About this time last year, a Google Chrome extension was released on the Google store that automatically replaced the term “pro-life” with “anti-choice”. As with everything else in the abortion debate, both sides were quickly up in arms. The anonymous creator of the extension explained that he/she created it in an attempt to clarify the debate. It has been pointed out before that the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are flawed because they naturally demonize the opposing party. The implied opposite of being “pro-life” is to be “pro-death” or “anti-life” and no pro-choice advocate would ever claim such a position. Likewise, to say that you’re not “pro-choice” is to say that you’re pro-coercion or, as the extension claims, “anti-choice” which has never been the position of those fighting against abortion. However, flawed as the terms may be, the extension itself exposed a more fundamental problem. In an effort to clarify the debate by removing what the creator deemed as misleading language, all it managed to do was further confuse it. As a column on pro-life website LifeActionNews.com stated:
I completely agree. For the pro-life advocate, the debate has always been about the metaphysical status of the unborn. If a fertilized egg is indeed nothing more than a lump of tissue like a mole or tumor, then the pro-choice people are correct and we have no right to tell them what they can or cannot do with their own bodies. Having an abortion or not simply becomes a decision belonging to the woman that is no more consequential than getting a piercing or having mole removed. However, if life begins at conception and a fertilized egg is a human, then it deserves all the same rights and protections that any other human deserves, including the right to life. If this is the case, then abortion is murder and the choice of the mother is irrelevant. The constant attempts to inject “a woman’s right to choose” into the debate are ultimately red herrings designed to draw the focus away from the issue at hand. That’s precisely what makes this Chrome extension so dangerous: it’s not dealing with the real issue of the debate. Instead, it tries to demonize the opponent by defining their position for them and putting words into their collective mouth. As actor James Wood commented on Twitter, “For those who can’t win an argument based on reasoning, changing the language will have to suffice.”
This Chrome extension then becomes a textbook example of what is known as the Straw Man Fallacy, so named because it argues against a caricature or a misrepresentation of the opponent’s argument that is more easily defeated than the actual argument. Imagine hanging a sign around the neck of a scarecrow that says “Jackie Chan”, kicking it in the head until it falls over, and then telling your friends that you beat up Jackie Chan and you’ve got the idea. When you spot this happening, it’s a warning sign that we need to stop and be more critical about what’s going on. To quote abortion advocate Andrea Miller, President of National Institute of Reproductive Health:
Again, I completely agree. What is the agenda here? If the debate is being littered with red herrings, straw men, and emotional pleading based on bogus data then we have to ask what’s really going on. A slip up here or there by one or two people is forgivable, but a consistent history of repeated offenses undergirding the entire strategy of a movement indicates an indefensible position. They don’t deal with the real issue (the status of the unborn) because they can’t. Why they can’t will often vary from person to person. Many people in our culture have simply bought the lie (Rosaria Butterfield’s article on her own journey with this issue is illuminating). They fight “for choice” simply because they don’t understand what the real debate is about or what the pro-life position really is. They only know what they’ve been told. Others resort to these sleights-of-hand because they have no other choice. They have an agenda and can’t prove their position from science, scripture, or reason (in fact, very often the three are lodged against them) but they refuse to back down and must resort to other tactics.
The good news is that pro-life advocates are winning this battle. Today, as I write this, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump (explain that sequence of words to 1995) is planning an executive order that will defund Planned Parenthood’s international operations. In addition, statistics show that Millennials are more likely to be pro-life than previous generations and abortion rates are lower than they’ve ever been since the passing of Roe vs. Wade.
I don’t intend this blog to be political. Issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration reform, etc. are items that I have opinions about like anyone else, but there are many others who are more qualified to speak on them than myself. I bring it up because “straw men” are rampant within our culture, particularly in the world of fast-paced digital communication where rhetorically powerful, Twitter-sized soundbites, slogans, and memes get passed around like candy and people have neither the patience nor the attention span to work through a thorough response. J. Warner Wallace often asks, “Are you willing to wait for a long answer to your short question?” For many people today, the answer is “no”. It is easier to dismiss the opponent as “anti-choice” and move along with your day than it is to sit down, listen to the issues and do the heavy lifting. Combine that with suppressed feelings of guilt that will rear their ugly heads if a woman has had multiple abortions and has to confront that she murdered her children and the reaction becomes not just intellectual or political, but fiercely emotional. Straw men are rampant because they’re easy.
Why then is all this relevant? Let’s look at a couple slogans and sayings you hear when discussing religion with people of other faiths.
Side note: If your supposedly perfect and inspired holy book directly dictated from the mouth of your omniscient God consistently misunderstands someone’s theological position, it’s a good sign that it’s not perfect, inspired and directly dictated from the mouth of an omniscient God.
If we’re ever going to have fruitful conversations about our beliefs and their validity (something any honest seeker wants), then we need to be willing to let the other side make their own case and arguments rather than defining their position for them. In addition, we need to take each person as their own person. Even though “classical atheism” denies the existence of a soul, there are some atheists who are open to the idea. Mormonism teaches that the Prophet is the mouthpiece of God and everything he says should be taken as inspired, but not every Mormon believes that. Arguing the flaws of determinism with an atheist that believes in free will is an exercise in futility and accomplishes nothing more than making you look foolish.
Straw men accomplish nothing but frustration and wasted time because they cause us to talk past each other. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should take everything our opposite number says as truth at face value. It’s entirely possible that their arguments may be flawed, baseless or outright fabrications. They may not have fully thought through the argument or perhaps they’re just repeating what they’ve been told. However, if we’re willing to give them an ear and understand their position, we can then move onto the more productive task of critically analyzing and discussing that position, but at least we’d be dealing with the position they’re presenting and not the one we want them to present because it’s easier.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.