Straw Woman

There is an informal fallacy in logic that is committed with great frequency. It is called a “straw man argument.” It occurs when person A misrepresents the argument put forward by person B and attacks the misrepresentation — which is always a weaker form of person B’s original argument. Thus, I might argue that you should stop smoking because there is a very high correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, and despite the fact that a strict cause between cigarette smoking and cancer has not been shown — due to the fact that some people smoke and do not get lung cancer and some who do not smoke  get lung cancer anyway. You might then say, “oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that there really is no risk in smoking because no one has been able to show a causal relationship between the smoking and lung cancer.” In this replay we see the “straw man,” a weaker (distorted?) form of my argument that is easier to attack because it is vulnerable.

A similar sort of thing is taking place in today’s political contest for the office of president of the United States. The opponents of Hillary Clinton have created a “straw woman,” a fictional person who closely resembles the female form of the devil (Trump has actually called her that, among other things!) and who is in no way like the original. This fiction is easy to attack because she embodies evil, is ambitious, dishonest, weak, and determined to bring the country down about her ears.

Now, I don’t know the “real” Hillary Clinton but from what I have read, despite her flaws, she is nothing like the creation of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. But since the real Hillary will be hard to beat, the creation has taken her place in the minds of a great many voters who now hate the woman and would not vote for her even if she could walk on water.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, of course. So it is easy to “sell” this fictional person to the voters of this country who almost certainly fear strong women in their lives in order to sell them their own fiction, a man who “tells it like it is” and offers us his proven expertise as a successful businessman and a refreshing alternative to politics as usual. Clearly, this is a fiction and nothing like what we know about the man himself. But it is a fiction that “sells” and in the minds of a great many people is preferable to the straw woman they have grown to hate and fear.

To be sure, attacks on politicians whose image has been created for us by marketing experts are always terribly weak, though commonplace. Such attacks tend to miss the mark because we have no way to know precisely who those people are and what they will do when elected to public office. Such is the case with Hillary Clinton — and Donald Trump, to be honest — because the straw woman has become the main figure in the target practice that has become politics. Create the image you want to hate and start slinging mud. That’s now the name of the game.

As responsible voters, we must do whatever we can to put aside those caricatures and try to see who the people running for office really are: listen carefully to what they have to say, “vet” them to know as far as possible how much experience they have had and what sort of track record they have thus far. We must rely on the media, which is a problem, but there are sources that are known to be unreliable (e.g., Fox News) and there are sources that are known to be reliable (e.g., the New York Times, CNN, and PBS — or even the BBC). The latter sources are more likely to present us with a true picture of the candidate than are the former. But, in the end, we must be as sure as we can be that the person we vote for is the person himself or herself and not a straw image that will hurst into flames as soon as elected.


9 thoughts on “Straw Woman

  1. There are ways to get the truth beyond the caricature, as you mention, but it is so troubling that many of us are unwilling to do the digging and so take caricature at face value. Hence, all the Trump followers who so easily gobble up all the scapegoating. And yet, there is such great irony in that they gloss over the fact that the real Trump is a mad caricature, with extreme comments that sound like parody — like he is Rufus T. Firefly from “Duck Soup.” It’s like he is doubly gifted. His followers buy all of the straw arguments he makes, and yet he is so far gone he is impossible to caricature. Or immune to caricature. Maybe that is the deep conspiracy: He self-inoculated against caricature. But that doesn’t protect the rest of us. It’s like he is bringing a wagon full of smallpox blankets into our midst, wearing one himself and saying, “look, it’s all fine.”

  2. Well said, Hugh. The straw woman has been created painstakingly over time dating back to the 1990s. Stories that have been proven to be untrue or unfounded linger like the smell of fish in a house. Stories that have some truth are exaggerated and the legend is what is retold not the real truth. This imperfect person has taken more crap than any candidate I can recall.

    She could be forthcoming and is too protective. Part of that is her nature, part of that is her being an attorney and part of that is she is a woman and female leaders have to avoid the pratfalls that men don’t. Trump is portrayed her as weak and frail. This woman is far tougher than the thin skinned man she is running against, who cannot stand criticism or questions, especially if posed by a woman.

    Trump talks about the system being rigged. Setting aside how the system has been rigged in his favor for years as evidenced by Governor Christie helping reduce his New Jersey casino $30 million tax debt owed over several years to $5 million, if Hillary Clinton said any of the inane, bigoted or xenophobic things Trump has, her candidacy would be over.

    I hope Trump’s candidacy survives to the debates, as I would love to see her tear him a new one. There are too many examples of his exploitive modus operandi to pass up. Remember the line from Michael Douglas’ “The American President?’ Being president is all about character. Trump has none and his businesses are still stiffing and taking advantage of people.

  3. Very thoughtful … and thought-provoking post, Hugh! I am curious, though. We have all spoken of the possibility of Trump dropping out, and I certainly would not object if he did, but I wonder what happens then? Does Pence automatically become the candidate, or do the RNC go back to the drawing board? And yes, people believe what they want to, they see and hear what they wish to, but at least there are those of us who read, study and research ALL aspects of the issue before deciding what we want to believe. Sadly, many do not, but simply pick a path, perhaps the one with the prettiest flowers at the start, go down it with blinders, only to find that at the end there is a thorny gate. Sigh.

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