Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘exaggeration

Strawman or hyperbole?

with 2 comments

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”.)


Written by michaeleriksson

January 2, 2011 at 8:31 am

Haters, haters everywhere

with 3 comments

Words often have little to do with reality. Consider the pick-pocket in Casablanca, who kindly warns people against the (metaphorical and human) “vultures, vultures everywhere”—while having his own hand wandering into their pockets…

Similarly, the people who complain about haters are often themselves the true haters—and in most other cases they are misguided, over- and misinterpret, or otherwise unfairly accuse.

To recap and expand upon a recent comment of minee:

  1. Many cases are totally unfounded blanket-accusations: Those opposed to feminism do not automatically hate feminists—let alone women. Those wishing for lower taxes do not automatically hate the poor. Someone committing a crime against a member of a minority or against a woman does not automatically hate the group the victim belongs to—a wish to get easy cash (or whatever the crime was aimed at) is a more likely explanation. Etc.

    Yes, even outright racists do not necessarily hate people of other races: A number of other feelings are possible, including indifference, loathing, a “we are better, but in the end we are all human” (similar to what followers of different sports teams, employees of different firms, students at different schools, whatnot, can feel), and charitability akin to “The White Man’s burden”. In a twist, I have so far seen far more dislike of “anti-racists” than of coloured people in the blogosphere—and there certainly appear to be far more people around hating racists (or those claimed to be racists…) than either.

    Yet, these are accusations that I have seen levied many times on no better grounds than above. I have even seen cases where someone has been condemned as sexist or misogynist for using the word “bitch”… What kind of utter mental disconnect is needed to arrive at this conclusion!

  2. A very good example is fans (of mostly athletes) who call other fans “haters” on very unjust grounds. (In my observations, many fans of Rafael Nadal and Usain Bolt fall into this category). Notably, the alleged hate of the athlete, or the jealousy at his success, is not even actually related to the athlete—but to his obnoxious fans. Basically, the latter behave like complete idiots, belittle other athletes, taunt other fans, fill their comments with annoying repetitions of all-caps statements (“VAMOS RAFA!!!!!!!!”), whatnot. Then, when other participants start to show their natural annoyance, this annoyance is written of as “hate” towards the athlete and taken as an excuse for more obnoxious behaviour…

    For examples, see e.g. http://www.tennistalk.com/en/e.

  3. The Swedish retort “den som sa det, han var det” (“he who said it, was it”, similar to the English “he who smelt it, dealt it”) is often the appropriate response to accusations of hate:

    The accusation usually says more about the accuser than the accused. Notably, it is often stemming from an intense emotional involvement and a presumption of guilt on behalf of the former.

  4. The accusation of hate is usually combined with a lack of actual arguments—both concerning the alleged hate and with regard to the actual statements that lead to the accusation. If a motivation is given, it is usually entirely lacking in reason, e.g. “How can you say something like that and deny your hatred!”.

    In this, “hate” joins a number of other words, most notably “sexist” and “misogynist”, but also “racist”, “xenophobe”, “homophobe”, “fascist”, “communist”, “capitalist”, “imperialist”, … (With a great variety on the context, e.g. year, country, audience. Notwithstanding that the accusations are occasionally justified.)

Finally, a little gem that provides a beautiful illustration of my pointe.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 4, 2010 at 9:36 am