Standing Next to a Straw Man: The De-evolution of Online Arguments

straw man

/ˌstrô ˈman/


an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent's real argument.

Social media has introduced and amplified an astonishing amount of aspects of our every day realities. Algorithms ensure that the things that are seen online are tailored to the interests and activities of the user. If you like fashion, it'll flood you with shoe ads. Into cars? How about a parade of Maserati videos! Vapid and shallow? Take this quiz to find out which Kardashian's lip gloss you're most like!

Of course, if your burning obsession is politics, this brave, new(ish) technology can get a little dicey. Enter our straw man.

Most of us were taught as kids not to discuss religion or politics with strangers. Or family, in my case. This was all meant to avoid those awkward moments at Thanksgiving when we would so disrespectfully correct Grandma on her use of the word 'colored,' or argue the hypocrisy of having ham at the table while the great uncles discussed how “the gays were going to hell” as the punctuation to their prayer over the gluttonous feast. (See Leviticus if you need some reference on that last one.)

This upbringing has made most of us terrible at these conversations, and the internet has all but eliminated any social niceties where these discussions are concerned. It's nearly impossible to log on to Facebook or Twitter without winding up in a fight with someone you've never met about one of these two subjects. In the clear light of this new age, it's pretty apparent that what we should've been taught was how to debate these serious topics effectively and constructively in lieu of pure abstinence. Now that every meme sharing armchair pundit can argue with any stranger they like about the merits of democratic socialism or making America great again, our abundant deficit in abilities to handle these conversations is glaring.

Political and religious “discussions” online almost always seem to be made between two types of participants; the person who's already convinced that they're right, and the caricature that they've created in their own minds about the person who they're opposing. This style of arguing has become so deeply terminal that we even tend to use it against people whom we know personally. Your cousin who you grew up with shares a picture of a Bible verse about the sins of man bringing down society or some such nonsense, and you know, without a doubt, that he's a Trump loving religious zealot. Or that aunt posts a thing about Medicare for All, and you are absolutely certain that she's coming for your guns! It doesn't matter what you've known about these people since you were a child. These simple shares tell you more than you've ever learned about them in a lifetime.

But the truth is that people are rarely that simple. Not the ones worth your interaction, anyway. Take me for example. I'm solipsistic enough to write about myself, so why not? I drive my eco-friendly car with a Bernie 2016 bumper sticker on the rear windshield to the shooting range in south Texas at least once a month. I listen to either Behemoth or the gospel stylings of Ralph Stanley on the way there, depending on the mood of the shoot. I believe in capitalism as well as a living wage, unions, and single-payer health care. I abhor religion as strongly as I believe in the freedom to participate in it. This is not an odd or rare combination of activities or beliefs, nor are they necessarily conflicting. And yet none of this matters online.

One recent conflict that I can recall with little effort happened on my friend Shawn's page. Shawn is a veteran and staunch conservative with whom I nearly always disagree. He has a few friends who chime in when I comment on his posts who are worth talking too, and the other 664 are perfect examples of what I'm talking about here. But I digress.

The post was about Trump's unparalleled business acumen resulting in a 4% unemployment rate. When I pointed out that the unemployment rate was a useless metric for the economic health of the working class as it didn't account for under employment, and that it had been declining every single month since 2010 anyway, it was staggering how quickly the conversation dissolved. Without even leaving enough time for me to crack my knuckles in preparation there were 12 comments about how I was a gun-hating commie lib-cuck snowtard who couldn't get over the fact that 'Shillary' lost, and had so much CNN in my diet I was endanger of giving birth to Anderson Cooper's bastard.

A few things on that subject. During 2016 I sat about two feet away from my .45 while I penned an article entitled “How to Stifle Your Vomit Long Enough to Vote for Hillary Clinton.” Suffice it to say I wasn't exactly an enthusiastic supporter of hers. It should also be noted that there is almost no chance that I've watched more CNN in my life than the above mentioned commentors as I'm not 200 years old. Who the fuck has cable anymore?

The point is that this, like the thousand such arguments that preceded it, had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with the cartoon version of me that was playing in their heads. When I linked an article detailing the decline of unemployment from 2010 to 2018, I was met with equal vitriol. The cries of “Fake news!” were abundant. In equal measure were the claims that I must be in love with Obama to share such information. I'm still waiting for a fact forward rebuttal on that one. It's been several months.

But I'm nothing if not fair. My camp is (albeit more merited) guilty of similar atrocities. For example, it's easy to assume that every Chevy humping, MAGA hat wearing, Bible thumper is racist, as opposed to just leaving a life free of the burdens of critical thinking. But, all jokes aside, it's impossible to know any of this if you don't ask them WHY they support what they do. And that's the crux of the issue. Even if all of your assumptions about the other person in the keyboard fracas are correct, the method of scatter-shot guessing about their viewpoint is not. Epistemology matters, people!

For example, I'm one of the 70% of Americans who supports single-payer healthcare (Reuters). If knowing this information somehow led you to believe that I must support open borders, you'd be wrong. In fact, I don't know of anyone who actually does support such a measure.

Conversely, if you used the above information to assume that I support federal background checks for gun sales, you'd be absolutely correct. The problem with both of these examples isn't whether or not you guessed right. It's that you guessed at all. This is the kind of rampant idiocy that'll see critical thinking to it's grave.

What we need to start doing is asking questions to find out who we're talking to. We have no problem customizing a fucking burger order, but we can't seem to be bothered to do the same with important conversations. Valuing information needs to be a priority again if we're ever going to work our way out of this ideological k-hole.

“What do you mean by that?” “How does this topic relate to this other topic for you?” “I don't know what you mean by that.” These are the kinds of sentences you should expect from anyone who cares about the truth more than they do about fellating their favorite party or ideologue.

These dialogues matter. They deserve at least mid-diligence on our ends. We don't have to agree. But we should at least take the time to understand why we don't.

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