Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Epiphany #6

And we ain't got no brains, And we ain't got no hearts,
It's just the wild, old wind
That tears us all apart,
We're the scarecrow people,
And we got lots in common with you.
--XTC

I realized this morning that one of my best friends is made of straw.  He is the dubious friend of any writer who wants to make an argument.  I even think my other friend Billy used him the other day to further his discussion of women in rock.  My friend is The Straw Man.

According to nizor.org, which offers my favorite definition, "The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position."

I use him all of the time.  I use him to argue global warming, partisan politics, gridlock, Obamacare, women's rights, immigration, foreign policy, etc., etc., etc.  Yep, he's pretty much with me all of the time.

It's that word "fallacy," though, that keeps sticking in my craw.  Fallacy implies that either I'm doing something wrong, in my argument, or that I don't know what I'm doing at all, since all my opponent need do is to point out its fallaciousness.

Instead, I would argue that we none of us are very good at arguing anymore and that, as a result, my straw-filled friend is more effective than ever.  Because we tend toward the broad, the general, the grandiose, all my straw friend need do is to pluck one, single sharp dried piece of fieldgrass to puncture the balloon of most arguments.

For example, you may be the most generous, open-minded person you know, but if I can find one, just one, maybe a joke or a careless utterance, or an overdeveloped use of irony, but just that one occasion of your bigotry, I can exaggerate who you are and you are finished.

Look around!  This is happening everywhere.  We are all painted into corners--of liberalism, conservatism, greed, intolerance--and we repay the favor by trying to paint our opponents into even tighter spots.

Am I part of the solution?  Sadly, not so far.  Sadly, I tend to rely on the tools available to me because, like the rest of our culture, it seems more important to me to be right, however narrowly, than to acknowledge a position that might move things forward.  To be wrong is to be weak and dismissed.  To acknowledge that small glimmer that the other side might have something pretty good is to be pounced upon and repudiated.

So, no, I'm not part of the solution, but I'm not happy about that.  Maybe self-awareness is the first step.  You?  Oh, forget about it.  You don't care about anything beyond yourself.  At least that's what my straw guy says.

3 comments:

Billy said...

Because it's too tempting and fun to avoid taking the bait, I must ask. Is my straw man that I have (in my women & rock post) allegedly created a mythical collective of male music-lovers upon whom I can attribute a certain level of sexism, parts of it intentional and aggressive, other parts unintentional or accidental?

Because I could have named names and even offered specifics as to the level and degree of guilt each guy I was lumping into the collective ought to feel for his part in Keeping Rockin' Women Down, but I was taking a page from the Bob Book of Criticism and keeping things more vague for their protection. I've learned from Bob that accusations carry more weight if each reader can believe the accusation is aimed at them (even if it isn't).

And also, ain't nothin' Straw Man about that Coachella lineup list.

Bob said...

Hey, just so it wasn't me, I don't care. But I also knew it wasn't our New Orleans compadres, so I thought you might have exaggerated or distorted a bit.

G. B. Miller said...

Most state and local guv'ments function like this.