Dr. Louis de Sassure discusses the social mechanics of straw men and why they can be effective, even when exposed.

By Michael Gordon and Jahnavi Akella
01/21/2021 • 11:12 PM EST

Dr. Louis de Sassure, from the University of Neuchatel, explains the role that logical fallacies like straw men play in argumentation and debate and how difficult it can be to overcome them. He also discusses how the author of a straw man can gain prestige with an audience by being perceived as exposing an opponent's hidden agenda.


0:00: Michael Gordon:

With us today, we have Dr. Louis de Sassure, professor of linguistics and discourse analysis at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, who specializes in among other things, argumentation and persuasion in discourse? He is going to talk to us today about straw men. Dr. de Sassure, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:18: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

My pleasure.

0:20: Michael Gordon:

Okay, let's start right out with fallacies. You write a lot about the role of fallacies in arguments, and you say that even fallacies that may fail to persuade an audience can still constitute a winning move. Can you explain how that works?

0:35: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

It's a very complex issue, but let me try to make it simple. Classical rhetoric classifies you know, sound and unsound arguments, according to formal logic. But in reality, many arguments that would fall into the category of fallacies are perfectly sound in natural everyday interaction. For example, the fallacy called ad populum or bandwagonsee definition - creating social pressure to conform by promoting a sense of group-membership or inevitable victory.
fallacy, whereas some assumption is assumed true for the reason that it is believed true by a great number of people. It's perfectly reasonable in many everyday interactions, because it enables us to capitalize on the knowledge and experience of many.

Whether it is or not a reasonable move, entirely depends on contextual elements, what we are talking about, and etcetera. And the same holds with the argument of authority, for example. So, this tendency of making the most of contextual indicators is a major drive of our way of constructing beliefs. Unfortunately when it comes to persuasion and propaganda, this tendency opens to cognitive flaws and we are quite easily trapped by this instinct that works so well in normal collaborative interactions.

Now, when it comes to the straw mansee definition - misrepresenting an opponent's position or argument to make it easier to attack, usually by exaggerating, distorting, or just completely fabricating it.
fallacy in particular, which consists in misrepresenting the position of the interlocuter, we observe this extraordinary phenomenon that even when the fallacy becomes obvious to the audience, its author may still capitalize on it. This happens for the reason that making a successful straw man fallacy requires a form of intellectual agility, aptitude ability, which is recognized by the audience who gives credit to its author, regardless of the unfairness of the misrepresentation.

So instinctively the people in the audience are aware that the original speakers should have predicted the possibility of his behavior or being misinterpreted, and should therefore have done something to prevent the straw man to occur. Or simply should have behaved differently to avoid such a risk. The original speaker therefore appears as having failed in her interactional skills if you will, while the author of the straw man appears as a brilliant interlocutor.

So the audience may then recognize and appreciate the skills, and this becomes a stronger asset and the debate than what concerns truth itself. I would be keen to relate this to something very primitive in our human nature, in our human way of granting power to individuals over others, right? In the extreme case, it might be that the author of such a successful straw man appears as something like an alpha male in animal societies. This has to do with skills and strength, not so much with being right or wrong, morals, truthfulness, things like that. It's based upon very primitive reactions that we all have deep inside us and makes humans admire the powerful, the strong, the skilled, however malevolent or manipulative it might be.

4:25: Michael Gordon:

So let's start out with our definition of a straw man. So here at Propwatch, we define a straw man, as a technique where you distort an opponent's argument to make it easier to attack.

4:38: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

That's exactly correct.

4:40: Michael Gordon:

And as you were saying in your research, you actually consider that the minor effect of a straw man, with a major effect being what you call gaining prestige or social victory.

4:53: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

Yeah, if we start with the beginning to the straw man fallacy consists in misrepresenting the thoughts of an individual, right? This can of course happen by mistake in everyday conversation. It does happen quite often, and this is not an issue. It's just about misunderstandings and we can correct this in the normal flow of benevolent, cooperative conversation.

But as soon as it happens with a delusive, persuasive intention, that is knowingly, in order to distort the position of the opponent and win in an argument and gain a better position in debate. straw men have this very special impact and very strong consequences. It amounts to a manipulative attack on the credibility of the individual who is targeted. In such cases, the straw man fallacy is in fact, a way to gain credit in front of a third party, an external audience who's watching the debate and who's expected to take position.

For example, in one of the presidential debates opposing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the time. She was talking about having open borders with Mexico in the domain of electricity and energy trade I remember, and Trump attacked her and said "she wants open borders," implying that Clinton actually wants open borders at large, you know, in all respects, that is also with regard to this sensitive topic, which is immigration. So obviously in such a debate, we certainly can't assume that Trump was speaking in good faith.

That was clearly a manipulative attempt in which Clinton was portrayed in a specific way as thinking something unacceptable. Unacceptable for at least for great part of the debates audience. So misrepresenting Clinton's intentions with this, the tool for persuading the part of the audience that were still undecided or agnostic, to move towards supporting Trump. So we can see the effect of such a straw man in these kind of cases.

7:21: Jahnavi Akella:

Yeah, you said the author of a straw man is making a correct interpretation of the speaker's utterance, but you know, it's the speaker not the author of the straw man that finds themselves with the burden of proving that the interpretation is incorrect. Could you explain this phenomenon?

7:36: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

Of course, indeed. What happens is actually that the straw man is based on implicit indicators. There's something in the context that makes it appear as a plausible representation of something, and in a debate a plausible representation of something in the mind of the opponent, that the opponent left unsaid. So for the audience, there's this natural tendency to try and figure out why these thoughts were not openly displayed by the opponent.

The answer appears quite obvious of course, these thoughts, these intentions are, for example, in the case of Trump versus Clinton, simply unevaluable, either because they're ridiculous for some reason, or because they are scandalous with respect to some moral norm or because making them clear would be obviously unacceptable for most people. So in that Trump/Clinton case, having open borders at large is of course unacceptable or even crazy in the opinion of the part of the audience that Trump is interested in persuading. And mentioning this, is likely to feel some paranoid notion that Trump is truly uncovering a hidden project when he straw mans her.

9:02: Michael Gordon:

So, he's exposing the real meaning.

9:06: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

Exactly. Exposing the real intentions. The straw man makes it look as if the target, the victim of the straw man, the opponent, did not fully disclose her thoughts because at some point that person, the interlocutor, was realizing that they are not acceptable, but too late to hide them completely or something, leaving some elements, you know available to speculate that. So this leaves the floor open to all sorts of speculations, even paranoid ones, about sort of a malevolent intention on the part of the victim of the straw man, to hide critical things.

And of course, this makes the author of the straw man appear as a sort of savior, who is clever enough to uncover what the original speakers trying to hide and of course there is this notion that you can't prove what you think and what you don't think. There is no evidence that you can present objectively about what's the content of your heads, right? So reacting to this accusation is complicated.

The second reason is that the successful straw man is based on indicators that are provided by the victim of the straw man himself or herself. Clinton actually said "open borders" in her original speech, literally leaving the compliment about "energy deals" implicit, because it was clear in the context at that time, at that moment. So that was certainly a mistake on her part, leaving something implicit, makes it possible for the opponent to complete what you say with whatever pleases him.

In other cases, what the speaker says leads to plausible implicit conclusions, even though fallacious. And verbalizing such fallacious implicit conclusions are powerful tricks of straw men, because it looks as if the original speaker was not okay to say openly the full contents of her thoughts, as I said before. So this puts the victim of the straw man in a very difficult position.

And what is more, we count real contributions to a discussion as more relevant as a principle, than justification. When you look at this from a cognitive viewpoint on language and communication, it's easy to see that justifications don't bring a new point, a new element in the discussion. Making justifications about who said what and who meant what, are kinds of sub-routines in the interaction. Freezing for a moment, the actual discussion, the current topic of interaction is suspended, if you will, in order to do something much less interesting, much less relevant, which is discussing justification about, you know, who said what and who meant what, which is not provable even more.

And in surplus, these delusive straw men are constructed on things that are never completely explicit. Sometimes there is simply no way of making successful justifications. We can actually never prove when we did not mean something or imply something or think something. And it's particularly slippery when it comes to sensitive notions that seem to be uncovered by the author of this straw man and for the better good of the public.

12:42: Jahnavi Akella:

Thank you. That was a really thorough and illuminating interview.

12:47: Michael Gordon:

Dr. de Sassure, thanks so much for spending time with us today.

12:52: Dr. Louis de Sassure:

Thank you very much for inviting me, it was a pleasure.