It's often easier to argue on what someone doesn't believe than what they do believe. The straw man argument is characterized by a misrepresentation of an opponent's viewpoint to make for easier and more eloquent criticism of that opinion. In the following example from the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” notice how Nick characterizes Joey's position as "anti-choice" which is absurd and meaningless in the context of their original debate:
Joey: So, what happens when you're
Nick: Well, Joey, I'm never wrong.
Joey: But you can't always be right.
Nick: Well, if it's your job to be
right, then you're never wrong.
Joey: But what if you are wrong?
Nick: Okay, let's say that you're
defending chocolate and I'm defending
vanilla. Now, if I were to say to you,
"Vanilla's the best flavor ice cream",
Joey: "No, chocolate is."
Nick: Exactly. But you can't win that
argument. So, I'll ask you: So you
think chocolate is the end-all and
be-all of ice cream, do you?
Joey: It's the best ice cream; I
wouldn't order any other.
Nick: Oh. So it's all chocolate for
you, is it?
Joey: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
Nick: Well, I need more than
chocolate. And for that matter, I need
more than vanilla. I believe that we
need freedom and choice when it comes
to our ice cream, and that, Joey
Naylor, that is the definition of
Joey: But that's not what we're
Nick: Ah, but that's what I'm talking
Joey: But ... you didn't prove that
vanilla's the best.
Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that
you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm
In the political arena, those who are anti-abortion characterize their position as “pro-life.” In this way, opponents of abortion are setting up a straw man argument implying that their opponents are not in favor of human life.” In reality, the question behind the abortion debate is not whether or not human life is valuable, but when human life begins and what social values are jeopardized in undermining a woman's right to decide these matters.
An effective way of debating and defusing “straw man” rhetoric, is by graciously and wholeheartedly agreeing with the opponent as much as possible. In a public forum debate about chocolate ice cream, Joey should follow up Nick's argument with an eloquent and gracious support for the value of freedom (ie: “I would like to thank Nick for the important values he articulated so eloquently; it's heartening to see that what we agree upon is far more important than the differences that divide us....”). Similarly, in the abortion debate, those in favor of a woman’s right to choose should graciously applaud the tireless humanitarian efforts and idealistic values of the “pro-life” movement.