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Don’t strawdoll

One debate tactic is to make your opponent’s case look as bad and dumb as possible, to look for every way and angle to cast shade on it and really make it look like trash. Even if that means you might exaggerate or misrepresent the opponent.

This is called making a “strawdoll” or “strawman”. The opposite, making your opponent’s case look as strong and solid as possible, reading it as charitably and generously as possible, but still showing why you’re still not onboard with it, that’s called “steelman” (or “steel figure”, “steeldoll”, or just “steel” if you wish, IDGAF).

Strawdolling is bad.

It’s a curious accident of human nature that strawdoll tactics are so popular rhetorically since they are really, really bad for convincing people. They’re good at preaching to the choir and riling up the base, which is what contributes to their popularity; “manufacturing outrage”, but when people see through the strawdoll claims, that can undermine the credibility of your entire case and send them running right into the waiting arms of the other side, and when that other side truly is so much worse than yours, that’s a disaster.

People on the fence are especially vulnerable to this. They’ve seen some of the other side’s argument and now they come to hear you out. They see you saying things about the other side that doesn’t mesh with what they’ve heard, with how the other side has originally presented itself, and they conclude that you’re exaggerating or even lying, especially if that other side isn’t presenting itself that honestly.

I’ve been saying that for years. Strawdolling is super counterproductive, never do it. Today I found a 2007 pamphlet from April Rosenblum that shows another reason why it’s bad.

Sometimes there aren’t two sides to a conflict, there are three. The people who think that you’re lying are at risk of running to one enemy camp but the people who swalling every line with hook and sinker might run even further astray.

April’s booklet:

We often fight campaigns by making our opponents look as bad as possible. The Left doesn’t have tons of money, or muscle on Capitol Hill. One of the strengths we do have is moral power to make the other side look bad enough that the world shames them into reversing their policy. In campaigns for AIDS funding, fair housing, prison rights, you name it, one of our main tactics is to make our opponents out to be cold, cruel and inhuman.

But when you use tactics like that on a group that’s historically been portrayed as evil and inhuman, where that image has been used for centuries as a tool to incite mass violence against them, you tap into a larger historical power. A power that’s bigger than the Left, and has its own momentum.

The nazis are making hay out of your straws.

And sometimes there are four camps. In addition to us who are speaking out for Palestine, and Netanyahu’s regime who are the oppressors, and the nazis who’re itching to send the world over the edge as long as it’s their foot in the boot, there’s also the evangelicals and neocons.

I like this from a few pages earlier in Rosenblum’s pamphlet:

We see the Right acting appalled at antisemitism, and think of it as a Right-wing issue. We don’t realize, the Right got to take it because the Left was silent.

We see the Left not taking on anti-Jewish oppression, and we assume that means it’s not a significant social justice issue. We forget that every oppressed group we talk about today—people of color, women, queers—got on the agenda only after they fought like hell against the established voices of the Left to show that their oppression mattered.