picture of a politician’s overall career, what he stands for, what he/she did or did not vote for. My concerns are with bigger issues, although if an adult tells me an untruth in my real-world, day to day life, my doubt will always cloud what they are trying to express.

    • Thanks Nina for finding the source for Mark.

      Gee, I’d give Ryan (or anyone) a pass with getting it a little wrong in an interview that referred to a 12-year-old marathon. He even said “or something” as if he was pulling a number out of the air from a distant memory. Characterizing him as a “liar” because of this is — er — stuffing hay in an empty argument. Not very persuasive.

      Meanwhile, on the other side of the ticket, is Joe Biden, a proven plagiarist. I’d say Mark is providing a double standard.

      • Mark

        A little wrong? He knocked at least an hour off his time.

        • Right, it sounds very much like a simple slip up, especially because he said “or something.”
          Biden, on the other hand, is a plagiarist. Judging the two VPs next to each other, Ryan appears to be saintly. I’m sure that will weigh with you more, right Mark?

          • Mark

            Please stop distracting the conversation by talking about Biden. I have said nothing about Biden. I didn’t say whether I like Biden or not.

            I am pointing out that Ryan is not “saintly” and in fact lied considerably (1 hour!) about his marathon performance. Since he had everything to gain by lying, it’s unlikely he just “forgot” his marathon time.
            On top of everything else, how intelligent is a man who lies about something that can be checked so easily?

            • Mark

              And he didn’t say “or something”. He said, “I had a two hour and fifty-something.”

              Could be two hours and fifty-one, or fifty-five, or fifty-nine. But he was pretty clear on that “two hours.”

              “Two hours and fifty something” is an amazing time. Four hours is average. He changed his time from something average to something amazing.

              • Okay, okay. I do think you’re making a mtn out of molehill. I give Ryan a pass on this one. There are much bigger issues to be debating.

                • Mark

                  You wrote, “Right, it sounds very much like a simple slip up, especially because he said “or something.”

                  He didn’t say, “or something.” He said “two hours and fifty-something.”

                  I hope that Ryan supporters don’t lie also!

            • Sorry, Mark. Biden is the VP on the Democratic side, so I thought it would be interesting on how you would condemn Biden for his plagiarism. I mean, you seemed mighty condemning of Ryan for recalling a 12-year-old memory slightly wrong, I thought you’d really go off on Biden for premeditated, intentional, immoral theft of another’s intellectual property.

              Unless you’re just grasping for a reason to doubt Ryan. He does seem pretty saintly. I remember him as the smartest kid in the class, he’s currently an economic whiz, and I think he’d be a fantastic VP.

              • Mark

                Your post was about Ryan, which is why I wrote about Ryan.