Last week I had the unenviable task of visiting someone with the express purpose of chastising him for inappropriate behavior. Lucky me. I wasn’t alone, which was some comfort, although not enough to calm the palpitations as we knocked on the door.
The subject was polite and friendly as he welcomed us into his home. But, true to form, he took the criticism of his behavior with a mixture of petulance and righteous indignation. He told us about a recent article he’d read in the NY Times, about The Straw Man. He was, he insisted, The Straw Man in the situation we were talking about. Neither myself nor my companion had read the article he was referring to, although it was clear from his context that the straw man was some kind of scapegoat which limited his culpability.
Coincidentally, the NYT article he was referring to was lying on the table at work a few days later, so I educated myself about this mysterious straw man. He is, apparently, a fictitious opponent who holds the extreme opposite view to the person referring to him. By demonizing this extreme person or group of people, the speaker’s opposite opinion becomes more persuasive. “Some people say we should just……(insert extreme approach)……Well, I say….(propose opposite approach)”. It’s setting people up just to knock them down, as the NYT article says. These extreme opponents are like scarecrows in a field: constructed to be frightening enough to scare people away without really being harmful at all. They are made of “straw”.
...except when someone trys to climb into their clothes and protest they are being victimized. This was, with hindsight, what I think was happening in my encounter last week. By claiming to be the straw man, our host was trying to avoid responsibility for his terrible behavior. Instead he was claiming the people who took offense to it were the ones with the problem. THEY were the ones who needed to fix their behavior. Hmmm……..I don’t buy it.
So, my advice is to beware, this scarecrow isn’t as innocuous as he seems. Yes, he can frighten you without good reason. But, don’t get too close and consider poking him to see if he’s real. You might find he’s ready to defend himself.