#2. Not Every Argument Without Footnote Citations Is a "Straw Man" Argument
Do you know what a straw man argument is? Cool, you're way ahead of most of the Internet. A straw man argument is one where you misstate what your opponent is arguing so you can then defeat it. Let's say the topic is background checks on guns. Your opponent is for them. You are not. If you give a 2,000-word rant about why gun checks mean systematically removing every single weapon from every American, and how that would be an affront to the Constitution, then congratulations, that is a straw man argument. You misstated the issue and then defeated it.
Another straw man argument? Straw men should be allowed to eat your babies.
But the Internet often uses "straw man" as merely a term for an "empty" or losing argument. Or more recently, I've seen people use that term for arguments that they feel are not properly supported. Any argument lacking citations seems to be considered a straw man argument. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the trend of some social justice warriors to shout check your privilege" and nothing more in their quest to make the world a better place. I gave three reasons that a catchphrase alone wasn't going to help anyone. I wasn't critical of any of the objectives of activist movements -- only the means. I think "check your privilege" -- those words without more -- is useless. Now, some people loved the article, and some people hated it. But the thing that struck me was how some people called it a straw man argument because I didn't provide sources that people use "check your privilege" in that way.
The comments had no shortage of defenders who apparently had been on Tumblr and knew such activists existed. There is no shortage of that mere buzzword activism online. But even if I was totally wrong (I wasn't) and you think I'm wrong to criticize people you don't believe exist, it's still not a straw man argument. A straw man argument would be one that said there is no value to the objectives of the "check your privilege" movement because all of its adherents merely spout three useless words. Then I would be mischaracterizing a whole movement to defeat it. Instead, it was merely a specific critique of parts of the movement.
#1. The Internet Cannot Hold More Than One Idea in Its Head at a Time
The world is not black and white, but that's a huge problem for the Internet, because it loves to take sides. And in its quest to find Yes, No, Right, Wrong, it gets really confused by gray areas. This popped up again a couple of weeks ago when Gary Oldman gave an interview to Playboy about how he hated hypocrisy and political correctness, and how bad he also felt for Mel Gibson being ostracized in Hollywood. As you may recall, Mel got arrested for drunken driving several years ago, and that made him very mad. He called the arresting officer "sugar tits" and asked if she was a Jew before advising her that "Jews start all the wars in the world."
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty
When Mel Gibson says Jews start all wars in the world, do you think he's also including
the War of Whiskey & Cigarettes vs. His Face?
Oh, by the way, if someone was about to forgive him for that, there's also taped audio of him threatening his ex in which he says he'll make her blow him before he burns her house down, and that she dresses so provocatively, she's gonna get "raped by a pack of n*ggers." Solid stuff from a man so hated that even Australians now feel compelled to let you know, "Um, by the way, Gibson was actually born in the U.S. Before immigrating to Australia as a boy, just sayin ..."
So anyway, Gary Oldman, one of my all-time favorite actors, gave an interview to Playboy where he talked about Hollywood being a really Jewish place and how it was incredibly politically incorrect all the time, and how lots of political correctness is really hypocritical. And y'know what? I can get behind all of that, no problem. While I'm a huge liberal pinko who supports equal rights for minorities and all the other related causes you can think of, sure, sometimes a reflexive adherence to the rules and regs of political correctness can be a distraction. Someone saying a bad word might not be the best indication of their soul. OK, Gary. And then ... Oldman says:
"I don't know about Mel. He got drunk and said a few things, but we've all said those things. We're all fucking hypocrites. That's what I think about it. The policeman who arrested him has never used the word 'nigger' or 'that fucking Jew'? I'm being brutally honest here. It's the hypocrisy of it that drives me crazy."
OK, here's the thing. We all lose our temper. We all say things we regret. Had Mel Gibson been drunk and angry and called someone a f*ckin' Jew or even dropped a K-bomb, I'm pretty sure we'd all get over it. But I don't know that many people who have a few and start spouting Nazi rhetoric ripped from the libelous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I was mad at Oldman just for blurring the difference between off the hook indoctrinated hatred and a politically incorrect joke.
But then you have comics I like, such as Bill Burr and Doug Stanhope, applauding Oldman on Twitter because they hate political correctness, too. And then in every discussion I had on the topic online, people kept choosing sides. Yes, Hollywood is run by Jews/is not run by Jews. Political correctness is good/bad. What there seemed to be a complete lack of was people saying, "Hey, yeah, sometimes people use hurtful language, we all make mistakes, but that's a long way from screaming literal Nazi precepts at your arresting officer."
It's OK, Internet. Not everything is all or nothing. Life is sloppy, even when reduced to a Facebook posting or 140-character tweet. Sometimes when we disagree, we can't reduce our ideas to a sound bite, and we shouldn't try.
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