Welcome to the #UMC Straw Man Fighting Championships

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn't really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.
Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

The Walk Out

In the world of combat sports, someone who pads their record by defeating unskilled opponents is said to be fighting “tomato cans.”  This is essentially what the crotchety trainer Mick says to Rocky in Rocky III: you’ve been fighting easy fights, and you’re not ready for Clubber Lang:

Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

When our opponents are hand-picked to make us look good, there isn’t much glory in victory.  The academic parallel to picking easy fights is the logical fallacy known as a straw man.  When you engage in a straw man attack, you are misrepresenting an interlocutor’s position, offering a counter-argument to that misidentified position, and summarily declaring victory.  But in reality, you have dodged your opponent, and you become what Clubber Lang called a “paper champion.”

The following are two examples of the straw man fallacy at its strawiest.

Round 1

In a recent series of blogs, a few people have suggested closing the floor to all but delegates, bishops, and essential personnel at the UMC General Conference in 2016.  There have been many helpful critiques, corrections, and questions about these proposals along the way, and for those I am appreciative.  But not all of them have been so thoughtful.

Jeremy Smith over at Hack[ing] Christianity dismissed many of the critics to his analysis by pointing to their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.  In a follow-up, he essentially declared victory on the grounds that his only pushback was from straight white men who were less enlightened than he, as a straight white man 2.0 (note that, as far as Adam West’s Batman is removed from Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, so is Smith removed from all straight, WASP-y men who might dare to question his insights):

There was significant online critique from straight white men who felt strongly that pointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational!

The problem is that this was a straw man, because he did indeed get feedback from people who were not SWM, which he ignored.  Comments at David Watson’s blog included well-reasoned perspectives from women and African-American men.  This part of the former comment especially (but not strangely) warmed my heart, since I was one of the people “hacked” by Rev. Smith:

All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice. You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status.

While Jeremy responded to several folks on that thread, he did not respond to either of the comments above, perhaps because they did not fit the narrative around which he had built his straw man argument.

Round 2:

Another recent post by former Methodist seminary president Philip Amerson similarly jams together all of those who’ve suggested closing the GC2016 floor with this epic straw man:

Recently, some traditionalists have suggested that our General Conference should become a closed-door meeting that would allow only delegates to participate.

On an outlet featuring almost exclusively progressive voices like UMC Lead, the casual label “traditionalist” is more than enough to have an argument dismissed with no further adieu.  Sadly, it mirrors almost exactly an experience about which Stephen Rankin recently wrote.   Even worse, had Amerson done a bare minimum of homework, he would have known that at least 2 out of 3 of the folks he labelled “traditionalists” are anything but – including yours truly! – and spend as much of their time critiquing the UMC right as they do the UMC left.  Instead, he lumps all of us in with the far right of the church (with whom I would not identify Watson) and delves into deep psychoanalysis to suggest this proposal is really offered “out of a need control the outcome.”

This neglects two very important points: 1) The proposals have not been targeted at any particular groups, but at anyone who is not a delegate, bishop, or necessary personnel; 2) Don’t those who want the floor to be open actually want to “control the outcome” by interfering with the process we have?

Amerson has also set up a straw man, in naming all of those who are interested in this particular proposal control-mad traditionalists and assuming within them the worst possible motives.  Like Smith, his critique is really little more than shadow-boxing, because the boogeyman he’s fighting simply doesn’t exist.

The Judges’ Decision

The Straw Man Fighting Championship will not move us toward any desirable outcome as a church.  I am well aware that I’ve never written anything that is above critique, and I truly enjoy all kinds of healthy dialogue and pushback.  I have thick skin.  I was a Just War advocate at Duke Divinity School, for Augustine’s sake! (For those unfamiliar with my alma mater, it would be like walking across the OSU campus in a Michigan sweatshirt.)

I love a good argument.  But I can’t stand being misrepresented, and then watching others claim trophies for defeating a phantasm.  I can’t say this emphatically enough: we must do better.

As David Watson has suggested in the piece I mentioned above,

How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter.

A good argument can accomplish much.  But lazy, fallacious, dismissive, and surface-level arguments like we’ve been having will not take us anywhere we want to be.

The choice is ours, church.


P.S. For the sake of consistency, I fully expect progressive UMC critics of the proposal in question to begin a letter-writing campaign to their elected officials to ensure that the floor of Congress is opened to the Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, the Nation of Islam, and any other group who might feel a need to be heard in that venue.

16 thoughts on “Welcome to the #UMC Straw Man Fighting Championships”

  1. I was originally going to point out that you missed a round by neglecting to report on Joel E. Watt’s post/repeated tweets where he ignores my entire argument because I referenced a roofie. I would be interested if you saw his contribution in the same category of straw man. That would make it easier to analyze your argument above.

    But then I saw you chose to link to him (where my name is) instead of critique him. My interpretation is: straw men are to be celebrated when you agree with their conclusions. If you are saying that’s true for me, then it would be remarkably consistent to say it is true for you.

    1. Jeremy, as one who misappropriates both race and rape, your interpretation is of no use. Naming your post for what it is, an attempt to use rape culture to score points (which even your some supporters said you did and said was okay) is not creating a straw-man argument.

      You fail, generally, to comprehend the gross negligence.

    2. I appreciate Drew’s acknowledgement of my comments on your blogpost(s) Jeremy. You never do. As a clergywoman who endorses our current statement on homosexuality, I apparently don’t fit into your labeling system. You do not condescend to address me, despite my repeated attempts to engage with your thought.

    3. Drew, you’ve replied to two others, which is your right of course. I’ll repeat myself: Do you see Joel’s post as a straw man? If not, then what specifically doesn’t make it one? If your argument has integrity, it should be able to be applied beyond the examples above.

      1. I share Joel’s concern about your use of sexual assault to make a point, a move that would certainly be excoriated were it not made by a progressive. I also don’t have any interest in letting you dictate the terms of the conversation when you consistently refuse to acknowledge any possible problems in your own arguments, even from others, like Holly above, who do not fit into your narrative of straight white men unaware of their privilege.

      2. Your refusal to answer the question (saying you agree with a concern is not an answer as to whether it is a strawman argument) is all I needed to know. I’d be curious if someone else asked first what your response might have been. I guess we’ll never know since the identity of the person asking is overriding your ability to answer.

        We agree here though: I also oppose letting others dictate the terms of the conversation when they consistently refuse to acknowledge any possible problems in their own arguments–or in arguments made by sympathetic parties.

  2. I think it’s funny that in a post about not using straw men, you decide to use one at the very end in the postscript. Well reasoned arguments up until I read the last sentence. Tell me again: who is arguing for opening the doors to Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, or the Nation of Islam?

    1. Matt, our system, for better or for worse, is designed to mimic the US Gov’t. For all intents and purposes, General Conference is our Congress and Senate. I am fine with having observers in the space, honestly – and this is where my proposal could have been more precise – if they remain observers. It isn’t about secrecy but order. In Congress, if an observer gets out of hand, they are removed. Our leadership does not have the will to do that. If they will not, then I am not sure what to do other than close the floor. The Tea Party, Code Pink, KKK, and the Nation of Islam are all invasive (see my previous post where I use systems theory to talk about “invasive” others), controversial groups which might seek to interrupt government functioning for a variety of reasons. In the UMC, we have parallel groups, left and right. I don’t think that’s a straw man but an observation – but you may disagree of course 🙂

      1. Re: Tea Party… The Tea Party movement has acted entirely and completely within the law as a legitimate political expression. It is disingenuous to pretend that the Tea Party movement is to be equated with the violence, etc. common to the now defunct KKK and the currently active nation of islam. Further, our system of governance as established by the COTUS very specifically affirms the right of citizens to speak politically, no necessarily in a manner that will be well received by those to whom that speech is directed and not necessarily in the manner that those addressed might prefer. The COTUS knows nothing at all of “free speech zones,” which only serve to insulate power from those who would speak the truth to it.

  3. What I now understand is that when an argument hits its intended targets — in Smith’s case, cis-gendered white males — and the targets not only fail to recognize themselves but also are angered by the accusation — the targets then name the complaint as a “straw-man argument,” not because it is one but because they don’t recognize themselves.

    1. Nancy, on the contrary, I am very aware of my white male cisgendered-ness.

      But ignoring critiques from those who do not fit your narrative and saying all of your pushback was from unenlightened privilege-hounds is a very strawy straw man.

  4. Keep swinging, Drew! Mark Twain calls it a “sockdolager” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Love the heavy hitting when it’s precise and needed. Like right NOW.

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