Friday, July 19, 2024

Strawmen, Steelmen, and the Benefit of the Doubt

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Engaging with a piece of media can be done using any of the number of approaches. The two we talk about most often on The Fandomentals are the Watsonian perspective and the Doylist.

What characterizes a Doylist reading of a text is that it takes an external view, seeing the work as part of our own world, rather than the world internal to it. This considers the impact and implications of that work but is also, rather necessarily, concerned with the intention of the author. Doylist reading are the antithesis of the “death of the author” approach to media criticism. (Though, in this writer’s opinion, both viewpoints can be used to insightful effect. There’s never only one way to look at a text.)

But trying to tease out the intentions of the author can be a tricky business too. It can too often devolve into trying the psychoanalyze writers and other creators. At the same time, most writers write because they have something to say, and trying to figure that out must be useful.

The really fun comes in, however, when you read something and you question is “what the hell was the writer thinking!?” It’s enjoyable to discuss whether Jane Austen bought into patriarchy within marriage, because her skills and brilliance as a writer are not in question. But when you’re trying to figure out why a popular television show just killed yet another lesbian, skills and brilliance may not be so clear to see.

In such a case, there are two options open to you, and both of them involved the benefit of the doubt—or, more specifically, your willingness to give it. You can create a strawman, or you can create a steelman. Neither of these options is likely to be “the truth,” at least it’s will necessarily be a simplification, but short of telepathy, it’s the best we can do.

“Strawmen” are familiar to anyone who has ever learned about informal logical fallacies in order to be a more effective internet forum debater. It comes from old-timey knightly combat training, where novice warriors would practise their skill against flimsy, immobile representations of men made out of straw.  Needless to say, it was hardly anything like fighting against an actual opponent.

A strawman argument, therefore, is a representation of your opponent’s argument that is created specifically so it will be easy to defeat. In the context examining the motives and intentions of media creators, it would mean painting them in the worst possible light, and almost disclaiming the idea that the work is even worthy of serious analysis. “This scene doesn’t work because the writer is a stupid, sexist hack,” for example.

A steelman argument is specifically intended to be the opposite of that. You try to make a version of your opponent’s argument that is the most difficult to defeat as possible, perhaps even erring on the side of being too generous and giving the work levels of meaning that were never intended by the creators.

An example to illustrate this contrast occurred in the final two episodes of the most recent season of Game of Thrones. In episode nine, Sansa Stark arranged for the Knights of the Vale to join the battle against the Boltons, but she chose not to tell her brother, the commander of the army, Jon Snow, that they were coming. The question of why Sansa would act this way is a rather important one for the story of the entire season. If Jon had known that he had another couple thousand cavalry at his disposal, the battle would have been planned quite differently, and it most likely would have been delayed to a time of Jon’s choosing.

If you were feeling ungenerous, you might strawman this scenario and explain that Sansa didn’t chose to condemn several thousand men to death because of her inaction so much as the writers chose to not give her actions any thought. They wanted their battle sequence to feature an eleventh-hour save, and that required Jon to be ignorant of the imminent arrival of the Vale forces. To service that need, they simply didn’t care that it required Sansa to behave in a seemingly illogical and self-detrimental way.

Constructing a steelman would firstly require you to at least entertain the notion that the writers did think it through and that there is a good explanation to begin with. In this example, there are a couple steelmen to be considered. Perhaps Sansa was unsure of Littlefinger’s willingness to come to her aid after she had previously told him to take a hike. There were several scenes earlier in the season where she was unable to convince lords to follow the Starks; maybe this had an effect on her confidence. Then it might make sense that she wouldn’t want Jon to construct a battle plan that assumed they would show up. That would be an even more surefire way to defeat than charging in without a plan would be.

Less flattering to their characterization of Sansa, but also in the realm of “they gave it thought”, is the idea that Sansa’s ambition got the better of her. This reasoning would suggest that she withheld the information because she wanted the credit that would come with saving the army, so that she could use it to her political advantage.

Obviously, both these steelmen come with their own problems, of the Watsonian and Doylist variety, but they at least provide some kind of foundation for discussion. The implications of Sansa as an ambitious and power hungry schemer are much more interesting to talk about than the plain stupidity after all.

A steelman is similar to a “honeypot”—that is, a story that consumer of a piece of media has to invent in order to make an incompetently written narrative make sense—but they differ in approach. Steelmen are specifically about the author and her intentions, while a honeypot is a purely Watsonian device.

The million dollar question, and one that doesn’t necessarily have a good answer, is how to choose between constructing a strawman or construction a steelman when engaging with media. It all depends on whether or not you’re willing to give the creators the benefit of the doubt.

To define this term, it means that you concede that something is correct or justified unless the contrary is specifically proven. So when your four-year-old swears he didn’t eat the cookies, you might chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s telling the truth, even though you have no proof one way or the other. In the context of media, giving a creator the benefit of the doubt is assuming both good intentions, and that the creators knows what it is they’re doing and can be trusted with the story and characters.

We often talk about how a certain creator or earned, or lost, the benefit of the doubt. For example, the Crewniverse– the creators of Steven Universe— have earned the benefit of doubt because they have years of sensitive topics well on their show. So even though Bismuth made a lot of people uncomfortable, there was a general willingness to trust that the payoff will be there.

In contrast, when Game of Thrones included a mention of a “handsome young man” instrumental in Cersei’s downfall at the hands of the Tyrells, many viewers were hopeful that that this meant that Gendry would return in the sixth season to follow up on this. However, we had several years of experience to teach us that the creators of that show had no ability to plan more than a season in advance, so we felt comfortable stating that the handsome young man was meant to be Lancel, and it seems we were right.

Believe it or not, we here at The Fandomentals have made a conscious decision to always try to erect steelmen to fight, instead of strawmen. If a narrative is inherently flawed, then no steelman (or honeypot) in the world, no matter how creative, can save it. Deconstructing your opponent’s strongest argument will always serve to make your own that much the stronger. And there’s also very little honour in defeating a strawman.

When the benefit of the doubt is gone, however, there comes a point where constructing steelmen is more an intellectual exercise than an actual attempt at insight. Once that good faith is lost, it’s very difficult to get it back again.

Images courtesy of Cartoon Network and 20th Century Fox

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