The Steel Man Technique
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Take a look at this room. Is it racist?
You didn’t misread that. I’m asking if the room in this photo is racist.
I don’t think it is. Still, others may disagree. While it would be easy to dismiss a rhetorical opponent without considering the argument of this imagined person, I will instead use a technique I employ with some of my clients.
Do you know about the steel man technique?
Straw Man vs. Steel Man
Perhaps you’re familiar with a straw man argument, said to be “one in which the person sets up and then attacks a position that is not actually being debated.”
Rather than mischaracterizing what others have to say, I could use the steel man technique which is said to be done by “building the best form of the other side’s argument and then engaging with it.”
Though I don’t believe a room can be racist, if I want to better understand how others may disagree with me I could steel-man their argument. Without using uncharitable reference data, here is my attempt to briefly make a case as to how a room could be racist.
Steel-manning Structural Racism
If you conclude that inanimate objects cannot be racist, you likely aren’t familiar with the concept of structural racism—“ macro-level conditions (e.g. residential segregation and institutional policies) that limit opportunities, resources, power, and well-being of individuals and populations based on race/ethnicity and other statuses.”
Perhaps you value the standard definition of racism—“a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Using this definition, how can a room maintain a belief? Let’s explore this matter a bit further.
Some people define racism as “a system of group privilege by those who have a disproportionate share of society’s power, prestige, property, and privilege.”
Using this definition, one may understand that it is a system—not necessarily a belief—that can comprise racism. Now, is the room depicted in the photo racist?
Suppose I told you that the room is within a building that was built by a mostly white contracting firm, not representative of society’s demographics. Keep in mind that “cultural representations” is said to matter when discussing structural racism.
What if I told you the land upon which the building stands is that belonging to a state that was part of the Confederate States of America? Some people maintain that “a legacy of African enslavement” relates to structural racism.
In an American Medical Association (AMA) health equity guide, the AMA issued an acknowledgement stating, “The AAMC [Association of American Medical Colleges] and AMA also acknowledge the extraction of brilliance, energy and life for labor forced upon millions of people of African descent for more than 400 years.”
Does this change your perspective about the room being racist?
Maybe you still struggle with the notion of a room being racist. According to an entry in a peer-reviewed journal, “[B]uildings can be just as, if not more, racist than other forms of visual culture.”
Ok, so some people believe buildings can function as a component of structural—though sometimes called systemic or institutional—racism. What impact might this form of racism have on people?
Per one source, “Racism is not always conscious, explicit, or readily visible—often it is systemic and structural. Systemic and structural racism are forms of racism that are pervasively and deeply embedded in systems, laws, written or unwritten policies, and entrenched practices and beliefs that produce, condone, and perpetuate widespread unfair treatment and oppression of people of color, with adverse health consequences.”
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on physical properties such as skin color and hair texture. This ‘system’ unfairly disadvantages some individuals and groups and damages their health and mental health.”
The APA also maintains that “racial microaggressions in academic, social and public settings” may be attributed to racism.
For the uniformed, racial microaggressions are said to be “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
Examples of microaggressions include saying to a non-white person, “You are so articulate,” “America is a melting pot,” and, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
Keep in mind that it is claimed, “Members of dominant social groups privileged by birth or acquisition who knowingly or unknowingly exploit and reap unfair advantage over members of the target groups,” meaning that even unwitting and unintentional racism may exist.
Understanding this, suppose I told you that while in the room featured in this blog entry a white person states to a black person that racial colorblindness is a personal value to the white person.
By the concepts expressed throughout this entry, the room in which this conversation takes place supports structural racism. Do you agree that the room is racist?
If a room in which a racist conversation occurs, and the room serves as a component in a larger system of oppression, one may use a syllogism to infer that a room can in fact be racist.
An example of this is:
All humans are mammals (major premise).
I’m a human (minor premise).
Therefore, I’m a mammal (conclusion).
To enhance the argument of how a room may be racist, consider the following syllogisms:
Premise 1: Every component of structural racism—to include institutions, systems, people, places, and things—serves to oppress non-white people.
Premise 2: In a room, a racial microaggression occurs.
Conclusion: The room is racist.
Premise 1: A room within a building that sits upon colonized land, and which is owned by an entity that marginalizes non-white people, is inarguably racist.
Premise 2: The room depicted in the photo for this blog entry meets this classification.
Conclusion: The room is racist.
While there are many other points of approach concerning the topic of structural racism and how a room can be racist, the information outlined herein effectively demonstrates the point. The room in the photo is racist.
Steel Man and My Approach to REBT
I do not intend on debunking the notion about how a room may be racist. Though I disagree with the proposition and want to demonstrate how some people may arrive at such a conclusion, I see no point in laying out a foundation for an argument against the idea.
What then is the purpose of this demonstration in a blog about mental health?
Using the steel man technique in my sessions affords clients an opportunity to make a case against the unhelpful and unhealthy beliefs with which they disturb themselves.
For instance, suppose I had a client named Wilhelmina who maintains that she’s a shitty person—a true piece of shit (POS)—because she conducts herself imperfectly. It isn’t simply that she thinks this is true, with conviction she believes it to be so.
I may have Wilhelmina make as strong a case for this POS narrative as possible. Paradoxically, I would then have her steel man the position for why Wilhelmina isn’t a shitty person.
In analyzing her rigid and extreme attitude, Wilhelmina may determine that while she isn’t as perfect as she demands she should be, the truth of the matter is that she never has been—nor ever will be—a perfect human being.
Likewise, Wilhelmina’s fallibility as an imperfect being doesn’t equate to being a POS. She’s simply a person who makes mistakes and tries to improve in life, understanding that the unreasonable condition of perfection isn’t something Wilhelmina wishes to use any longer.
A person can present a fairly convincing argument for structural racism—enough to convince you that an inanimate room is capable of being racist. This isn’t unlike how we often convince ourselves of how terrible, horrible, or awful we think ourselves to be.
Steel-manning the proposition in as charitable a manner as possible could be a meaningful tool to use before attempting to dispute an argument. This includes when facing perhaps our most fierce opponent—ourselves.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how irrational beliefs impact your life in an unhelpful way, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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