Straw Man: This Is Why We Can’t Have Rational Debates

straw man

Of all of our arguments about politics and policy, efforts to level the playing field for women and minorities seem to evoke the most heat and the least light.

A reader recently shared with me a lengthy, rambling letter to the editor  that appeared in a publication called the Carmel Current. (Carmel, for non-Hoosiers–is a bedroom community north of Indianapolis). The female letter writer ripped into organizations like the National Organization for Women and that dreaded group of harridan warriors, the American Association of University Women, accusing them of “gender feminism” that promotes the “inequality of men.”

Among other accusations, the writer argued that calls to reduce the pay gap between men and women aren’t really calls for equity, but rather part of an effort by “gender feminists” to diminish and disadvantage men.

American women make their own choices. They are succeeding at tremendous rates, most especially compared to men. Extensive research has been done on this subject by Professor Christina Hoff Sommers, a self-declared freedom feminist who has multiple publications regarding the misguided policies of gender feminists. The bogus “wage gap” is not a real concern. However, the underachievement of the American male population is. Hoff Sommers quotes education writer Paul Whitmire and literacy expert William Brozo in her book, The War Against Boys, “The global economic race we read so much about—the marathon to produce the most educated workforce and therefore the most prosperous nation—really comes down to a calculation: Whichever nation solves these ‘boy troubles’ wins the race.”

I read a few articles by self-described “freedom feminist” Sommers years ago, when she certainly seemed less confrontational than she later became. I don’t know whether she genuinely went off the rails or decided that taking a fairly unique “libertarian feminist-against-feminism” position would raise her profile and earn her more attention, but I do know that her current diatribes are perfect examples of what is wrong with American argumentation generally.

These days, significant numbers of activists on both the left and right avoid honest discussion by creating straw men, whose arguments are much easier to triumphantly dismiss and disparage than the more considered points raised by real people.

The straw man argument is an age-old tactic in which a debater purports to address an opponent’s argument while actually attacking a position that the opponent didn’t take.

Sommers has created a “straw woman,” dubbed “gender feminist,” who is out to dominate men. The women she invents and then battles are man-haters, not really interested in equal treatment or equal pay for the same work, but in beating down the male of the species.

I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we might find some women like that, but most of us who consider ourselves feminists–and a lot who don’t use the label but believe they should be compensated fairly and not subjected to sexual harassment–are hardly the man-haters Sommer attacks. We have husbands and sons and male friends–and no interest in inverting the current distribution of privilege to diminish them. We want parity, not dominance.

Sommers is hardly the first to paint feminists as radically unfeminine and anti-male. When I was younger, feminists were the butt of jokes about women who didn’t shave their legs, or who couldn’t get a date. (The potency of those descriptions is why many women still shun the label.)

It is much easier to attack–and demolish–caricatures than to engage with the real positions of people with whom you disagree. So we see people on the right claiming that advocates of civil rights for LGBTQ folks want to persecute Christians, or that civil libertarians concerned about due process or critical of police brutality are “pro criminal.” We see people on the left dismissing every objection to a stronger social safety net, or for a different approach to taxation, as evidencing either a lack of human compassion or (in legislators)  corrupt obedience to their donors.

Arguments made by the straw man (or woman) of our imagination are, obviously, much easier to refute than the actual points being raised. But engaging in the tactic in order to avoid confronting the real-life–and invariably more complex– issues at hand is both cowardly and dishonest.

Deliberative democracy it isn’t.


[Originally published at on February 25, 2018]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..


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