Hannah More’s Village Politics: A Perfect Example of the Political Straw Man
Throughout all the readings this semester, we have been presented with great political theorists who all gave great tracts of arguments to support their given philosophy. Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Locke all spend pages and pages going through and attempting to rationalize or explain every single detail in order to create a solid argument.
And then we have Hannah More’s “Village Politics”. In just 6 short pages, More attempts to persuade the reader of the inherent correctness of the status quo and the dangers of reason and questioning authority. She does this by having clever Jack explain to Tom what a dullard he is. This is made particularly easy because Tom, as presented in the text, is indeed a dullard. The problem with this mode of argument is that it is the logical fallacy known as the “Straw man”. In this logical fallacy, the arguer sets up a fictional opponent, and then has them provide the weakest arguments possible, which the author can then easily defeat. This is certainly the case in village politics, as Tom, despite supposedly being a supporter of the enlightenment ideal of reason, cannot think for himself, and essentially does what he is told; first by the book he read, and then by Tom. It strains belief that such a man would think to pick up such a subversive book in the first place!
There are many examples of this fallacious style of argument in “Village Politics”. The first examples occur right in the beginning. Tom complains that he wants a “new constitution” and Jack wrly notes that “ I thought thou hadst been a desperate healthy fellow. Send for the doctor then” (More, 1). These opening verbal shots from Jack serve to inform the reader that Tom is an idiot, discrediting his later arguments by indirectly attacking him as a person (which is another logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem). Another example appears later in the text when Tom states “Down with the jails, I say; all men should be free” (More, 2). By providing such a simple, short-sighted version of the liberal argument for freedom, More is easily able to shoot down the argument by having Jack make a few pithy remarks. When Tom claims that “I shou’d have no one over my head”, Jack responds by arguing that since he is stronger, under a state of equality he would dominate Tom anyway (More, 2). In this particular instance, More goes beyond merely the straw man fallacy and is now actually putting words in the mouths of the supporters of the enlightenment.
By page 3, Tom is so flustered that he can only say “but the times, but the taxes” (More, 3). Now More isn’t even bothering to flesh out the arguments of the opposition, she is merely reinforcing Tom’s buffoonery. In a particularly ironic twist, she has Jack make a relatively eloquent argument (relative to Tom, anyway) that “the women is below her husband” (More, 3). John Mill would get a kick out of an influential female philosopher arguing that. Interestingly enough, when Tom responds to Jack’s assertion that the lowly will be rewarded in heaven by saying that “the French have got it in this world”, Jack responds with the go-to answer for people who don’t know what to say: “Tis all a lie” (More, 4).
By the end of the tract, straw man Tom has been won over, having been convinced that “I’m not so very unhappy as I had got to fancy” (More, 5). The reader, however, should not be so easily swayed. If this piece of political writing was a modern figure, it would be that of a political pundit like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann, as the use of straw men is a favorite tactic of those as well. For an informed reader, this actually sways them AGAINST the argument that More is trying to make, not in favor of it.
More, Hannah. Village Politics: Addressed to All the Mechanics, Journeymen and Day Labourers in Great Britain. Great Britain: s.n, 1793. Internet resource.