Breaking the camel’s back, or: That was the final straw(man)

Posted on: October 24, 2016

Today’s post comes from T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, Assistant Professor of Classical Languages.

When you started this school year, you were pelted (I’m sure the administration would prefer I say “welcomed”) with messages about wellbeing, diversity, and the Wake Forest Way.  Incoming first-years at the University of Chicago got, as you might have heard, a rather different message[1] from their Dean of Students.  He mansplained (I’m sure he would prefer I say “wrote”):

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This caused controversy[2] across American academia and provoked thoughtful responses from faculty[3] and alums[4] of U. Chicago, among others.  It’s an important debate to have, one that pre-dates the Dean’s letter and extends past U. Chicago and the United States.  President Obama has spoken with commendable nuance[5] on the topic.

But one of the problems with that letter “welcoming” new students to Chicago, and the name of that problem is a straw-man argument.  Rather than engage with what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” actually are — the first is an important tool initially conceived on feminist Internet message boards in the 1990s to allow survivors to skip reading particularly vivid descriptions of trauma, and the second are places where members of marginalized groups can just be themselves instead of the token representatives of their group — the Dean created a false version of them, one that would be easy for him to dismiss in the virtuous defense of intellectual rigor.

It’s easy to win an argument when you can turn your opposition’s position into a two-dimensional caricature of itself.  Why respond in detail to critics of your compliance with campaign finance laws when you can just say they’re trying to force you to give up your children’s beloved dog Checkers[6], a gift from a campaign donor?  Why analyze and interrogate an interlocutor’s political views when you can just compare them to Hitler[7]?

Well, here’s why: because the straw man will break the camel’s back of your writing!  Not only do you need to write to think[8] and ensure that your writing keeps things in context[9], but also you must strive to keep your argumentative playing field level.  Report your opponents’ views fairly and completely, and use reasoning and evidence to prove them wrong.  In writing just as in the Land of Oz, a man made out of straw is simply brainless.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/25/u-chicago-warns-incoming-students-not-expect-safe-spaces-or-trigger-warnings

[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/29/u-chicago-letter-new-students-safe-spaces-sets-intense-debate

[3] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/14/u-chicago-professors-issue-letter-safe-spaces-and-trigger-warnings

[4] http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/08/the-university-of-chicago-letter/498110/

[5] http://www.npr.org/2015/12/21/460282127/obama-warns-campus-protesters-against-urge-to-shut-up-opposition

[6] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/eisenhower-checkers/

[7] http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/godwins-law

[8] http://college.wfu.edu/writingcenter/tips-and-tricks/tuesdays-tip-writing-to-read-2

[9] http://college.wfu.edu/writingcenter/uncategorized/who-will-watch-the-watchers

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