Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Straw Man Argument In Action

    Greg Ellifritz recently linked to an article from Rolling Stone called "Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear." It is an interesting look at fear and anxiety, the difference between the two, and how politicians, corporations, and others gain power or make their money by influencing and increasing our anxiety. It also briefly discusses the concept of  "the 'law of group polarization,' which states that if like-minded people are concerned about an issue, their views will become more extreme after discussing it together."  And, best of all, the article reminds us that in many ways we are living in the safest period of human history (something I tried to bring up in a Sunday School class recently, citing to the book Angels Of Our Better Nature, and was literally shouted down by a couple people).

    However, the article is also an example of the straw man argument (or fallacy). "The basic structure of the argument consists of Person A making a claim, Person B creating a distorted version of the claim (the 'straw man'), and then Person B attacking this distorted version in order to refute Person A’s original assertion." For instance, the article uses as its main example an older gentleman who supposedly became brainwashed listening to conservative radio, and holing up "for three hours every day in the family kitchen, mainlining Rush Limbaugh and, during commercials, Fox News." The article continues:

    “It reminded me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Senko says. “He used to love talking to different people to try to learn their language, but then he became angry about illegal immigrants coming to the country, that they were taking jobs from Americans, and that English was becoming the secondary language.”

The article adds:

    Senko’s claim that her father was brainwashed by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Bob Grant isn’t just anecdotal. There is hard evidence of her father’s transformation from a sweet, passive man to an angry, argumentative ideologue in Senko’s documentary about him, The Brainwashing of My Dad. In some scenes, he is so angry, the viewer feels sorry for him – and concerned for his health. “It was almost like he’d joined a cult or had a new religion,” Senko recalls. “He became enraged and unreachable.”

    She believes the tactics used by right-wing hosts, combined with her father’s independent streak, caused his shift. “As human beings, when listening alone for long periods of time, we are susceptible to being swayed by a confident voice speaking authoritatively, especially if it’s the only thing you consume,” she says. “So they would say things that provoked my dad to anger and indignation, and once that got going, he’d stop thinking rationally.”

    Eventually, Senko’s dad became someone his family and she couldn’t recognize. He’d get apoplectic on a regular basis about his new beliefs that “most black people were on welfare and that there was too much government; that global warming was a hoax and ‘Al Gore was an asshole’; and that he should be head of the household and his wife should wait on him. He even joined the NRA, although he never owned or used a gun. Everything was antithetical to how he was before.”

The author also reassures his liberal readers:

    Senko is not alone. A California schoolteacher says her marriage fell apart after her husband started watching Fox News and yelling about government plots to take away his guns and freedom. On the left, my friend Phoebe has had to physically remove her mom, who she describes as a “Sam Seder news junkie,” from family functions for raging against relatives about the “dark place” this country is going to.

Later on, the author meets up with a group of Trump supporters and briefly discusses some of the issues they are anxious about, focusing on those fears revolving around immigration. 

    The article then moves into a discussion of how encounters with death or danger makes people more conservative, relating:

    Psychologists George Bonanno and John Jost studied 9/11 survivors and witnesses. They discovered that those exposed to the attack became more politically conservative, embracing ideologies that “provide relatively simple yet cognitively rigid solutions (e.g., good versus evil, black versus white, us versus them, leader versus follower) to problems of security and threat.”

    But, despite this, the political shift didn’t improve their overall state of mind. “On the contrary,” Bonanno and Jost concluded, “political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism and conservative shift were generally associated with the following: chronically elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, desire for revenge and militarism, cynicism and decreased use of humor.”

    Delving deeper, Jost and his students recently went through more than 100 studies by researchers all over the world, involving more than 350,000 participants, and found similar results. “People who perceive the world as a more dangerous place in terms of crime, disease and terrorism are more likely to be conservative,” says Jost. “And exposure to a terrorist attack – whether it is in the U.S., England, Spain, Germany or Israel – is a significant predictor of a conservative shift.” In other words, it’s not just America: It’s Brexit, with its slogan of “Take back control of our borders.” And it’s the ascendency of anti-immigrant politicians around the Western world, from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer to French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.

    Several of Jost’s conclusions are consistent with a concept that is key to understanding the factionalism, tribalism and nationalism of today: “terror management theory.” One of the most important ideas in social psychology of the past three decades, it is predicated on the notion that as adult human beings, we have a desire to live, yet we know that – at a time and by a cause unknown to us – we are going to die.

    To manage this existential anxiety, we embrace a cultural worldview that provides us with order, meaning, importance and, ultimately, self-esteem. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on the agreement of others who share our beliefs. Meanwhile, the existence of other people with beliefs and values that differ from our own can subtly undermine the protection this worldview provides. So, according to the theory, when these beliefs are threatened, we will go to great lengths to preserve and defend them.

    University of Colorado psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski, one of the three researchers who came up with terror management theory in 1986 and co-author of The Worm at the Core: The Role of Death in Life, believes that this concept explains the right-wing extremism in this election cycle. “I suggest that one of the things frightening them is the de-whitening of America,” Pyszczynski continues. “I don’t think people are afraid of illegal immigrants committing crimes against them – but they’re bothered by certain kinds of immigrants diluting the whiteness of the country and the American identity that people get their sense of security from. The idea of ‘taking our country back’ after having a black president is a prime example of that.”

    And that is the rub: although the author throws out a sop by listing a couple anxieties associated with the political Left, the vast majority of the examples are from the political Right. Senco's father is the author's straw man; the rest of the article is using that example to paint the Right as deranged and its concern on issues as "illogical".  So, while ostensibly an article on the science of how fear and anxiety can be used to manipulate us and can negatively affect us, the article is actually just another attack on the Right and to ridicule and belittle issues espoused by the Right, whatever their merit. The article uses the very same tactics it decries to make its readers anxious about those holding view points associated with the Right.

    So, for instance, the article spends considerable time on "fears" of immigration, painting it as irrational. Yet, whether or not a particular person's "fears" of immigration may be because they are xenophobic or hate other races, that does not mean that there are not rational arguments against permitting mass immigration. For one, as has been demonstrated again and again in history and backed up by the law of supply and demand, mass immigration reduces and/or stagnates wages. At one time, the Democrats and labor leaders actually espoused this as a reason to limit immigration. Studies have also shown that illegal immigration costs society more in police and social welfare costs than is provided through increased taxes recovered from those same immigrants. Crime statistics show that Hispanics (the majority of immigrants), while having a lower violent crime rate than blacks, still have much higher crime rates than non-Hispanic whites. And it has been demonstrated that ethnic diversity reduces social capital. This isn't a matter of "anxiety" but demonstrable facts. Thus, it is rational to oppose mass immigration.

    In any event, the science in the article is interesting, and I think the article is useful in that respect (even if the study that found that cops were faster to shoot blacks than whites was an outlier and not supported by subsequent studies). It is also useful as an example of the methods used to influence anxiety and reinforce group (in this case, Leftist) bias and to test your critical thinking skills.


  1. Some spice in the dish makes it interesting. When the dish is more spice than substance, well, it becomes inedible.

    1. The irony is that study after study has shown that conservatives are generally happier than liberals.


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