The Straw Man Argument is a rhetorical fallacy that occurs when someone is presented with an argument on a topic, and responds by twisting, oversimplifying, or distorting the merits of the argument, and then attacking that misrepresented caricature.
An example of this fallacy might go as follows:
A homeowner has an enormous tree in his yard. He gets tired of cleaning up pinecones and dead leaves every autumn, so he cuts it down. His neighbors are incensed because the tree was old and beautiful, and was an important landmark that gave the street character. Furthermore, it provided shade for several yards in the area, and was also a habitat for many colorful birds and other small woodland creatures. The neighbors bring these issues to the attention of the homeowner, and the man responds by saying that birds and squirrels are not as important as human beings, and anyone too cheap to buy an awning or a gazebo to give their yard shade should refrain from accusing self-respecting folks of ecological terrorism.
The homeowner’s response is a classic straw man argument. He misrepresents the spirit of the neighbors’ issues, and instead attempts to make them look like misers who care more about animals than people. By painting them that way, they are easier to attack; thus, he has built a “straw man,” which is easier to knock down than a real person.
Perhaps one of the most famous straw man arguments was used by Richard Nixon in 1952 during the famous “Checkers” speech, given when Nixon was running for vice-president. Nixon had been pestered by critics over $18,000 in campaign contributions that he had allegedly misappropriated for personal use. In responding to these allegations, Nixon admitted that a supporter in Texas had heard that Nixon’s young daughters wanted a dog, so the supporter bought them a cocker spaniel, which they in turn named Checkers. Nixon concluded by asserting: “…regardless of what they [his critics] say about it, we are going to keep it.”
In an internet article (http://www.o4sr.org/publications/pf_v5n1/Fallacies.htm) Dave Clarke, of Eastern Oregon University, sums it up well: “…what does the dog have to do with the alleged misappropriation of $18,000 dollars of campaign funds? Nixon built a straw man. It was the money – not the dog – that was at issue!” Nixon oversimplified his critics’ complaints, and then responded to that oversimplified caricature, implying that his critics were just partisan bullies who wanted to take a dog away from two little girls. Arguments like these frequently work, but that does not mean they are not essentially unethical and dishonest.
Understanding the Straw Man Argument is important not only for academic debating, but also in every day discussions. Knowing what the fallacy entails, you may be more likely to notice it when someone “builds a straw man” against you in a debate or argument, and it can help you to put perspective on what the person is saying. But more importantly than looking for the straw man in others, watching for this tendency in yourself is vitally important. Whether you are discussing politics or religion, or just talking about whether one type of grass seed is better than another, be careful not to build straw men as you attempt to respond to what someone has said to you. Engaging in this exercise will not only make your rhetorical skills stronger, but will also make you a better listener, which is, of course, the fundamental key to effective communication in any relationship.