The Tin-Man Defense

I’m not going to lie! The inspiration for this post was Donald Trump, or more to the point, the many times that his defenders made a point to tell us what he really meant when he said nothing of the kind. During the Trump administration, countless pundits and social media participants made it a regular practice to improve upon his actual words whenever defending him. The rest of us would find ourselves saying; “but that’s not what he said!” or even “Great, now tell that to Trump!” I could be wrong, of course, but I often had a very strong sense that the defense of something Donald Trump’s actually said very commonly began with an effort to clean up obvious mistakes and outrageous comments. I found myself thinking that this is like the straw man argument in reverse; people were defending Donald Trump by making up a position that sounded something like his own, but which didn’t actually match his own public statements on the topic in question. If the issue were just Trump himself, perhaps this would be too trivial to matter, but in at least some situations, this left open questions about what Donald trump’s actual intent really was and/or what sorts of policies might come out of the discussion in question. It’s all well and good to imagine a new and improved version of an existing theme, but without any clear reason to believe this version was really what the relevant source had in mind, the exercise is deceptive at best.

All gripes about our ex-President aside, this problem is not entirely unique to Donald Trump. I have encountered moments before in which someone defending a position effectively cleaned up the original. There may even be contexts in which this works just fine, particularly if it is acknowledged openly. If somebody says up front that they are reframing the original stance in the hopes of improving on it, that is often going to be a helpful and constructive thing to do. This becomes a problem, however, when the change is not acknowledged up front (thus raising questions about whether or not the party improving upon an original position realizes the difference themselves), or when the faults of the original position resist reformulation. A bad law remains in force, for example, even if its defenders insist on imagining it in newer and better ways, at least until it is actually amended. A reckless person who has expressed terrible views on a given subject doesn’t necessarily change his mind because a more thoughtful person finds a nicer way to say similar things to a third party. If it is the judgement of the reckless person that matters, the re-imagined message does more to cloud the matters at hand than it does to clear them up.

I really don’t know of any clear label to designate thus within the existing literature. I mean, you could call this a red herring, and it certainly is, but the specific form of distraction here doesn’t seem to have a name (that I know of anyway). Maybe, you could see it as a form of equivocation, or at least think of instances in which the argument would turn on some form of equivocation. I’m sure there are other possibilities. On a lark, I posted something about this on TikTok and asked for suggestions as to a name. I got a few suggestions, and Shane Lockwood suggested Steelmanning. I really liked that suggestion, but I keep thinking about this as a kind of inverted straw man, so decided the Scarecrow and the Tin Man would make a nice pair, so to speak. I also like the implication that the armor isn’t really all that good, because the original position is still vulnerable. Anyway, I’m going with “Tin Man.”

***

Okay, so brass tacks, what is a tin man argument or a tin man defense?

It is a defense of a previously-stated position which surreptitiously improves upon the original. This most commonly occurs in response to specific objections against the previous position, but it could also take the form of a direct argument purporting to support the original position (albeit one which actually changes it).

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For example:

Party A says; “Immigrants are destroying our country.”

Party B says: “This kind of immigrant-bashing is racist.”

Party C says: “He is not talking about legal immigrants; just the illegal kind.”

Note that in this example, Party C draws a distinction which is absent in the original position, thus cleaning up at least some (though not all) of the objectionable implications in the original statement. So, the defense effectively improves on the position in question rather than defending it as originally stated. In the example above, Part C actually denies that the original position was about legal immigrants at all, so it is not a conscious effort to replace a broad statement with a more narrow and precise one; it is effectively stating that the distinction was central to the point all along. Now the made up examples like this is that we can imagine all sorts of possibilities. It could be that there is some context-based reason to believe the distinction was intended all along. It could also be that Party C is simply reading their own somewhat more precise thinking about the issue for the original. (I’m pretty sure, I have seen both scenarios play out in online discussions.) If there is no clear reason to believe the distinction between legal and illegal immigration was intended in the original statement, then Party C is effectively tin manning the original argument.

What makes this important is the question of whether or not political actions taken on the basis of such views will target only those present in the United States in violation of American law, or will it also impact those present by legal means or even those who seek to enter by legal means in the future (to say nothing of American citizens who may be mistaken for immigrants). So, a defense of the original position that introduced more nuance than the original would effectively misrepresent the nature of the political agenda in question.

I did warn you this was inspired by Trump and his defenders, didn’t I?

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