Reality is complicated, as are people and policies. It is much easier to use a logical fallacy to make your opponents seem simplistic, unrelatable, and easy to dismiss or hate than it is to acknowledge the nuances of people’s perspectives, opinions, and beliefs – let alone engage in a rational debate based on facts and research. This Spectrum Report series on logical fallacies seeks to show how they are used in the news media so that readers can see through the narratives, better understand others with opposing opinions, encourage conversations about actual issues and solutions, as well as hold the media to a higher standard.

Logical fallacy (n): an error in the logic of an argument that prevents it from being logically valid but does not prevent it from swaying people’s minds. Nor does it necessarily mean the conclusion is false, only that the invalid argument undermines the argument itself and does not support it.

The Strawman Fallacy

The Strawman fallacy, as described by Your Logical Fallacy Is… (a website dedicated to education about logical fallacies) misrepresents someone’s argument in order to make it easier to attack. It presents the competing argument in an exaggerated, unrelated, weak, or completely false manner to make the presenter’s argument seem naturally superior, and make it easy for them to attack the opposing view without acknowledging any nuance, validity, or complexity in the context, argument, or belief.

The Strawman Fallacy in the News

This fallacy is a favorite of cable news, when they make an association between a viewpoint and patriotism (usually lack of), hating a particular group, or extremist forms of the argument. Often they will choose someone to highlight from the opposing political or ideological perspective who has unusually extreme or poorly thought-through ideas. This makes it easy to argue against that view, or emotionally attack them, and by association attack the opposing view or ideology.

Examples of the Strawman fallacy can often be found on the right and left sides of the political spectrum. Some examples are presented below.

Search results on immigration from Spectrum Report showing the use of different language to sway readers with strawman arguments.

Open Borders vs. Families Belong Together: In recent protests focused on immigration and ICE, the right presents the left as wanting “open borders” implying they want no protections or vetting of immigrants crossing American borders. The left presents the protests as a struggle to keep families together, making Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy about tearing apart families. Neither of these strawman arguments present the complexity of the issue or immigration policy itself. Instead, they seek to simplify and misrepresent the arguments of other side, while avoiding having to discuss specific challenges and solutions to the issue at hand. This simple word choice can have dramatic effects on how a person perceives an issue. Learn more about the narratives around these topics by clicking on our special reports on immigration, MS-13, and border family separations.

Search results on liberal free speech and Nazi from Spectrum Report showing the use of strawman depictions and generalizations of conservatives as Nazi supporters and liberals as being against free speech.

Nazi Hate Speech vs. Hating Free Speech: Another recent narrative on the right is that liberals hate free speech, especially when conservative viewpoints are being expressed. Liberals have often been compared to fascists trying to stifle the free speech rights of conservative Americans (the left responds that this is hypocritical, in reference to the right’s outrage at NFL players kneeling during football games to protest racial discrimination and police shootings), in order to suppress conservative values and even destroy America. A contrary narrative on the left is that many conservatives support racism and bigotry against hispanics, muslims, women and blacks, and seek a white only society dominated by men and religious dogma. The left seeks to prevent the racism of the American past or a society similar to Nazi Germany, which it is suggested conservatives support, even if unwittingly or not overtly. Both of these arguments vilify the opposing group, and reduce supporters into simplified, ignorant, and sometimes evil caricatures that are easier to dismiss, de-humanize, and see as beyond help or even civil communication.

Even if the narrative is not explicitly stated, consistently publishing a large volume of stories implying or supporting the narrative (even with anecdotal stories that fail to contextualize the scale of the problem or compare it to others) can still be effective in implanting the idea in the readership. This leads them to target conclusions and desired actions. Similar tactics are regularly used by advertisers to gain mindshare of consumers and influence their product choices.

Moving Past Fallacies and Into Rational Debate

While some strawman arguments may be true of some people or may seek to present a greater truth, they are logically fallacious and undermine the credibility and motives of the presenter. Removing fallacious arguments, giving people a fair chance to make their actual argument, and accepting nuance and complexity will make a debate more worthwhile and less divisive. The majority of liberals don’t hate America or the Bill of Rights, and all people who voted for Trump are not ignorant, toothless racists. What are the truths behind the headlines that you may discover from engaging in a fair conversation with someone on the “other” side?

Although it may be tempting to accept the easy route of simply demonizing or delegitimizing people who oppose your beliefs, it will not lead to a real understanding of the nature and scale of our challenges, nor will it produce a solution to these challenges. Seek to understand why people have come to the conclusions they have, what the underlying outcomes are that the person seeks, not how the media presents their beliefs. Engage in respectful, fact and research-based conversation with the goal of finding a way to reach common interests. Listen, be fair, and try to discover answers through commonality, not simply validate existing assumptions or biases that divide. You may find that you actually agree on more things than you thought once the parroted talking points fall away.

When basic desires are boiled down, liberals and conservatives often want the same core American principals to be upheld and expectations delivered upon. Focusing arguments on how to attain these goals is much more productive than using logical fallacies, which distract, derail progress, and don’t actually support the argument. Shared values include:

  • Ensuring that people can live safely, and without fear of crime and violence
  • The “American Dream” opportunity for all people to succeed with hard work and persistence
  • Treating people with respect and fairness, without discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, beliefs or class
  • The availability of education for children to have a fair chance of success
  • Clean air and water
  • Getting corruption out of politics

Want to learn more about logical fallacies? Visit our friends over at Your Logical Fallacy Is... or click on the image below to download posters and flashcards for study.