How can I prepare for a discussion? (Part 2) - Rhetorical Distraction

July 2, 2020

This is the second part of the series “How to prepare for a discussion”. The first part about tips I have learnt over the past years on how to prepare for a discussion can be found here. In this second part I want to talk about rhetorical distractions and how to react to them.

Have you been in a conversation and after a while you noticed the topic moved went in a completely unwanted direction? What could have happened? It could be that you or the other person used a rhetorical distraction - unconsciously or even intentionally. There are a lot of rhetorical distraction and it is a good practice to notice some of them so that you are not fooled by them. I want to talk about two distraction that are often used: the straw man fallacy and whataboutism.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes the rejection of an (intentionally) misinterpreted argument. As a result both parties are in the middle of a discussion which one person didn’t want to have in the first place. But because we often react spontaneously in a conversational situational we automatically respond to the twisted statement of our opponent.

But let’s start to look how the straw man works and how you could react to it. The straw man always consists out of the same steps:

  • Person A makes an argument or statement
  • Person B interpretes Person A’s position wrongly, presents a distorted version (-> the straw man) and pretends there is no difference between the two versions
  • Person B attacks the distorted version and acts like the counterargument also invalides the original statement from Person A

For example:
Person A: “Agile principles allow us to be more flexible and to react faster to change!”
Person B: “If we are changing our scope on a daily basis we end up in anarchy!”

There are a lot ways how to create such a straw man. The most common ones are

  • oversimplifying, generalizing, exaggerating
  • just taking one specific aspect of an argument
  • using quotes out of context

They all have in common to create some kind of twisted version of an opponent’s statement so that it is easier to attack. In general, it is relatively easy to detect a straw man, since you should notice if there is a mismatch between your statement and the opponent’s version. But in practice it can be difficult, especially when the opponents knows what they are doing.

How could react to straw man? There are also multiple ways how to react to such an rhetorical distraction. In the first place you should care about a clear and definitive language which leaves only little room for misinterpretation. Although this reduces the risk somebody is using a straw man against you, it’s not preventing it. Three main strategies on how you could counter are

  • pointing out: Explain your opponent why their statement is fallacious and how it twisted the original version
  • ignoring: Keep going to advocating your original version without reacting to the twisted version
  • accepting: Start defending the twisted version of your statement instead of your original one. But keep in mind the longer you go down this path the harder it gets to call out the straw man later.

Finally let’s assume the straw man wasn’t placed intentionally but unconsciously. This is happening a lot, because we do not listen carefully. Often we are just waiting for the right keyword we are expecting from the other person to react on. In summary we all need to take care to be active listeners (see also the first part and don’t place a straw man unwanted.

Whataboutism

I think whataboutism is the best known rhetorical distraction of all. The strategy is very simple. One tries to relativise one person’s statement by presenting a new statement which leads away from the original one. The original topic gets lost as a result. An example is the Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter movement. Of course all lives matter, but this movement neglects the specific challenges people of colour face every day. When I notice whataboutism I always think “It’s not a pie!”. Just because other situation are also severe or other persons are also acting badly, the original one is not less severe, less bad or less important. It’s not pie you are sharing and your piece is getting smaller.

How can you react to this tactic? There is actually just one way. Stay with the topic, point out the whataboutism and don’t get distracted.


If you want to read more on the topic I can recommend the following books:

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