Avoiding strawmen

Ge­orge Bernard Shaw wrote that, “the sin­gle biggest prob­lem in com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the illu­sion that it has taken place”. Much of straw­man­ning is un­con­scious. One per­son says that it is im­por­tant to be pos­i­tive, the other per­son in­ter­prets this as it be­ing im­por­tant to be pos­i­tive in *all* cir­cum­stances, when they are merely mak­ing a gen­eral state­ment.

I would sug­gest that a tech­nique to avoid ac­ci­den­tally straw­man­ning some­one would be to be­gin by in­ten­tion­ally straw­man­ning them and then try to back off to some­thing more mod­er­ate from there.

Take for ex­am­ple:

“Just be your­self”

A straw­man would be, “Even if you are a se­rial kil­ler, you should fo­cus on be­ing your­self, than chang­ing how you be­have”.

Since this is a rather ex­treme straw­man, back­ing off to some­thing more mod­er­ate from here would be too easy. We might very well just back off to an­other straw­man. In­stead, we should back­off to a more rea­son­able straw­man first, then back­off to the mod­er­ate ver­sion of their view.

The more mod­er­ate straw­man, “You should never change how you act in or­der to bet­ter fit in”

When we back off to some­thing more mod­er­ate, we then get, “Chang­ing how you act in or­der to bet­ter fit in is gen­er­ally not worth it”

You can then re­spond to the more mod­er­ate view. If you had re­sponded to the origi­nal, you might have pointed out a sin­gle case when the prin­ci­ple didn’t hold, such as mak­ing a change that didn’t af­fect one’s in­di­vi­d­u­al­ity (i.e show­er­ing reg­u­larly) and used it to at­tack the more gen­eral prin­ci­ple. When you have the more mod­er­ate prin­ci­ple, you can see that such a sin­gle ex­am­ple only negates the strict read­ing, not the more mod­er­ate read­ing. You can then ei­ther ac­cept the mod­er­ate read­ing or add ar­gu­ments about why you also dis­agree with it. If you had skipped this pro­cess, you might have made a spe­cific cri­tique and not re­al­ised that it didn’t com­pletely negate the other per­son’s ar­gu­ment.