Fighting ‘straw men’ is a losing battle

Sep 5th, 2012 | By | Category: Conspiracy Theories

A ‘straw man‘ is a type of argument based on the misrepresentation of your opponent’s position. Wikipedia provides an excellent example of this type of rhetoric:

A: Sunny days are good.
B: If all days were sunny, we’d never have rain, and without rain, we’d have famine and death.

In this case B has falsely framed A’s claim to imply that A believes only sunny days are good and B has argued against that assertion. A actually asserted that sunny days are good and in fact said nothing about rainy days.

Reuters journalist Myra MacDonald found several more good examples of ‘straw man’ arguments…in Pakistan’s media.

Let’s say you want to get an article published in Pakistan and have your audience nod sympathetically as they read through your argument. What do you do?

One option is to start by expressing outrage over drones, regardless of what your piece is about. You can strengthen your case by wrapping drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) into a coherent narrative of U.S. militarism, seen at its worst in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, because as we know, it is impossible to have opposed the Iraq war and support drones – U.S. President Barack Obama being the most notable among the inconvenient exceptions.

Perhaps better to avoid such sweeping assertions,in case inconvenient details get in the way,and simply allude to hot button issues. Describing someone as western-influenced is guaranteed to get your audience’s collective heads nodding. But don’t confuse them too much by using words like “westoxification”(the result of imbibing too much western influence) – it is far more effective to make a disapproving reference to drinking alcohol.

Then of course there are the traditional staples – words like “feudal”, “elite” and “liberal”. Try to avoid the terms “fake liberal” or “liberal fascist” because nobody knows what they mean and when you do use them, it gives away your agenda at the start. Better to stick with simple words – although if you can get drones and corruption into your opening paragraph you are onto a winner.

This may sound like nothing more than effective rhetoric, but consider the consequences of playing the gallery rather than making an honest argument about important issues: How can we ever solve the problems facing the nation if we value emotional arguments and convenient bogeys over reasoned arguments that acknowledge reality?

It would be amusing were it not so serious. In a country which is engaged in a deadly struggle with sectarianism, extremism and militancy, Pakistan has never had more need for reasoned debate. Yet the frequent use of the “straw man” – based on a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position – usually equipped with a “foreign hand” – undercuts that, playing to the gallery and appealing to emotion rather than reason.

This is why it is inappropriate for professional journalists to spread conspiracy theories and it is irresponsible for editors to allow (and encourage) them to do so: Viewing the world with a conspiratorial mindset leads to bad – and deadly – decisions. Take the example of Saddam Hussein. Official documents found in Baghdad after the American invasion told a chilling story. US hostility to Hussein’s regime in Iraq appears to be something of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy‘ – a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true.

Saddam Hussein was so convinced that America and Iran and other perceived enemies were plotting against Iraq that he made strategic decisions based not on reality but on paranoid conspiracy theories rooted in false assumptions. These built up over time as Iraq increasingly found itself isolated from the rest of the world and suffering as a result. Wars against both Iran and America were based on confused information that underestimated the strength of their opponent and overestimated their own strategic position. The result was a disaster.

Not only the common man, but the top leaders of the nation’s institutions look to the media to report facts, and look to analysts to help us understand those facts. If the media is filled with conspiracy theories and emotion instead of facts and reason, we will be setting the stage for our own disaster. Fighting ‘straw men’ might seem easy, but it is always a losing battle in the end.

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