One essay that is near the top of my list of favorites (especially the list of essays I like students to read in my class) is Carl Rogers’s “Communication: its Blocking and its Facilitation”. The author was a psychotherapist and he describes why at many times two people can be talking or trying to talk about the same issue, but there is no actual communication occurring because neither side understands each other: they are only judging each other.
He focuses his description on interpersonal relationships, but he works his way to a fantastic principle that describes the functions of arguments in general (by which I mean anything that seeks to persuade its audience). He lays out the following paradigm: when person 1 and person 2 are having an argument, they most often fail to understand what each other are saying because all they know is that the other person is “wrong”. He offers a deceptively simple solution. Before person 1 can make his argument, he must summarize person 2’s perspective. But, and this is the amazing part, person 2 is the judge of whether person 1 has accurately summarized person 2’s perspective.
The power of this system becomes apparent with just a little thought. Straw-men cannot exist if both parties participate. If both are even remotely committed to the goal of communication, they will understand each other and respect each other much more quickly than in any standard argument.
Now, what I like to do is apply this not to interpersonal arguments or disputes between two people who are conversing, but to any written text that even remotely makes an argument. Here it is:
If the people or person you are criticizing would not be satisfied with the way you have portrayed themselves or their perspective, then you are writing a false argument. Specifically, you’re falling victim to the Straw-Man Fallacy.
Now, if this is true, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be, then most of the public discourse, especially political and religious discourse, in America is so hopelessly counterfeit that we have very little time to change the situation and avoid actual armed conflict. If Liberals cannot stop speaking of Conservatives as ignorant, racist rednecks and if Conservatives cannot stop speaking of Liberals as Godless, haters of America and freedom. . . I don’t really think that we’ll have another civil war; that was hyperbole. But nothing will get done or get better.
I propose a solution. We need a simple response when we see someone writing, promoting, producing, or repeating a straw-man argument. I though for a while about using “bull****” but it’s a little too vulgar and implies that the speaker is making up facts, and that is not exactly accurate. I think I’ve decided instead that the appropriate response should simply be “moooooo” with the number of “O”s (or length/volume in a vocal situation) corresponding to the severity of the offense–the mischaracterization or misrepresentation of the opponent.
See, I think this is appropriate because cows eat straw, so it accurately implies what the speaker is consuming, and once it has been eaten the straw turns into bull****.
So we need everyone to get behind this. Use it as the appropriate comment for blog posts, news articles, etc. and feel free to vocalize it at rallies and speeches. It would make my day to hear somebody call in to a radio or TV talk show and proudly proclaim “MOOOOOO!” before hanging up the phone.