Strawman or hyperbole?
One of the most common problems encountered in debates (in particular, against groups like feminists or creationists) is the use of misrepresentations in the strawman-line: A statement is made that is partially true, but which is distorted, exaggerated, or otherwise made into an easy, but ultimately irrelevant, target. A classic example is the sometime creationist claim that evolutionists think that pure chance is behind evolution—followed by “counter-proofs” like the analogy with the Shakespeare-replicating monkeys or the jet plane assembled by a tornado.
I recentlye encountered a debater who made several statements that I took (and still take, actually) to be strawmen, but where the author claims that they were merely hyperbole. For example, to support the speculation that children would be affected by what they perceive as “gender-adequate” behaviour:
Pojkar leker inte med bebisdockor. Men män tycker (i allmänhet) om att umgås med sina riktiga bebisar.
(Boys do not play with baby dolls. But men (generally) like spending time with their real babies.)
Now, the second half may or may not be true (I suspect very great individual variations and a far lower “saturation threshold” than for the mothers); however, the first is very decidedly an exaggeration.
The most obvious conclusion is that this is simply a strawman: The reasoning is based on a claimed change in behaviour between boys and men—and this change, if at all existent, is noticeably smaller in reality than in the claim. With the exaggerated difference, a point can be made; without the exaggeration, the point is no longer, or only partially, valid.
(As an aside, even if the statements had been true, the proposed conclusion was but one of several possible explanations. Indeed, the opposite conclusion seems more natural to me: Little boys go by their inborn instincts towards babies, whereas fathers have an altered behaviour towards specifically their own off-spring as the result of some bonding mechanism—or through brain-washing about what the “correct” behaviour for a modern man is.)
My pointing to a strawman, however, was rejected by the author: She had merely used hyperbole—or what Wikipediaw describes as:
[…]the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech.[…]
[…]An example of hyperbole is: “The bag weighed a ton”. Hyperbole helps to make the point that the bag was very heavy although it is not probable that it would actually weigh a ton.[…]
If we are kind and take the author at her word, she actually meant “Boys rarely play with dolls.” and used the stronger formulation for effect. In a next step, the question arises: What proportion of perceived strawmen are actually strawmen and what is merely incompetent (s. below) reasoning/formulation? Seeing that perceived strawmen are particularly common with feminists and related heavy-with-women groups (e.g. the politically correct or those in favour of social-constructivism) and that women are very prone to categorical exaggeration in arguments (“You never take my side!”, “You always forget to [x]!”, “You never do the dishes!”), the proportion could be quite high. If so, this has non-trivial implications both on how a particular misstatement should be interpreted and on how it should be reject/corrected. (While the details will vary from case to case, greater diplomacy and constructiveness is called for when dealing with errors in good faith and incompetence than with deliberate or malicious distortions.)
Obviously, incompetence is better than malice in this case; however, incompetence is bad enough and hyperbole (and similar forms of exaggeration) should be avoided: Most notably, it becomes hard to tell when a statement should be taken literally and when as exaggeration, which damages all involved parties. Further, unnecessary ambiguity is introduced: When I replaced “never” with “rarely” above, I speculated—possibly, the true back-translation is “less often than girls”/“less often than the men in the next sentence”, “almost never”, “not that often”, … Because the author did not say what she actually meant, there is no way to deduce the exact intention from the text alone. (See also an earlier text on litotes, a form of rhetorical understatement.)
More generally, rhetoric is largely the art of making people believe things irrespective of the facts—and as such it should be used sparingly: If the facts support a claim, then the facts can talk and the rhetoric be silent; if they do not support the claim, then rhetoric should certainly not be abused to shout the facts down.
(Note: “Strawman” in the strict sense applies to misrepresentation specifically of the opponents opinion. Above, and often elsewhere, I slightly misapply the word to represent a more general group of distortions that have the common aim of making a weak argument/position/enemy appear to be the “real McCoy”.)