World of Straw (guest opinion by David Herbert)
From Penny Arcade
(Guest writer David Herbert strikes again… this time commenting on strawman arguments.)
Any creator who ever puts politics in their comic will inevitably make a straw man argument. It’s a fact of political cartoons and unless you spend pages upon pages ensuring that your opposing has a strong argument, you will eventually pull one out.
But is that necessarily a bad thing?
Yes and no, depending on how you pull it off.
Yes in the way that it can cause you to come off as one-sided and bigoted to anyone holding the opposing view. But no in that when you explain your stance well enough, you get the point across quick and easy. The trouble with pulling out a straw man is that you need to be careful with the way you present your argument or it can cause backlash and damage what credibility you have.
Now first, let’s explore the differences between the straw man and the devil’s advocate.
A straw man is built to lose quickly and, in some cases, painfully to the hero of the story. They are usually not meant to be sympathetic and any strength that their argument has is entirely unintentional on the author’s part. Their only reason for participating in the discussion of this particular issue, whatever it may be, is to lose to the person who holds the author’s views and in some cases will not even be allowed to make a counter argument.
The Devil’s Advocate, however, does have a strong argument, but still loses to a stronger one. The term comes from the Catholic practice of preparing a person for sainthood. The party advocating sainthood must collect evidence about the candidate’s life to prove that they are worthy of the title. The devil’s advocate is a check on the system, whose job is to gather evidence that they are not worthy. This is not about keeping people from becoming saints, but to motivate the pro side into making the strongest argument they can.
One of the best examples for this I can think of is the Justice League episode A Better World Part Two. In it, an alternate Justice League, called the Justice Lords, have taken over the earth and imposed a tyrannical rule in the name of public safety. At one point, the League Batman and Lord Batman debate dictatorships against democracy while fighting until the Lord Batman points out with their rule, Thomas and Martha Wayne never would have died. League Batman concedes and the two drive around Gotham until they come across a man being punished for trying to get a free lunch. League Batman asks the Lord one if their parents would have enjoyed this place or not, throwing the argument back in his face and forcing Lord Batman to accept defeat.
However, as I said, there usually isn’t enough time to pump up both sides, especially if the author only wants this to be a one off as most don’t want their comics to become entirely based around politics. So, you have to figure a way to get the point across without coming off as one-sided or ignorant. One way is to base the straw character on real arguments made so that you’re responding to comments made by the opposing side. Another is to cite a real incident rather than a general spectrum of politics.
What you want to avoid, however, is making comics in which you come off as overly opinionated or ignorant of the other side. This can happen by having you character talking over the other side to prevent them from getting a counter out or not even making an opposing argument, just mocking them.
Now you may be wondering, do I have any more examples of good argument presentation besides a cartoon about Batman fighting Batman? Well you’re right, this is a website about webcomics and so I will use them for examples as to what I’m talking about.
1. Opponent is permitted to express their views.
Done right – Order of the Stick
Done wrong – Better Days
So in Order of the Stick we have a man who is so obviously a villain that a couple of pages later he easily admits it and is looking forward to his son, the hero, beating him. But here he points out that his ‘kill one, save a hundred’ approach could potentially have longer lasting results. You can point out this technically isn’t an intended political argument but it is a good example. We understand the logic, though we may not agree with the ethics.
Better Days on the other hand has the mother talk over a teacher who is understandably concerned at the amount of racism and ableist language in her student’s work and yet told to shut up. You can point out the teacher did cross a line by calling the woman a slut, but it was irrelevant to the argument and so clearly only used to end the scene with the mother on top.
2. Citing a real argument
Done right – Shortpacked!
Done Wrong – Least I Could Do
The first example is based on Tony Harris and his blog about how most women who attend conventions are only there for the attention, which many women, some of who were fans of Harris, were offended by. And there were some people who were quick to defend the notion. So Willis illustrates this by showing ‘Barass’ attacking one of the most unapologetic nerds in the cast to illustrate the fallacies of this ideal.
Least I Could Do on the other hand creates an argument altogether. The real reason newspapers, and most print publishers in general, were initially reluctant to switch to digital distribution is the cut in profits and the ease of piracy. However, according to Ryan Sohmer, it’s because they’re all lazy luddites who see technology as witchcraft.
3. Presenting the other side as an equal.
Done right – Darths and Droids
Done Wrong – Sinfest
So one of the goals of Darths and Droids was to have R2-D2’s player, Pete, be there to portray some of the worst traits of some table top gamers. But despite this, he’s always portrayed as a friend the people enjoy playing with and an asset to the party who will do his best to see they all achieve victory, thus keeping him from the dreaded status of ‘The Scrappy.’
Now before I get into Sinfest, let me point out I do think it’s a good thing that Tat is campaigning for women’s rights. However his way of doing it is not that laudable, especially in this case in which he dismisses his own fans as misogynistic trolls just because they prefer the smiling ‘Nique to the current one who seems depressed thanks to her new outlook on life. It’s also incredibly insulting to those fans who don’t hate her new views since it’s not all that different from her anarchist preaching from before, they just want to see her smiling and enjoying life again.
So as you can see, creating a straw man argument does not always have to be a bad thing. That’s why most of the good examples I listed here aren’t listed as Straw Man arguments over at TV Tropes. It’s why Andrew Dobson gets crap for attacking readers giving feedback and yet Randy Milholland doesn’t have gain a horde of anonymous trolls ready to tear him down when he comments on reader entitlement.
Like any part of writing, it’s all about the way you frame everything.