Critical Thinking Tip: Don't Misrepresent Your Opponent Or Attack Strawmen

Photo: Duncan Hull/Flickr

Photo: Duncan Hull/Flickr


Another important critical thinking tip is to not misrepresent your opponent or attack a strawman version of their argument. While this piece of advice might seem obvious, misrepresentation is such a frequent occurrence in debates that it deserves attention.

Let's begin by asking why people even resort to misrepresentation. In some cases, it's done intentionally, with the goal of smearing their opponent while simultaneously making themselves look good by positioning themselves in opposition to a ridiculous argument. But in reality, misrepresentation accomplishes next to nothing.

If the goal of your exchange is to prove that your position is correct and your opponent's isn't, attacking a caricature of their position doesn't accomplish that goal. Misrepresentation doesn't make your position look good, because by attacking a strawman, you appear to be tacitly conceding that you find it difficult to refute your opponent's actual position. And misrepresenting your opponent doesn't show that their position is inferior, because you're not even grappling with their actual position. When you knock down a strawman, your opponent's argument remains standing.

You're not moving the debate forward or facilitating progress in any way by doing this. You are hampering progress because you're not engaged in an honest exchange of ideas.

Smearing your opponent would appear to only work to your benefit if your audience is unaware of your opponent's actual position. If you're in a situation where your opponent can actively state his position, or if your audience is familiar with his position or will care enough to look it up, then this smear might actually backfire on you. If it becomes clear that you've misrepresented your opponent, not only will your smear have failed, but you will make yourself look bad—because the audience will think that you're either dishonest or stupid. 

This strategy reminds me of the ending scene in the movie Gladiator where the emperor stabs Maximus while he's shackled prior to fighting him so that he'd be easier to defeat. This might make the emperor look better and Maximus look worse in the stadium, but ultimately, this isn't a fair battle. Analogously, when you're attacking a weakened version of your opponent's position, this isn't a fair battle of ideas. It doesn't provide us with an honest evaluation of the merits of the respective positions. Misrepresentation should be viewed as a sign of weakness on the side of the person doing the misrepresentation, just as we think it pathetic of the emperor to stab a chained-up Maximus prior to their fight.

It's also worth making a distinction between what I describe as positive and negative misrepresentation. Negative misrepresentation is what we typically encounter: a person attacking a more ridiculous caricature of their opponent's actual position. But you also sometimes see positive misrepresentation, where supporters or comrades of a person recraft an absurd argument of theirs into something more sensible to defend that person and make them look better. While a person engaged in negative misrepresentation is generally described as attacking a strawman—a weakened version of their argument that's easier to tackle—a person engaged in positive misrepresentation is doing what I call creating a stoneman—a strengthened version of the person's argument that's more difficult to knock down.

Both forms of misrepresentation are problematic. In both cases, whether you're helping or hurting somebody, you're not addressing their actual argument. Whether dealing with friends or enemies, we should always work with an honest version of their argument. And when it comes to people who we generally consider our intellectual allies, we'd be better off trying to correct their views on a given issue and steer them back on the right course rather than deluding ourselves into believing that they're on the same page with us, because this will end up making both of us look bad.

While misrepresentation is sometimes done intentionally, often times, it's not. Instead, the person genuinely thinks that they're accurately rephrasing their opponent's arguments. This fact should instill in us a sense of caution when we're debating; it should serve as a reminder that we need to strive to accurately restate our friends', and our opponents', positions. 

Now obviously I could illustrate this critical thinking tip by showing examples of people honestly representing their opponent's arguments, but I don't really see any value to that. Instead, it seems more worthwhile to look at examples of people misrepresenting arguments. It's more informative in this case to see examples of what not to do.

Let's begin with positive misrepresentation. Imagine that I say the following:


"Poachers of endangered species should get the death penalty. They should be executed by being hunted to death in a small, enclosed patch of land."


A fellow conservationist reacts in the following way:


"Now of course he's being a bit hyperbolic here; he doesn't actually think poachers of endangered species should get the death penalty. What he's really saying is that we should be more energetic in our worldwide conservation efforts."


While it might be tempting to try to rescue an ally of yours in this way, if a person actually meant what they said, you're being intellectually dishonest by distorting their position like this. 

If a person actually is being hyperbolic, if they're just making a tongue-in-cheek statement that they don't actually believe, then it's appropriate to respond in this way. But if they really mean what they say, then a response like this becomes misrepresentation. 

Here's another example. Imagine that a fervent BlackLivesMatter activist says the following:


"People should kill white cops."


A person responds by saying:


"They don't actually want white cops to get killed; they're just making this provocative statement to draw attention to the plight of African Americans in this country."


Again, if this person actually meant what they said, toning down their statement and revising their position in this way would be positive misrepresentation.

Let's move onto the more commonly-encountered negative misrepresentation.

I'm frequently misrepresented in debates on drug policy. I'll say something like this:


"Recreational drugs should be legalized and informed adults should be free to decide for themselves whether or not to use them."


This statement often gets misrepresented as some version of the following:


"Oh, so you want people to just go out and start using crack and heroin?"


NO. It's not that I want people to use drugs. I never said that, and that's not my position. I'm not advocating drug usage; I'm not yearning for drug usage to skyrocket. Given the harm that results from the usage of many recreational drugs, I think people would be better off not using them. My claim was simply that people should be free to decide for themselves whether to use them.

Here's another example, this one taken from the 2016 Politicon debate between Cenk Uygur and Dinesh D'Souza:


Cenk Uygur: ". . . I love this country. I want to defend the ideas and the ideals that it stands for. But for me, unlike the conservatives, it's not: 'Hey, everything we've done is fantastic, including the wars and the colonialism and the slavery and what we did to the Native Americans, and all these things, are wonderful because WE DID IT! WE'RE AMERICANS!'"


What an absurd picture Cenk just painted of conservatives. On what planet do people on the political right in America claim that slavery or the extermination of Native Americans was wonderful? How does a person not get boo'd off the stage after saying something like this?

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks is a one-man misrepresentation factory, and I say this as somebody who agrees with him on easily 80% of issues. While I could go on for hours showcasing examples of him strawmanning his opponents, one more will have to suffice for this post: 


Charles Krauthammer: "This is, in all probability, an example of radical Islam at work . . . But the general issue is: radical Islam. And, unless we have a president who immediately says . . . 'this is a lone gunman,' how does he know? When you say lone gunman, what you're doing subtly or unsubtly is disconnecting the dots. When we had the underwear bomber try to bring down a plane over Detroit, Obama immediately said that this was an isolated extremist. It wasn't, in fact. It turned out to be connected to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I think it's sort of . . . this six and a half years of Obama, always wanting to err on the side of downplaying the threat. The threat is radical Islam, which he won't say."

Cenk Uygur: ". . . Krauthammer said: 'This is, in all probability, an example of Islam at work.' That's a quote, okay? 'An example of Islam at work.' Now, if I said: 'Dylan Roof is an example of white people at work,' what would happen? Everybody'd go crazy, right? I mean, like 'But Cenk, that's so unfair, how can you take one guy—or even all the guys you just listed,  who did all the shootings, fairly recently, all based in hate groups—and connect them to all white people? That's 250 million Americans who are white? That's outrageous!' So what they do is they take this guy who did the shooting here, and then a couple of others—the Fort Hood shooting, etc . . . take those people, and then they go 'Well, it's Islam at work.' They connected those guys to 1.6 billion people. So me connecting it to 250 million people is insane and outrageous! Them connecting a couple of guys to 1.6 billion people, they find perfectly normal!

. . . If they just kept it at extremist or radical, I think they'd have an overwhelming chance of being right. And I said the same thing yesterday on this show. So if you want to say Dylan Roof was a right-wing radical, and you want to say, Muhammad Yusuf Abdulaziz is a Muslim radical, I totally agree with you! Totally!"


Notice that Charles Krauthammer explicitly says "radical Islam". He said it three times. The fact that four people on this panel failed to recognize the adjective "radical" illustrates that these people either have embarrassingly terrible listening skills, or they're intentionally misrepresenting him. Take your pick. Krauthammer, the man with the most German last name on the planet, made abundantly clear that he wasn't talking about all 1.6 billion Muslims. He said "radical Islam". Yet Cenk pretends that he was blaming every single Muslim, topples that strawman, and declares victory against a non-existent combatant. He doesn't just inaccurately paraphrase; he inaccurately quotes him.

What's especially amusing about this clip is that the entire panel appears to agree with Krauthammer at the end. So we're all in agreement, then. Wonderful. Now that we've established that, let's move onto our last example, this one taken from the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig.


Sam Harris: "According to Dr. Craig's Divine Command Theory, God is not bound by moral duties. God doesn't have to be good; whatever he commands is good. So when he commands that the Israelites slaughter the Amalekites, that behavior becomes intrinsically good because he commanded it. Well here we're being offered—I'm glad he raised the issue of psychopathy—we're being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. It's psychotic because this is completely delusional; there's no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled by an invisible monster Yahweh. But it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. It so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children."

William Lane Craig: ". . . He also says it's psychopathic to believe these things. Now that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that people like Professor Peter Vannenwagon(?), here at the University of Notre Dame, is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr. Tom Flynn(?), who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. This is simply below the belt."


Sam was not arguing that that William Lane Craig's religious colleagues were psychopathic; his argument was that the moral attitude behind divine command theory is psychopathic and psychotic, because it posits that anything and everything commanded by a powerful, supernatural being becomes necessarily good simply because it's being commanded by this supernatural being. It doesn't matter if the command is to slaughter children or destroy a village; if god orders it, it is moral. This attitude is what Sam argues is psychopathic and psychotic; he didn't say that everybody who subscribes to it is psychopathic and psychotic. Simply put, Craig mixed up the target of Sam's argument.

Hopefully, after reading this, you'll strive to be more cautious in the future, and will attempt to honestly grapple with your opponents' and your friends' arguments.