The straw man fallacy is where someone intentionally ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or intentionally misrepresented version of that position.
The idea is the person gives a version of your argument that’s weaker than your actual argument, to make it easier to counter.
But in general, people don’t try to deliberately attack a position you don’t hold. Normally, when someone is disagreeing with you, they are disagreeing with what they believe is your actual position.
If they want to criticise you, and they think your position is wrong, why wouldn’t they criticise that? Why would they make up another position? If they already have something they disagree with to criticise, they wouldn’t usually go to the trouble of creating a new target.
The main exception to this “usually” can be found in politics, propaganda and sometimes public debates. Politicians notoriously lie about their opponent’s position to make them look bad. But in cases like these, it’s because they are trying to do something other than debate ideas with you — such as get votes, motivate the base, or win over onlookers.
So usually, someone you’re debating with does believe they are criticising your real position. They may have misunderstood your position, but a misunderstanding is not a straw man.
When someone makes a ‘straw man’ without doing it on purpose, it’s not really a straw man: All arguments consist of thinking the other person is wrong. In every disagreement, the two people think the other side is missing something. In every disagreement, there’s something that at least one side does not understand about the other side’s position — which would be labelled ‘straw man’ if you defined that as any non-accurate version of a position. So it’s not worth calling this a straw man — the term would then apply to absolutely everything.
One thing that can happen is that you don’t immediately recognise something they criticise as your view. “Aha, a straw man!”, you think to yourself. But what they may actually be doing is trying to expose contradictions in your view. Contradictions can be hard to recognise as your own view (if you saw contradictions in your views, you would have already tried to resolve them!).
For example —
Joe: Killing civilians in war is always wrong.
Bob: So you’re advocating banning all warfare.
Joe: I never said that! That’s a straw man! I’m against killing civilians — I never said I was against war altogether.
Here, Bob is trying to say that the idea that killing civilians is always wrong implies that war is always wrong (because it isn’t known how to totally avoid civilian casualties). Neither of these people are intentionally trying to attack a position the other doesn’t hold; Bob just thinks this conclusion follows from Joe’s view.
What’s really happening is that the two of them are disagreeing about something. There is a difference between a disagreement and a fallacy: In a fallacy, a person is making an error in logic. In a disagreement, they’re making an error about some substantive claim.
It’s not actually that common for people to make logical errors in arguments. (It does happen, but it’s rare.) Usually, people disagree on some kind of substance.
A draft of this post was first written on 2009-11-17.