A Rhetorical Superhero

I’ve learned many useful things from my students through the years. Last fall, Peter Jackson from my Senior English class drew my attention to the the term “Steel Man”. I’d understood the concept it represented, but not encountered the term; as often, however, having a name for something makes it easier to handle and promote. (This can be abused too — but that’s a discussion for another occasion.) 

As it turns out, “Steel Man” is not Tony Stark’s younger brother — a tougher or more resilient version of Stan Lee’s Iron Man — but rather the contrary of the so-called “Straw Man” approach to argument. A Straw Man argument is one in which you recast your opponent’s position in flimsier (sometimes even preposterous) terms in order to be able to defeat it (often merely by ridicule). It’s common in all arenas of public discourse, but its results chiefly appeal to those who already agree with you. Anything that’s a win for Our Side gets cheered on, no matter how illegitimate the victory. It’s become the common coin of today’s echo-chambers on social media, but it won’t persuade anyone else. 

It’s a kind of intellectual shadow-boxing: defeating your opponent’s ghost is only an exercise in self-delusion. The Steel Man argument is just the opposite. Where the Straw Man is cowardly and disingenuous, the Steel Man is bold and high-minded. It seeks out the best and toughest version of the opposing argument, since if you can successfully dispute even the stronger form of the opposition argument, you have actually made a case. If you cannot, perhaps you will have discovered the limits of your own argument.

This is arguably more in line with principles of Christian charity, too — it seeks to find the opponent’s best argument, and it also supposes the best of the person. In so doing it treats both the person and the argument with respect, as one ought to do in any case.

It is of course harder to do. It can also be humbling. Many people don’t much like humility, at least at first. It often turns out that the other party is not as stupid or as wicked as one might find it convenient to claim. 

Ultimately, though, humility is its own reward. It reshapes the character and orients it away from oneself and toward the truth. In the process, it opens avenues of generous rather than mean-spirited discourse. If I treat my opponent as someone who deserves to be heard, rather than just to be silenced or dismissed with glib and unsupported calumny, I also have reasonable ground on which to demand a hearing in my turn. 

It’s true that in doing this, I run the risk of being defeated or even proven wrong. Is that really so bad, though, if we’re not already unduly invested in being right? On the Socratic modus operandi, to which I subscribe at least this far, someone who proves me wrong (rather than merely calling me a fool or a knave) is arguably doing me a favor by freeing me from misunderstanding and error.

In the long and more important run, though, it opens the possibility of agreement, or, if not that, at least some degree of mutual clarity and respect and understanding of one another’s principal beliefs. Even a standing disagreement on those terms is far better than the the smug and self-satisfied indignation that has all too often become the common coin of our political, social, cultural, and other discourse.

2 comments

  1. In the Reasoning class, we talk about a principle of charity when interpreting arguments that are missing one or more premises: you should supply premises that the maker of the argument would be likely to accept. So if someone says, “Don’t sit there, it’s reserved,” you can confidently fill in a general premise, something like “people should not sit in reserved seats that are not their own.”

    There are limits to this. Sometimes people make arguments that appear unreasonable. If someone says, “If it saves even one life, we should all wear masks until the COVID situation is over,” it is hard to find a general premise to both supports the argument and is plausible. You then have a choice between dealing with the argument as made or inventing a more reasonable argument that the person in question might not accept.

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