Saturday, May 23, 2009

On Strawman Fallacies and Public Leadership

In a recent New York Times article, Helene Cooper criticizes President Obama for committing straw man fallacies. She explains that critics complained about the same thing regarding President Bush. The example she gives with regard to President Bush is a clear straw man fallacy. The ones she points out for President Obama, though, are about things I have heard people say.

In this post, I'm not interested in comparing possible straw man fallacies. Rather, I want to suggest that omitting the name of the person whose argument you are answering can often be a good thing. When there are people who are clear ideological opponents, it can sometimes make sense to name them. At the same time, when you are trying to work with people, to sway them to join your projects, it might be best not to point the finger at them for having raised an objection. That is clearly different from extending an argument beyond the reasonable version of your critics' challenges (as in the case of needing to "inform" people that you can't negotiate with terrorists).

My point is that in addressing people diplomatically, one can try to separate criticism of ideas from criticism of people. Think of working in a team. When someone offers an idea that is no good, to say the person was stupid is not only too strong (as everyone has some bad ideas), but it also discourages that team member from contributing in the future. In general, teamwork does best when contributions are encouraged, rather than discouraged. In that sense, then, to say "those who" is not necessarily a precursor to a straw man. It may just be that the speaker is reluctant to point the finger. We often want to challenge an idea, not the author, and with good reason.

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