Sunday, January 09, 2005

Straw Self Arguments

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I wanted to comment on the Pentagon’s and CIA’s plan to imprison suspected terrorists for life without trial. This is a truly awful proposal for anyone who cares at all about civil liberties – in fact, it’s so bad that I can’t help wondering if it’s just a debater’s trick. Arthur Schopenhauer alludes to the stratagem in question:
To make your opponent accept a proposition, you must give him the counter-proposition as well, leaving him his choice of the two; and you must render the contrast as glaring as you can, so that to avoid being paradoxical he will accept the proposition, which is thus made to look quite probable. … It is as though you were to put grey next black, and call it white; or next white, and call it black.
Normally, straw men are created for the sake of mischaracterizing your opponent’s position. But here we have a different kind of straw man, whose purpose is to provide a foil against which you can contrast your own position. A “straw self,” we might call it. The trick is to put forth a position more extreme than your own, and then deliberately distance yourself from it.

We’ve seen this stratagem deployed by the people in the Bush administration before, as with (for instance) the Justice Department memo that contained a theoretical justification for the use of torture on terror suspects. The existence of this memo has allowed AG-nominee Alberto Gonzales to spend his time distancing himself from that position and denouncing torture, rather than defending the tight security measures he does support.

I can’t help but think that the indefinite detention plan might serve a similar purpose: providing a straw policy of black compared to which the administration’s gray policies will look white.

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