What is a straw man?

Another piece I wrote about 4 years ago- just resurrecting it here as I have a forum to do so

What is a straw man? I once outlined what a person taught about a certain principle, and then I had explained why this argument was wrong. The straw man? It was the way I had constructed the author’s argument, I had looked at what he said, picked on the weakest part and built my outline based around that, thus making the argument easy to discredit. The problem was that I had conveniently glossed over any of the parts of his argument that would have been hardest to counter; I had unconsciously begun with the weakness so that my argument would look better in comparison. The straw man of my “opponent’s” argument lacked substance, and was created by me. If I was to be honest in my work I needed to present the other person’s argument in the strongest possible way, and work from there.

I have faced the construction of straw men as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These are constructed by opponents of the Church to show the weakness of the Mormon position. One such example is the claim that we worship Joseph Smith, that he is, in fact, far more important that Jesus Christ. If the builders of the straw men were being honest, the construction would not even begin, they would examine the Book of Mormon or writings of Church leaders, or even the name of the Church and realise that Jesus Christ is the central figure of Mormonism. Despite evidence about the pre-eminence of Christ as the Son of God, opponents of the Church sometimes construct their straw men from quotations that elevate the status of Joseph Smith. However, by elevating Joseph Smith Latter-day Saints do not denigrate Jesus Christ. In context Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and as such has certain responsibilities under the Saviour Jesus Christ.

However, certain events over the last few months have helped me realise that members of the Church are not only victims of straw men, but can also sometimes be guilty of building them. For example, a friend outlined some of the beliefs of the traditional Christian Churches including the use of the cross in Christian Churches. This is because, he said, Christians believe in a dead Christ rather than the risen Christ. This is patently absurd, but I have heard this a number of times. I am glad for the Christian friends who have borne witness of the suffering exemplified by the cross, and the glory by the empty cross. However, my friend’s argument was best served by creating a picture of Christians who do not focus on the risen Christ.

The whole purpose of the creation of “straw men” is to help the doctrines of the Church look good. But this is spiritual and theological cowardice, people should not put up “their worst” against “our best”. Rather, if comparisons are to be made then they should be made honestly.

One further example outside of the religious arena shows the importance of rejecting the creation of straw men. Recently Hilary Rosen made a comment about Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life. This was immediately jumped upon by opponents suggesting that the Obama administration is anti-family, and anti-women. But did anyone really believe that this is what was meant? When I’m asked if my wife works, I say “no, she is a stay at home mum”. Does this mean that I think she does no work? Of course not, my wife works far harder than I do. Opponents seized on a weakness and built a straw man around what was supposedly meant; this lady did not mean that stay at home mums do not work, rather that they do not earn a salary- I think most observers recognised this, but it would not have made good headlines or fodder for attack. As a Brit, I have no US political agenda to push, I just think that if people have to disagree they do so honestly without misreading or misquoting peoples intentions and words.

I would like there to be more civility in discourse, I would rather people did not need to prove their case by proving other people wrong. This is perhaps an overly utopian ideal, but if people are going to disagree at least let it be honest, and acknowledging the true position of the “opponent”. Straw men can be found in every arena of life, but we should recognise them for what they are.


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