Blogging Pitfall #1: That darn Strawman

As promised, this is the first of a three part series on the blogging/commenting challenges that I feel make it challenging for us to really hear and understand a different point of view. These are things we all do at one time or another, no one is immune. But I think by really talking about them it may help us try to get beyond them to a place where a more nuanced and productive conversation can happen.

So first up: Those darn straw man arguments.

First, a wikipedia definition:

“A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.[1] To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.[1][2] “

When I look at this definition, I realize that what I mean to talk about when I refer to a ‘straw man argument’ is not entirely what is implied in this definition. There are times when online discussion falls into this category, but other times what is happening is similar, but not entirely misrepresenting the position of someone else. Most parenting practice falls on a spectrum. When I say I straw man argument, I also mean basing an argument on the extreme end of the spectrum of practice, rather then on the middle of the road approach. So in that way we are ‘misrepresenting’ the majority in the middle as the minority at the extremes. But we aren’t really arguing with an ‘unequivocal’ position, it is accurate to at least part of the spectrum, it just isn’t the most accurate in terms of what is most common. It is also disregarding someones position by making the assumption that they fall into the extreme category, rather then considering their more nuanced approach.

You see, when you go to debate with something, it is much easier to make a clear argument when you have a clearly defined ‘other’ to oppose. When we talk about each others choices in parenting, society and politics, we often build our argument against the most extreme version of the ‘other side’ because that is what will yield us the strongest argument. It’s easier. It’s safer. And you are less likely to have someone disagree with you because you’ve painted a picture of what a very small minority actually believe.

I was very clear in my attachment parenting post that what I was arguing against was the ‘extreme version’ of AP, not the way the majority of AP parents actually parent. (And interestingly, I had a number of people suggest that what I was arguing against wasn’t AP, but actually a different theory call “continuum theory.” Who knew?) I was very open about saying that that is what I was doing, because I don’t believe in lumping millions of people together based on a label (either self labeled or labeled by others) into one category and then criticizing their choice writ large. And in doing so, I was, essentially, building a straw man argument. Sort of. As per the definition, I don’t think I was misrepresenting the small minority who practice AP in the form I was disagreeing with, but rather I was (admittedly so) equating the AP to the way the minority practices AP, which may actually be this other continuum theory. Anyway….

As a number of people have pointed out here and in other discussions on CIO, what bothers so many parents that have used some form of ‘sleep training’ is that it is assumed that they are putting baby in crib, closing the door and walking away to let the baby cry and cry and cry until they pass out from exhaustion. Essentially, they are categorized, by definition, as not being responsive or emotionally available to their child and therefore being neglectful, abusive and cold. However, it is only a tiny minority of parents who use this form of sleep training. Even those who do, the picture painted of them by their opponents often doesn’t match with their reality.

By opponents of CIO using this characterizing to vilify sleep training writ large, we don’t really get to talk about what most parents are actually doing and the negatives and positives of it, because the majority don’t fit the picture of the image used. The conversation gets shut down because we stop really talking or hearing each other once these big broad assumptions cards are played.

I have said this before and I will say it again: The vast majority of us occupy the murky middle of parenting. Sure we could probably label ourselves into one camp or an other based on a few choices, but really- we just do what works at the time. And then we get all worked up and offended when someone criticizes the most extreme version of one of the choices we made. Because we feel like we are being put in the same category as something which sounds rather extreme and not particularly good.

But nuance matters. If you take any parenting practice, there is a huge spectrum as to how we carry out that practice. Just like there is huge spectrum of differences in children, parents and families.

We build straw man arguments because it is harder to debate the nuances. The more caveats we make, the less clear our statement is. (I have certainly been accused of too many caveats, and rightly so, I use them A LOT.)

But what if our goal is not to debate but to understand? If we really want to understand each other, then we need to get into the nuances. Let’s say I want to encourage people to feed their kids healthy food. The discussion is likely going to start with talking about the most extreme version of not feeding your kids healthy food. For example, encouraging anyone who takes their kids for fast food 3 times a day to rather give their kids some fresh, wholesome food made at home from veggies, fruit and lean protein. But the real ‘meat’ of the discussion is about how we handle when our kids won’t eat, our fears around them not getting enough food, food as a way for a child to try and establish control and how we can find a middle ground between the occasional treat and giving into to treats all the time.

So I am not saying we shouldn’t start with a straw man, I am just saying that if we really want to talk, we need, at some point, to tear that straw man down. If we keep on talking past each other by just railing against the clear cut version of the other ‘side’ then we aren’t getting anywhere.

Ultimately, my blogging with purpose goal, is for us, as parents, so see the best in each other instead of the worst in each other. I want us to talk, so we can assume that each parent we run into is a good parent. Not a perfect parent; we all make mistakes. But I want us to come together and talk about parenting on the basis of really respecting each other and being able to admire someone who takes a different path, rather then vilifying them. I want to work towards getting rid of the assumption that everyone who doesn’t do it like me is doing it wrong.

So, what do you think? What do you think the drawbacks and the benefits of these straw man arguments are? What are the straw man arguments that bother you the most? What do you think we need to do to get beyond these type of arguments?

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2 responses to “Blogging Pitfall #1: That darn Strawman

  1. Fearless Formula Feeder August 31, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Usually I hate this saying (used too often on a message board I used to frequent), but in this case, it fits: I pink puffy heart LOVE this.

    I think it extends far beyond the blogosphere, and beyond parenting, though. I recall making the realization in high school debate team that middle grounds don’t win, and they should. So I dropped out of debate and joined the newspaper instead. 😉

    The problem, as I see it, is that extremists don’t want to see the middle ground. It’s too shaky a ground for them to stand on. They feel safer hiding out in absolutes… and it’s understandable, b/c they worry that if they give an inch, the other side will take a mile. But unfortunately, this keeps our society (well, all societies, really) from making any true progress. If we could learn to meet in the middle, we’d be so much better off. It seems like common sense to me, and I just don’t get why it’s too difficult a concept for most people to grasp.

    This is going off on a huge tangent – I apologize in advance – but I’ve noticed lately that a lot of extreme arguments come out of personal experience, surrounding pain, resentment, fear and loss. For example, some of the AP extremists I follow on Twitter will occasionally mention things about their parents, and it’s usually pretty loaded with bitterness or anger – there’s this aura of “I am NOT gonna make the same mistakes THEY did”. It has helped me see their POV in a less offensive way, b/c who knows what abuse or grief has brought them to this?

    Anyway. I just wonder if that is part of the reason that what you describe in your last paragraph is such a seemingly unattainable goal…our opinions are not made out of straw (hehe). For some of us, they are built on foundations of past experiences and a lot of scary baggage. I struggle everyday to be fair and balanced and not let my personal anger get the best of me, but I also tend to be a pretty emotionally stable person (other than the PPD) and have a great support system, and had parents who I know did their best to love and provide for me. I would not choose to raise my children the exact way they did, but that is more b/c we have very different personalities, not b/c I think they screwed me up or anything… you know?

    • amoment2think August 31, 2010 at 10:59 am

      I totally agree that personal experience plays a HUGE role. Actually, one of the other two posts in this series I am working on talks about just that. (Hoping to get that posted in the next week or two). So, essentially, you read my mind.

      The middle ground is where it is at. I wish we could get there!

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