• 【By the Way】唉!無的放矢!|戴啟思
  • 2020-05-30    


Beware the Straw Men!

The title of this piece sounds forbidding. It could be something someone would say in a bad horror movie which sees young women fall prey to animated scarecrows that are horrific distant cousins of the beloved and simpleton Scarecrow in the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’. A slow, rustling attack of eyeless men made of straw is the stuff of nightmares.

The Straw Man that I refer to is a rhetorical device used in argument or debate. A strawman argument is a response to an opposing position which does not deal with actual point identified by the other side but proceeds to answer a question that had never been raised. It is a tactic deployed by an opponent who has no answer to the original point or wants to deflect argument to grounds on which they feel more comfortable.

Strawman arguments are sometimes hard to spot. If the speaker is an able and persuasive advocate, whether using tongue or pen, a strawman argument can seem compelling. However, if you pause and think about what is said, you will recognise a strawman argument for what it is.

The hallmarks of a strawman argument are taking an opponent’s words out of context; over-simplifying or exaggerating the opposing argument; selective use of only parts of that argument and attributing to the opposing party extreme views which did not form a part of the original discussion.

A simple example of a strawman argument is the following exchange between a conscientious store manager anxious to improve working conditions for the staff and a company boss who wants to squash the idea of spending money.

Store Manager: If we can, I think we ought to spend more on canteen facilities for our staff because they are hardworking, and it would be good for morale.

Company Boss: If I am going to blow the company’s budget on free food and drinks for ungrateful staff who receive an excellent salary from working for this company, we will be forced into liquidation before long.

The Store Manager’s request was, on its face, reasonable. It argued for the possibility of rewarding staff for their hard work and to improve morale. It did not suppose that money for improved canteen facilities was available, nor did it suppose that food and drink would be free.

The Company Manager’s response is hostile. He does not want to spend money. He attacks the Store Manager by deliberately distorting facts-the Store Manager never suggested that the company should pay for food and drinks. He exaggerates the effect of the Store Manager’s request-it is described as so extravagant that it would put the company out of business.

The Company Manager also introduces a distraction by seeking to run down the staff as being ‘ungrateful’ when there is no reason to suppose that the staff had encouraged the Store Manager to make the proposal that would benefit them.

I choose the strawman argument as my topic because the recent announcement by the Standing Committee to the National People’s Congress (SCNPC), since confirmed by the full body, that Hong Kong was to have thrust upon it a raft of national security laws. This has the potential of raising a ‘fright’ of strawmen arguments (if ‘fright’ is not the collective noun for straw men, it should be).

I have seen questions reasonably raised about the constitutional basis for the change sidestepped or turned into responses to the effect that the questioner, in raising the issue, must assume that the SCNPC does not have the power and that he or she is talking out of their hat.

Similarly, there has been anxious speculation about how the new laws might be applied. Mainland criminal laws are known to be very different from our law. People have suggested there might be a problem if those laws were applied here without first being adapted by Legco. They have had their worries met with emphatic assertions that the new laws will be fine, that they will apply to a small minority of evildoers and that it is scaremongering even to hint you think that the new laws will not be entirely beneficial—this from people who do not know the new laws because they have not been drafted yet.

We now wait for the new laws. Article 18 requires consultation with the Hong Kong Government before deciding to go ahead to promulgation. If there is genuine consultation, the debate will move on to the form and content of the new laws.

If the results of the consultation are to be taken seriously, there needs to informed and principled argument. There will be no room for strawmen on either side of the argument.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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