The “Straw-Scotsman” pattern of ideological debate

Recently I had a short exchange on twitter on the subject of feminism. Reflecting on the nature of the disagreement, I realized that the structure of the arguments conformed to a pattern I had seen many times before, but never identified. It is a pattern that arises frequently in ideological disputes, I will mnemonically call it the “Straw-Scotsman” pattern.

Suppose Alice and Bob are debating about ideology X. Alice is a supporter of X, whereas Bob is a detractor.

Bob proceeds to criticize X:

Bob: I find ideology X unsatisfactory because of its properties a, b, c.

Alice retorts that Bob is mischaracterizing X:

Alice: Ideology X does not in fact have the properties a,b,c that you are wrongly assigning to it. You should inform yourself about what X really is before criticizing it.

Bob finds this to be a disingenuous answer:

Bob: You’re just dodging my criticisms by redefining X in a way that suits your argument. It seems to me that whatever criticism one could make of X you would simply reply that the real X is not like that.

In the language of fallacies, the pattern can be succintly described with

  • From Alice’s point of view, Bob is committing the straw man fallacy by attacking a position that does not in fact correspond to X.
  • From Bob’s point of view, Alice is committing the no true scotsman fallacy, by responding to any criticism of X by saying that the real X is not at all like that.

I offer no resolution here. From both points of view the opponent is engaging in fallacies, the argument is a stalemate and leads nowhere. The pattern typically also takes the following form when discussing the merits of ideologies in terms of historical outcomes.

Alice criticizes X using historical examples:

Alice: Ideology X is flawed, one only needs to look at what happened in the following examples a,b,c where it was applied and led to disastrous results.

Bob responds:

Bob: I disagree, examples a,b,c only show that the implementation of X was flawed. X was applied incorrectly or not at all, and it is this that led to bad results. However, if one applies X correctly, the results would be satisfactory.

A response which Alice finds unsatisfactory:

Alice: You could always dodge any critcism of a real world case of X by insisting that the implementation was wrong, rather than X is itself faulty.

In this manifestation the Straw-Scotsman pattern is best summed up as

  • When criticizing opposing ideologies people refer to their real world implementations, whereas when defending their own, they insist on its idealized form.

I realize now that I have seen this pattern occur many times when people debate, for example, communism and libertarianism.

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