Attacking the Extremes
By jimgris on May 24, 2009
“Here’s the trick: Take your opponent’s argument to a ridiculous extreme, and then attack the extremists,” said William Safire, the former presidential speechwriter who writes the “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine. “That leaves the opponent to sputter defensively, ‘But I never said that.’ ”
The telltale indicators that a straw man trick is on the way are the introductory words “there are those who say” or “some say.”
“In strawmanese, you never specify who ‘those who’ are,” Mr. Safire said. “They are the hollow scarecrows you set up to knock down.”
This is such a common rhetorical technique. It has been used for thousands of years, and virtually everyone who talks in front of audiences uses it to one degree or another -- especially your friendly neighborhood politician.
There`s not much you can do when some pol says these silly things because they are generally pretty well protected and rarely have to justify their statements. But when regular people talk like this in meetings or when you are being lectured at by someone standing on a soapbox within arm`s reach, you can actually protect yourself from this verbal manipulation without leaving yourself vulnerable. Here`s how: just ask some painfully obvious question -- who says? where? when? Etc. Most people using the straw man technique will not be able to answer the question to any level of detail, so the more detail you ask for the more you can undermine the statement. Ask if those so-called "those who say" sources are enough to justify the generalizations. They won`t like this questioning at all, by the way, so ask nicely. There`s no need to be hostile, and you don`t want to get in over your head. The questioning alone is generally enough to get your point across.
So, as speakers create and attack straw man extremes at the edges, you can calmly drive right up the middle and ask for the details. Try it. It`s fun. This little counterattack works great on rumors, too.