Monday, January 24, 2011
A "strawman" scarf
I don't know if you have ever heard the term "straw-man argument"? Loosely, it means arguments that are aimed at a problem that doesn't really exist. It's a classic debating technique. You make up an extreme version or caricature of your opponent's argument (the "straw-man") which is all the easier to knock apart.
So, the expression "but you're straw-manning me!" is a fair and useful term in some contexts (I have used it myself). It helps you point out and defend yourself against unfair criticism, and it helps you pass the rhetorical trick right back at your opponent as, by taking aim at the premise of their argument, it can be reasonably hard to think of a come back.
But the term can be overused. Sometimes what looks like a deliberately rhetorically constructed straw-man is simply a misunderstanding. It's accidental. In fact, it might even be the fault of the person claiming they've been straw-manned. If someone doesn't understand your position, maybe you didn't made yourself very clear in the first place?
Closing an argument with a call of "straw-man!" for a bit of oneupmanship in a debating chamber be all part of the fun, but if the aim is mutual understanding, I'm not convinced it's productive. I'd much prefer people took an interest in why they have been misunderstood/ are being misinterpreted. A lack of understanding can be a chance for everyone to learn: a chance to continue debate, not end it.
Having seen the term once too many one evening, I decided to exorcise my grumpiness the best way I know how: knitting.
I thought about knitting a small straw-coloured toy, like the voodoo doll I made in a moment of whimsical annoyance at the structures academic admin a few years back.
But a doll's pretty useless - as much of my annoyance with the term phrase was that it's not productive, it seemed a bit silly. So, instead, I made a small straw-coloured scarf with a man symbol embroidered at one end. The stitch pattern is from My So Called Scarf, which I thought brought out a straw-y texture (see ravelry project page for full details about yarn, etc).
I've now posted it to a friend who was at the receiving end of some particularly unhelpful "you're just straw-manning me" bit of rhetoric last year. Because debate should be about sharing with others, not keeping the prizes for yourself.