Straw Man: Balloon Man
The Balloon Man is a variant of the Straw Man fallacy in which the target is redefined in an excessively broad or vague manner. This expanded definition, the Balloon Man, is taken to include a wide range of (usually) bad things. This Balloon Man is then attacked, and it is concluded that the original is defective on this basis.
Premise 1: A has an established definition D.
Premise 2: Person B provides an excessively broad or vague definition V of A in place of D.
Premise 3: Person B criticizes V.
Conclusion: Person B concludes that A is defective (false, bad, incorrect, flawed. etc.).
While this fallacy is usually aimed at an audience, it can be self-inflicted: a person can unwittingly make a Balloon Man. This can be done through innocent ignorance or due to the influence of prejudices and biases.
It should be noted that redefining something need not be a Balloon Man fallacy. The fallacy occurs when the redefinition is excessively broad or vague and is done in an unprincipled manner. As would be suspected, there can be good-faith debate about whether a redefinition is better or worse than the original definition.
A good definition must be clear, plausible, and internally consistent. It must also either be in correspondence with our intuitions or be supported by arguments that show our intuitions are mistaken. Since people differ in their intuitions about meanings this can be a problem. When in doubt about whether a definition is intuitively plausible or not, it is preferable to argue in support of the definition. A definition that fails to meet these conditions would be defective.
A good definition must avoid being circular, being too narrow, being too broad or being too vague. Definitions that fail to avoid these problems are defective.
A circular definition merely restates the term being defined and thus provides no progress in the understanding of the term. For example, defining “goodness” as “the quality of being good” would be circular.
A definition that is too narrow is one that excludes things that should be included. It leaves out too much. For example, defining “person” as “a human being” would be too narrow since there might well be non-humans that are persons. Angels or aliens, for example, might also be people.
As another example, defining “stealing” as “taking physical property away from another person” is also too narrow. After all, there seem to be types of theft (such as stealing ideas) that do not involve taking physical property. There might also be types of theft that do not involve stealing from a person. For example, if there is no after-life, then grave robbing would not be stealing from a person (since the person is gone). However, it might still be theft. Naturally enough, there can be extensive debate over whether a definition is too narrow or not. For example, a definition of “person” that excludes human fetuses might be regarded as too narrow by someone who is opposed to abortion while a pro-choice person might find such a definition acceptable. Such disputes would need to be resolved by argumentation.
A definition that is too broad is one that includes things that should not be included. It allows for the term to cover too much. For example, defining “stealing” as “taking something you do not legally hold title to” would be too broad. A person in a life raft fishing in international waters does not legally hold title to the fish but catching them would hardly seem to be stealing.
As with definitions that are too narrow there can be significant debate over whether a definition is too broad or not. For example, a definition of “person” that includes apes and whales might be taken by some as too broad. In such cases, the conflict would need to be resolved by arguments.
While it might seem odd, a definition can be too broad and too narrow at the same time. For example, defining “gun” as “a projectile weapon” would leave out non-projectile guns (such as laser guns) while allowing non-gun projectile weapons (such as crossbows).
Definitions can also be too vague. A vague definition is one that is not precise enough for the task at hand. Not surprisingly, vague definitions will also tend to be too broad since their vagueness will generally allow in too many things that do not really belong. For example, defining “person” as “a being with mental activity” would be vague and too broad. And that is just scratching the surface of debating definitions in good faith. Now back to the fallacy.
While the Straw Man has long been a political tool, it has proven exceptionally effective in modern American politics and the Balloon Man variant has become a go-to tool. The Balloon Man version of critical race theory provides an excellent example of the power of this fallacy and illustrates why people accept (or fall for) this and other Straw Man fallacies. What follows is a philosophical look at a Balloon Man fallacy in some detail; some readers might prefer to skip this part and go right to the Defense and Examples.
Briefly put, critical race theory was developed as an academic theory in the 1970s and was defined in 1994 by law professor Roy L. Brooks as “a collection of critical stances against the existing legal order from a race-based point of view.” While one can debate the merits of critical race theory, there is no question that it has been made into a Straw Man. This is because Christopher Rufo tweeted that this is exactly what he did: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
This beautifully illustrates the creation of a Balloon Man, which is to take a target and redefine it both vaguely and negatively. In this manner, as Rufo tweeted, the target audience can be persuaded to fallaciously accept a wide range of unpopular things as being the same thing as the target of the Balloon Man. This strategy has proven effective, which provides an excellent example to use in discussing how this fallacy can work even when the creator publicly admits what they are doing.
In general, any type of Straw Man can be effective because the target audience is unaware that the fallacy is being used because they are ignorant about the truth about the target.
Although I have been a philosophy professor since 1993, I had only a vague notion of critical race theory since it is taught at certain law schools was never mentioned in my graduate philosophy classes. So, it makes sense that most people would have no idea what critical race theory really is. But for any type of Straw Man based on ignorance to remain effective, the intended audience must either not investigate the matter critically or must refuse to accept any criticism of the Straw Man.
The audience might become willfully ignorant and actively avoid critically assessing the Straw Man. This can be due to the influence of other fallacies. If the target accepts the Straw Man because they want to believe it, this could be Wishful Thinking. If they accept it out of fear or anger, it could be the result of an Appeal to Fear or Appeal to Anger. Other fallacies, such as the various Ad Hominem fallacies, the Genetic Fallacy or Appeal to Group Identity can also motivate people to accept the straw version as the real thing. These and other fallacies can also be used to motivate the audience to reject efforts to criticize the Straw Man. For example, someone who presents the facts about critical race theory could be subject to Ad Hominem attacks accusing them of being a radical Marxist.
The audience can also believe the Straw Man version because they are being misled by a fallacious Appeal to Authority or Appeal to Authoritarian. For example, the audience might believe in the Straw Man version of critical race theory because a media personality or politician they mistakenly trust tells them to believe in the straw version. If the audience distrusts credible sources of information, they are likely to believe that there is no reason to doubt the misinformation from sources they trust.
While the above would explain why people who are unaware of Rufo’s Tweet might accept the Balloon Man, what is most interesting is the matter of why people who are aware that Rufo was the creator (or inflator) of this Balloon Man still accept it. That is, how can a person be told that something is a fallacy and still accept it?
One rational reason rests on the fact that fallacious reasoning does not entail that a claim is false (see the Fallacy Fallacy). As such, someone could recognize that a Balloon Man is being inflated, yet still believe that the Balloon Man is correct. But for this belief to be well-founded, they would need adequate evidence to support it.
There can also be pragmatic reasons to go along with a fallacy. The Balloon Man of critical race theory has proven a very effective political tool. If someone can gain by pretending the Balloon Man is the real thing, then they would have an excellent pragmatic reason to pretend to accept it.
A person can also engage in Rationalization to accept a fallacy (or false claim) they find appealing or useful. On one level, they are aware that something is a fallacy and that they do not have a good (logical) reason to accept the claim it is supposed to support. But they might see going along with such a deception as unethical, even if it is appealing or advantageous. Rationalization allows a person to have it both ways: they can engage in a self-deception that allows them to think they are believing something true while also being able to exploit the fallacy for their own advantage.
Defense: As with any Straw Man type fallacy, the main defense against falling for the Balloon Man is to check to see if a misrepresentation is being substituted for the original. In the case of the Balloon Man, the specific thing to watch for is the bad faith redefinition of something using a definition that is excessively broad or vague.
Christopher Rufo: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
“The goal is to have the public see something crazy on social media or the news and immediately think “racism” or “sexism.” We have expanded the term to include a vast range of behaviors that are unpopular with Americans.”
“Of course, I oppose feminism. Feminism is just a big bad burrito of all the man-hating, all the women whining about why they cannot have everything they want for nothing, all the false accusations against men, and all that other stuff.”
“Of course, I oppose capitalism. Capitalism is just a big bad burrito of theft, racism, sexism, war, and everything bad in the world. Is something bad happening? Well, that is probably capitalism.”