Sunday, June 19, 2011

Labelling a straw man

When I get into an argument with someone, I've noticed that it's terribly easy to turn the person I'm arguing with into a straw man. I see myself, then, as this complex, three-dimensional being with intricate webs of thought and experience and my opponent (or friend) as a kind of mathematical equation that needs simply to be figured out rather than loved or understood.

Typically, the phrase "straw man" refers to an argument that has been misrepresented in some way so as to be easily defeated, but here I'm using it to refer to the misrepresentation of actual human beings. And typically "to attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of intellectual superiority over a particular proposition, idea or philosophy without actually ever taking that proposition, idea or philosophy on its own terms. Here I'm suggesting that "to attack a straw man" also refers to when we turn people into cardboard cut-outs like those you find at a shooting range in order to suggest that we are in some way better, more together and just generally more astute than the people we debate with.

How we turn multi-dimensional human beings into straw men is simple: we put a label onto the person in question, thereby substituting the label for the person. In other words, we take the idea being discussed, remove it from the context of the human being in front of us and then, at least on a conceptual level, discard the person in front of us. I remember watching a journalist do this to the philosopher Slavoj Zizek (See below for Part 1):

It's not that labels are avoidable, but they are merely words, not people. They are ideas, not people. They are just labels, nothing more really. I remember reading Anthony De Mello's 'Awareness' a few years ago. In that book, he talks about the necessity of dropping our labels. He says, if I remember this correctly, that the problem with labels is that sometimes they become a dirty lens through which we view everything. In other words, they can stop us from seeing. Even when we label ourselves as smart, empathetic, stupid, lazy, active or whatever, we are in danger of living in a kind of unreality.

What I'm trying to learn now is just to live: not to make judgments about people and their ideas, just to listen; not to decide that I know what I'm talking about, but to question; not to be so concerned with the destination that I forget the present moment. In short: to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch without worrying too much about how well any of my experiences fit into my theories. I don't want to be the kind of person who changes the facts to fit the theory, but rather the kind of person whose theory fits with my experience of reality. Yes, of course, we need to make decisions at some point, but even those decisions ought to be seen in the context of our whole human story, rather than as a destination that prevents us from ever going anywhere else ever again.

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