Straw Man

The tactic of inventing an argument in order to demolish it.

This is distraction at its most immediate, obvious and intentional. Summarise the other side’s case. Make sure your version of it is as ridiculous as possible. Demolish the summary. Claim victory.

A variant is simply to save yourself the trouble of understanding what the other side is talking about. Alternatively, launch into a free-wheeling parody—a song (Greek: ōidế) of mockery (Greek: pará). Your victim is forced onto the defensive, and possibly into fury. You’re winning.

Here is an example. The target is the organic movement; the tactic is to make it sound like a fundamentalist religion.

1. Set up your straw man: “The high priests of the organic movement tell us that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad.”

2. Demolish it: “This is utter nonsense. . . . Arsenic, ricin, aflatoxin are all highly poisonous chemicals found in nature. Yet the supposed superiority of natural over synthetic is the rock on which the organic movement is built.”S125

Good. Now you can sit back and wait for the other side to go into a lumbering explanation (there will doubtless be something there which, if really necessary, will allow you to unleash another straw man). Here it comes:

Organic cultivation is not based on ridiculous claims about things being “natural”, but on principles of fertile soils, crop rotations, local ecosystems and animal welfare. It builds plants’ and animals’ ability to sustain their own health. It does not depend on pesticides and fertilisers produced from diminishing supplies of oil and gas. It conserves soils, water and energy; it protects habitats. It produces food richer in nutrients than conventionally-grown food, and free of contamination by synthetic chemicals. And local food production, now a priority, will improve food security, relying less on the transport which will be at risk when oil gets scarce, conserving local farming and skills, and building local fertility on productive, resilient principles known as “organic”.

Have you quite finished? It makes no difference anyway, because the straw man stopped listening ages ago. Well, he really doesn’t have to, for he has magic powers. He can make inconvenient truths disappear at a stroke. And he can provide his minders with an intoxicating sense of being right. Actually, the straw man has a dark history (below), but in more recent times he has been a symbol of finality, an old fellow with a short life who had to die at the end of the harvest, and to hand over to the new generation. Peasant societies used to unwind on the last day by making a straw man from the last sheaf, just to beat it to pieces with the flails they would soon be using to thresh the corn (perhaps to warn the rest of the corn what was coming). And there was a startling variant of this, where the man who cut the last bundle of corn was picked on for special treatment. His face would be blackened; he would be fêted and feasted, mocked and parodied. Fortunately, he had an understudy in the form of a straw goat, which he would carry about on his back. In the end, the goat would be placed on the ground and destroyed with the flails.S126

You see, you have forgotten about organic agriculture already.S127


In fact, the image is darker than it may at first seem. The Straw Man is a version of the sacrifice ritual which marks conclusion and death at the end of the summer, and takes us into the dark area of scapegoat and blame.S128 Julius Caesar describes straw man sacrifices in his Gallic War:

The whole Gallic race is addicted to religious ritual; consequently those suffering from serious maladies or subject to the perils of battle sacrifice human victims. . . . Some weave huge figures of wicker and fill their limbs with humans, who are then burned to death when the figures are set on fire. They suppose that the gods prefer this execution to be applied to thieves, robbers, and other malefactors taken in the act, but in default of such they resort to the execution of the innocent.S129

By comparison with that, a mere fallacy is small beer. But think of it like this. You make an argument. The other person does not understand it; it requires a degree of complex thought which is not in his powers. But instead of recognising that he does not understand it, he translates it into a different argument, and then attacks it. You try to correct the error, but fail. All sorts of anger and battle can follow.

This problem of misinterpreting an argument is explored by Lawrence Kohlberg, and summarised in his Moral Judgment Scale.S130 It consists of six stages of development (the seventh has been added by the present author):

Stage 1. Obedience and punishment orientation: egocentric surrender to superior power or prestige.

Stage 2. Instrumental Relativism: egoism, and orientation to exchange and reciprocity. Right action is that which is instrumentally satisfying to the self.

Stage 3. Interpersonal Concordance: “good boy” orientation; eagerness to please; conformity to stereotypes of good behaviour.

Stage 4. Law and Order: orientation to “doing duty”, to respect for authority and the maintenance of social order.

Stage 5. Social Contract: recognition that there is an arbitrary element in rules, but a willingness to conform for the sake of agreement. Avoidance of violating the will or rights of others.

Stage 6. Universal Ethical Principles: orientation towards principles of choice having a universal value and consistency.

Stage 7. Casuistry: rationally and emotionally integrated evaluation of the case in its context.

The trouble, as summarised by Kohlberg, is that people tend to be unable to comprehend moral judgment more than one stage above the stage they themselves inhabit. What happens is that, instead of understanding that a different moral judgment could actually be better or more sophisticated than their own, they attribute motives of a kind that they themselves would recognise.

If they are low on the judgment scale—say, at Stage 2—they can be persuaded only of the other person’s simple self-interest, or, at best, of his desire to be a “good boy”, eager to please. Without the ability to handle either a complex idea, or a sharply unfamiliar one, they cannot believe that this capacity exists in anyone else. They may find it hard to see anyone else’s point of view at all, and see disagreement in terms of apportioning blame—a straw man needing to be punished. At the other end of the scale—evaluation of the case in its context (stage 7)—argument may find something close to the meaning of encounter.

The Straw Man gets everywhere. When an argument misses the point—by accident or design—the Straw Man may well be at work.S131



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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

2 Responses to “Straw Man

  • Aflotoxin should read Aflatoxin (from: A(spergillus) fla(vus)).

    • Thanks Peter – I nearly missed this helpful input, due to the fact that so many spam comments feature the names of drugs!

      Quite right, and as editor I’m grateful to have this brought to my attention. I have just checked, and since it’s an accurate quotation of The Times‘ original article I should technically add a [sic] to the typo. But since that would arguably disrupt the flow of this entry I’ve decided to correct it and spare the author Dick Taverne’s blushes.

      I will also do the same in the next print run of both Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. Much appreciated!

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