Straw men — This is something I see far too often in blogs about religion or non-religion. And it happens way, way too often in the user comments on this blog. I’m considering blocking serial offenders, not because I want to limit their free speech (I value freedom of speech above almost everything else), but because building straw men violates people’s ability to sift through free speech to find knowledge (I value knowledge precisely above everything else). So I will offer some advice to religious and non-religious folk that will allow us to continue the debate about religion without building straw men.
Here are a few rules we can follow:
- Use qualifiers: Instead of saying, “Christians think blah blah blah,” say “Some Christians think…” If you want to be a little bolder but still maintain a non-straw man decorum, you can say “Many Christians think…” In either case, it might also help to post a link for reference. Doing this will show the reader the limits of your argument, without leading them to thinking you mean to say “All Christians think…” Also the words “might” and “could” are very useful: “It might be true that…” “It could be true that…”
- Speak in the Konjunktiv II mood (for a good example, check the text in Konjunktiv I above II): German is an awesome language because it has default settings that all but prohibit the accidental building of straw men. In german, we would always say “according to Jan [something] is true.” We would not say “I know [something] is true,” if you only have knowledge of it from Jan. For example, don’t say, “Scientists argue blah blah blah,” unless you are referencing a specific article and have documented that article elsewhere in your argument. Instead, say “According to researchers, Dr. A. Smith and Dr. B. Jones, [paraphrase their findings].” This again shows your reader the limits of your argument. Instead of sounding like you mean “All scientists argue…” the reader has a very good idea of exactly what you mean to say. And it will allow us to go back and put the argument into context, check it for accuracy against your paraphrasing, and find if it’s a legitimate source (and not the Onion or something).
- Know the limits of the argument you are repeating: This is the one I hear the most. “Atheists believe…” Don’t do it. If your argument is not “Atheists have no belief in any god,” then you are going beyond the limits and scope of atheism. Some atheists might believe whatever it is you’re arguing. But not all of them do, just like not every Christian thinks the earth is 6,000 years old. Atheists do not necessarily believe in anything generally associated with atheists. There might be some who reject evolution, for example. Atheism has nothing to say about anything other than belief in god.
- If you are corrected, don’t repeat the same mistake: This one can be individualized. If you make the straw man that I “actively reject the existence of god,” and I say “I don’t reject it; I just don’t have a belief in it,” don’t try to tell me that I’m rejecting the existence of god.
It can also be more generalized. If you make the straw man that Christians believe in hell, and are shown a document from a sect of Christianity that rejects hell, take that into consideration before you make the same mistake again.
- Expose straw men everywhere you see them: I’ve accidentally created straw men on this blog. I readily admit that. I try my hardest not to, but sometimes things fall through the cracks. If I create one, put me on blast. Call me a hypocrite by citing this post. If I’m being intellectually honest, I’ll cede your point and amend my argument (I have 200 or so posts, I’m not going to go through them one-by-one, so I’m sure there are still a few out there). And I expect you to do the same. If I see you build a straw man I’m going to let you know. And I expect you to have a little honesty about it. BUT this does not mean you can just willy nilly call everything a straw man. If I say, “Some Christians believe the earth is 6,000 years old, and they are wrong,” I’m not building a straw man. The qualifier used in rule 1 limits my argument. Don’t confuse this with the straw man, which brings me to my final rule.
- Know what a straw man is: The mere fact that you know what a straw man is will help you avoid accidentally building one. I know many people who were notorious for misrepresenting other people or other groups of people. But as soon as they were instructed on the straw man, they built into their methods safeguards that prevented this sort of behavior. Just knowing that the straw man exists made them stop using them.
I hope this post helps you. I’m sure there are many, many more rules I could lay out that will help you avoid building straw men, but I can’t be expected to write 10,000 words on the subject (and I doubt you’d read it if I did). Instead I think this relatively short post will suffice. If you know of anything else we can do to avoid this, please post it in the replies!