Straw Men, False Analogies, and Other Crimes Against Sound Reasoning

One of the most pervasive informal fallacies, I explain to my students, is the “straw man” argument. A straw man argument, a version of a larger class of fallacies known as ignoratio elenchi, “occurs when an opponent’s point of view is distorted in order to make it easier to refute” (“Fallacies,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Sometimes this is done deliberately. Progressive political programs, for example, are caricatured as “everyone gets a pony.”

More often, however, a straw man argument is unintentional. Most of the time, I believe, a straw man argument is the result of the failure of the person making the argument to understand the position he or she is attacking. Human beings are naturally partisan in their thinking and this inclines them to read hastily and superficially and to leap to conclusions about the meaning of what they have read. It’s possible that Andres D. Medellin deliberately misrepresented my position in my piece “A Lesson From the Danes on Immigration” in order to give himself a platform to make an argument of his own. I’m inclined, however, to think that he just didn’t read the piece very carefully, that he merely skimmed it and then leapt, on that basis, to the conclusion that it was a defense of the Danes’ increasing hostility toward immigrants. It wasn’t.

We distinguish, in philosophy, between explanation and justification. “A Lesson From the Danes on Immigration” was an attempt to explain the growing hostility toward foreigners in Denmark in the hope that a better understanding of the situation there might ultimately be of help to the Danes and to other countries that are experiencing similar problems.

It wasn’t just this overarching message of the piece, however, that Medellin got wrong. He was also wrong on some more specific points. My piece was prompted by the op ed in the New York Times with the hyperbolic title “I Almost Lost My Career Because I Had the Wrong Passport” (December 3, 2019). Harrington recounts in the article how she ran afoul of new restrictions on citizens from non-EU countries giving guest lectures in Denmark and argues that Danes are becoming increasingly hostile toward immigrants. Medellin accuses me of criticizing Harrington’s article “from the perspective of cultural purity.” This accusation may have been puzzling to people who actually read my piece because the expression “cultural purity” does not appear in it. Of course it’s possible to invoke a concept without identifying it explicitly. I don’t do that either, though, as a careful and responsible reading of my piece will make clear.

“The recourse to cultural purity,” Medellin asserts, “is problematic for many reasons. First societies and cultures change over time. Although some cultural traits may and do prevail, there is no culture that has not undergone changes throughout the ages. All cultures and societies change, for better or worse.”

Few Danes would dispute that.

“[H]istory has demonstrated,” he contineus, “how migration and the influx of foreigners have enriched the societies that have opened their doors.”

Few Danes would dispute that, either. The Danes are a seafaring people who have deliberately sought out the best in the many cultures with which they have come into contact. I mentioned in my piece that every Dane is painfully aware of just how small Denmark is in relation to other countries. That means they are also acutely aware of how important it is for them to seek influences beyond their own borders to help them develop and grow. This can be seen in museums such as Davids Samling in Copenhagen with its world-class collection of Islamic art.

Medellin points out that Denmark “had its own anti-Muslim scandal some years ago.” That’s regrettably true. It should not blind one, however, to the fact that while there is indeed growing hostility toward foreigners in Denmark, Muslims had been living there, for the most part peacefully and harmoniously, long before this scandal and that they continue to do so. It also should not blind one to the fact that there is a famous center, DIGNITY, for the rehabilitation of torture victims in Copenhagen and that many, if not most, of these victims come from countries outside Europe.

If Danes are really so racist as Medellin maintains, then how does one explain the fact that when the Danish public got word back in the early ‘90s that there was a conspiracy, involving certain governmental officials, to keep Tamil refugees in Denmark from bringing members of their immediate families into the country, it toppled the entire government, forcing the Prime Minister Poul Schlütter to resign in 1993.

Medellin mentions that Harrington “correctly underpins this recourse to Danish cultural purity to a precise political event: the ascent of the Danish People’s Party in the early 2000s. As Harrington points out, the Danish People’s Party ‘didn’t want to just eliminate immigration; it sought to return Denmark to an imaginary past of racial and ethnic ‘purity’” [emphasis is Medellin’s].

I don’t doubt that some members of the Dansk Folkeparti have this fantastical objective. The text, however, on the party’s website makes no mention of such an objective, but reads instead:

The goal of the Danish People’s Party is to preserve Denmark’s freedom and independence in order to ensure democracy and further develop this good country which has been laboriously constructed throughout our long history.

We will fight against every effort to restrict the freedom of the Danish people [folkelig fridhed], and we will work to defend the traditions that form the foundation of our society whenever and wherever [overalt] they are threatened.

The reference to Danish culture, or to “the traditions that form the foundation of Danish society” is there, to be sure. The emphasis, however, is not on Danish culture per se, let alone on preserving its purported “purity.” The emphasis is on Danish autonomy. Denmark, as I explained in “A Lesson from the Danes on Immigration” has seen its autonomy progressively eroded, first by the incursions into the culture of global capitalism and then by restrictions on Danish sovereignty by its membership in the EU.

“What then makes the arrival of 7-Eleven and other foreign influences much less problematic,” asks Medellin, “than the influx of migrants [sic] or refugees?” The answer, of course, is nothing. I never said the latter was more problematic. There was a great deal of resistance on the part of the Danish people to the arrival of 7-Eleven, just as there was to McDonalds when it first appeared there. There has been resistance on the part of the Danes to every assault on their cherished way of life. Danes aren’t trying to keep their culture “pure,” whatever that means. They are trying to keep their culture — period!

“Piety does admit,” observes Medellin, “that ‘Denmark is afraid of becoming a multiethnic society.’ Keeping this admission in mind, the perceived danger to Danish traditions would stem not necessarily from multiculturalism, but from ethnicity. In short, the problem would be rather racial.”

Except that the problem isn’t racial, at least not primarily. Medellin assumes that “Denmark’s establishment … wants to decrease the number of immigrants and refugees coming from non-European nations” apparently based on the fact that the law in which Harrington found herself in violation excluded citizens from non-EU countries from guest lecturing in Denmark. What Medellin apparently doesn’t understand is that Denmark, as a member of the European Union, can’t preclude citizens from EU countries from guest lecturing in Denmark. The EU won’t allow them to do that. Believe me, they would if they could. Danes are afraid of being overrun, culturally, by the Germans. That fear isn’t racially based, it’s culturally based.

It is not my intention here to argue that there are no racists in Denmark. Of course there are because there are racists everywhere. My point is that Medellin has leapt to the conclusion that the issue in Denmark with immigration is primarily one of race when the evidence, taken all together, suggests it is not.

In fact, Medellin commits another crime against sound reasoning by drawing a conspicuously false analogy between Denmark and South Africa when he compares the Danes to a group of racist separatists Afrikaners. Denmark may have its flaws, but South Africa it ain’t. The differences between the two countries, particularly on human-rights issues, are so vast that it boggles the mind that anyone could ever compare them.

“I will not hone [sic] in on the economic reasons behind Denmark’s migratory [sic] policies that Piety correctly points out in her piece.” But the economic reasons are, I believe, essential to understanding the Danes’ growing antipathy toward immigrants. Denmark is trying to do the right thing by its inhabitants (one doesn’t have to be a citizen of Denmark to receive the benefits of the Danish social-welfare system). But with a population less than that of New York City, a landmass roughly half the size of Austria, and few natural resources, there is a very real limit to the number of immigrants Denmark can responsibly take in. And the thing is, Danes aim to be responsible.

Medellin says he’s surprised to see himself defend a piece in the New York Times. Well, so am I. The Times, by publishing Harrington’s attack on Danish attitudes toward immigration, is perpetuating what Natasha Lennard referred to recently as “[t]he reactionary myth that ‘affluent societies are allowed to have social welfare or immigration; they cannot have both’” (“The F Word,” TLS, Nov. 22, 2019). The message that is sent to Times readers is thus if we in the U.S. want to do right by immigrants, we cannot also expect to have a decent social-welfare system, and of course we want to do right by immigrants — right?

The irony is that not only does Denmark have a social-welfare system that is the envy of the world, Danes do much more for immigrants, even today, than we ever have done. And they want to continue to so. That’s a large part of the reason, if it isn’t the entire reason, that they want to reduce the flow of immigrants into the country.

Medellin concludes his attack on my piece with the observation that “[t]here are valuable lessons that we can learn from the Danish ruling classes’ current stance on migration [sic] — although not necessarily for the reasons imagined by M.G. Piety.”

I’m not sure what Medellin means by “the Danish ruling classes.” All Danes vote. If there is any class in Denmark that “rules,” it would appear to be the small group of Danes who favor global capitalism, the ones who invited in 7-Eleven and recently privatized the Danish postal service. Those people couldn’t care less about immigration, unless, of course, it provides them with an excuse to dismantle the social-welfare system, as they have been trying unsuccessfully to do for years.

I maintain, again, that the lesson we can learn from the Danish position on immigration is that people behave badly when they feel threatened and that if you want people to behave well, you have to take steps to ensure that they do not feel threatened. There is another lesson to be learned here as well, and that is that one should be a careful reader. No one wants unwittingly to become the dupe of the side in an argument to which he or she is opposed, but that would appear to be what has happened to Medellin. By defending Harrington and the Times, he’s unwittingly become the dupe of opponents of progressive change in the U.S. That is, he’s placed himself, whether he meant to or not, in the camp of the “everyone gets a pony” jeerers. His heart is in the right place, of course, as is clear from the substance of his article. It’s his head that’s gone astray.


M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: