Here's how a straw man argument works:
- Person A states an opinion or personal philosophy: "I think that cheese puffs are delicious, and I plan to include them at my holiday party."
- Person B then takes a small detail from Person A's opinion and misrepresents it or blows it out of context while ignoring the rest of the philosophy: "Person A thinks that cheese puffs should replace all food eaten on earth!"
- People listening to Person B then become outraged by how completely callous and terrible (or incredibly stupid, or whatever) Person A is.
Basically, the purpose of a straw man argument is to create a false target (like a practice dummy made of straw) to debate against rather than debating your actual opponent. When you do this, you're not really fighting the original opinion. You're fighting a ridiculous, over-blown version of that opinion, because it makes the argument easier to win. If you take a second to think about it, the opinion that you're so riled up about is probably not something that any sane person actually believes.
Ultimately, you end up with arguments that stop making sense entirely. Instead, they sound like the frightened ravings of conspiracy theorists.
Here are some practical examples that fall apart under scrutiny:
Person A: I believe that a woman should have the right to choose what happens to her body.
Person B: So you like killing babies?
Person A: I think that people should have the right to own guns.
Person B: So you think everyone should have weapons grade plutonium?
Person A: For some people, self-publishing is the right choice.
Person B: So you want everyone who works in the publishing industry to starve to death?
See how that falls apart?
Now, sometimes the straw man fallacy happens on accident. What happens is that the Person B in this scenario is actually attempting to do a reductio ad absurdum (where you argue that a person's stance is invalid by continuing it to a completely ridiculous point), but somewhere along the line people confuse Person A's actual belief with the absurd reductionist viewpoint offered by Person B.
So, here's some friendly advice: Before you start freaking out about anything, take a second to learn what a person's actual stance is, from an unbiased source. It's generally a bad idea to figure out a person's beliefs by asking his opponent. Go to the original source and base your opinion on the actual facts of the case being presented. This will prevent you from feeling like an idiot when you realize you've been taken in by a straw man.