stop calling everything a strawman

Sometimes I think the slippery slope fallacy and the strawman fallacy are in a war to be the most misused.

Here’s where a claim of a strawman argument is useful. You and I are arguing. I refute a point you haven’t made and don’t hold. I treat that as evidence that you’re wrong. That’s a strawman.

Here’s what’s not a strawman. I identify an argument that I’ve heard and disagree with. You don’t personally hold  that argument that I have disagreed with. You say “that’s a strawman!” and act as though you’ve refuted my argument against this position. That’s not a strawman. The fact that you don’t hold a position, or have not yet heard that position voiced, does not mean that no one holds that position, or that the position doesn’t deserve refuting.

I say this because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a piece identifying and disputing an argument, only to have someone who was not the target of my piece say “that’s a strawman, no one believes that.” Saying “no one is arguing X” is almost always wrong, because the world is big and full of a lot of people with a lot of opinions. And it’s not inherently fallacious, at all, to say “some might argue this point this way, but they would be wrong for this reason.” Again: if I claim to have refuted your case for something because I’ve dismissed an argument you haven’t made, that’s a strawman. If I’m just generally addressing an argument you haven’t made, that’s not a strawman, even if you’re sure I’m wrong.

I say this because a few people have come after my Observer piece, claiming that no one is arguing that the Ashley Madison leak is justified, or that people who cheated deserve to be exposed. Well, actually, many people are doing that, most certainly the hackers themselves. And you can find similar sentiments on Facebook, in Tweets, in comments on articles, etc, with minimal effort. This actually highlights the subtle classism of a lot of these strawman complaints. They often aren’t so much “no one is saying that” as “no one who matters is saying that.” But arguments that are popular outside of professional media are important. They say a lot about community morals and norms. I find it perverse to imagine that an argument made by a single columnist in the New York Times requires repeated rebuttal, but arguments made by hundreds of people on social media don’t.