Why You Should ‘Steel Man’ Your Arguments on Islamism

Illustrative picture. (Photo: Sam Howzit/Creative Commons)
Illustrative picture. (Photo: Sam Howzit/Creative Commons)

Far too often in the current political climate people misrepresent each other’s arguments. This ranges from factions from the left portraying President Trump as “literally Hitler,” or hard-right politicians arguing that immigration is part of a cultural Marxist plot to destroy the white race.

On Islamism, the misrepresentation on one side is that anyone who criticizes Islam is a bigot who just wants to destroy the cultural heritage of brown people. On the other side, the misrepresentation is that anyone who thinks Islam is not the problem is secretly supporting the destruction of Western civilization and its replacement with an Islamic caliphate.

Both of these misrepresentations are examples of straw man arguments. A straw man is a logical fallacy which involves substituting a person’s actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of his or her position. Although it can be satisfying in the short term to feel as though you’ve demolished someone in debate, misrepresenting your opponents positions offers you no favors. In fact, it leaves you ill-equipped to debate the real issue and can cause friction and enmity when in fact there might be room for agreement.

A far better approach is the so called steel man argument. The “steel man” is an improvement of someone’s position or argument that is harder to defeat than their originally stated view. This argumentative strategy sees you present your opponents views in the best possible light. Figure out what facts best support their positions. Do your best to understand why someone might think that way. What logical steps are they taking to wind up at their conclusions?

Only when you have put the time and effort into really understanding what your opponent is saying and why they are saying it — and formulated the strongest possible version of their argument — should you begin to dissect it.

What does this mean from the point of view of those fighting Islamism?

It means we have to dive deep to look at the root of the problem. It means we have to listen to what Islamists and their apologists are saying and carefully assess whether any of those points have validity. It means we have to carefully look at the evidence for why people join Islamist groups and see which of those causes are being ignored by people ostensibly interested in tackling it.

It also means that for the purposes of addressing the arguments, we ought to assume that our opponents’ stated positions are sincerely held in good faith and for the most noble reasons as possible. This doesn’t mean they actually are sincerely held, nor that there is good faith, nor that those advancing Islamist arguments are doing so for noble reasons. Yet imagining those things to be true means we are forced to contend with the strongest and most dangerous form of our opponents arguments.

This matters because it is that steel man form of the Islamist argument that those most vulnerable to recruitment are going to be hearing. (Read that sentence again.) If we are to prevent radicalization and defeat Islamism, we have to have convincing arguments against it — arguments that will speak to people who would otherwise be convinced by the Islamists.

The only way to get there is to steel man the Islamist position before attacking it.


How to hone your skills to argue against Islamism

Ideally, to be sure you understand the other side of the argument, you should repeat your understanding of it to someone holds that view and ask them if you have it right.

There are five beneficial effects to steel manning your argument:

  • You will clearly see the gaps in your own position and be able to either adjust your views or acquire more information as applicable
  • You will gain the trust of your interlocutor
  • You will be able to accurately assess the opposing argument for its real flaws
  • Any criticisms you make will be more effective, since they cannot be dismissed out of hand



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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.