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!
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.
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.
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.