I had a Choice to Make

The fallacy of attacking a straw man can also arise from an honest mistake. Some people get so wrapped up in their own arguments that they forget the view against which they are arguing. The opponent can also be partly to blame. If someone states her position obscurely, it might not be clear whether the speaker would go so far as to make a certain claim. Then someone might attack that further claim, honestly believing that the speaker had adopted it. Alternatively, a critic might refute that further claim simply to make the speaker clarify her position by explicitly saying that that is not what she meant to say. In such ways, it might be useful to refute a position that the speaker does not really hold, even though, of course, doing so does not refute any position that the speaker actually does hold.

In more insidious cases, straw men are often set up by means of a related fallacy—false dichotomy. With regard to the Iraq war, President Bush often said something like this: “I had a choice to make: Either take the word of a madman [Saddam Hussein] or defend America. Given that choice, I will de- fend America every time.” The crucial phrase, of course, is “given that choice.” If those were the only options, then Bush’s critics would also defend America every time. The problem lies in Bush’s suggestion that his oppo- nents do not want to defend America and would instead “take the word of a madman.” That insinuation sets up a straw man.

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