The straw man fallacy: missing the point on Indigenous Peoples Day

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Have you ever heard of the phrase, “War on Christmas?” It’s a common exaggeration made by those who perceive a societal change from people saying “Merry Christmas” to now saying “Happy Holidays.” An exaggeration made by our current president contained the same type of fallacy, when he said that under a Hillary Clinton presidency, you could “rip the baby out of the womb” in the ninth month of a pregnancy.

These are examples of logical fallacies—lapses in rationale that can be used as a debate tool to further a person’s argument. Specifically, they’re both “straw man” fallacies, in which the speaker misrepresents their opponent’s talking points in order to more easily argue against them.

Neither of the above statements are true. People aren’t seeking to prevent Christians from celebrating Christmas, and Trump’s claim is just a crude and inaccurate description of abortion. But both of those talking points demonize the opponent’s arguments and make it easier to support the other side.

These are ways to win an argument without making a real point, allowing for little research and giving the impression that the debater doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Last week, a column ran in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian titled “Why I didn’t celebrate ‘Apologize to Indigenous Peoples Day,’” in which Bradley Polumbo argued that people, specifically white people, shouldn’t feel bad for the mistakes of their ancestors.

The central claim was based on an email Polumbo received from an advisor informing him that there wouldn’t be classes on “Apologize to Indigenous Peoples Day.” Polumbo took issue to the “apologetic strain” of that email, Indigenous Peoples Day and other holidays around the world.

But when the town of Amherst decided a year ago to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, it was in hope of remembering the atrocities that stemmed from European exploration. The day has little to do with apology, but the article was constructed around the idea that we are being told to be remorseful.

This is where the logical fallacy comes into play. In describing Indigenous Peoples Day, Polumbo seemed to suggest that the main idea was atonement—a day in which we all must repent for the sins our ancestors committed against the Native peoples of North America.

Polumbo wrote that “the notion that white people bear any responsibility for the actions of their ancestors is nothing short of absurd,” thus simplifying his opponents’ argument down to “They want me to apologize for something I had no control over.”

Essentially, that breaks down the idea that we should recognize and remember the genocide of up to 95 percent of the Native American population into an argument based around apologizing for something someone else did. It makes it a false argument—a straw man or a cardboard cutout of what was previously a difficult point to disagree with.

Many sentences in the closing paragraphs of the column contain their own fallacies:

Polumbo writes, “I will not apologize for genocides committed hundreds of years before my birth, or for a system of slavery whose abolishment predates my first words by centuries,” despite the fact that no one asked for his apology.

He continues, “They may have been carried out by people who look like me, but I played no part in these crimes and bear no responsibility.” Nobody had insinuated that white people today hold any blame in this scenario.

Finally, he states, “Asking people like me to seek forgiveness is like blaming Californians, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, to apologize for Donald Trump’s buffoonery on the world stage.” Asking for apologies in both scenarios would in fact be ridiculous, save for the fact that few Californians are asked to apologize for Trump’s controversial remarks, in the same way people of European descent have not been asked to apologize to Native Americans.

Indigenous Peoples Day isn’t based on making white people feel guilty for personal compliance with the genocide enacted by Christopher Columbus and other white settlers. It is about recognizing and remembering important cultures destroyed by European superiority. The day asks for just a bit of human decency in honoring those killed. It doesn’t put a college student born five centuries after the fact on trial.

This is not an attack on an alternate opinion, nor does it have anything to do with point of view or political leaning.

This is about a logically flawed argument that was brought to a mass audience, which can encourage more similarly faulty debate styles to become the norm. This is about arguments that lower the standard of constructive debate on campus.

I encourage anyone looking to speak their mind to come to the table with something to contribute. But don’t use a fallacy in order to win an easy argument. That’s unbecoming of the high quality of journalism this campus deserves.

Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.