I’ve been thinking about this for months on and off. It certainly is an American idiom, but as it does describe a universally human action, it may have more descriptive words in other languages.
The Western United States has a very colorful history. Many books written about shootouts and gun battles. Usually they occur in the dusty Main Street, with one opponent at one end, and the other opponent at the other. The winner was the fastest draw. Almost like the medieval belief that the strongest was right, blessed by God.
While “Might is Right” is an interesting concept, this was not what was happening in the Old West. It was more like “Sneak was Best”. Waiting at night in the shadows, then shooting the person in the back was more common than the duel in the street. I’ve even heard that there is only one documented occurrence where “the duel” actually happened. Most of the violence was more a surprised ambush. Although in the West it was called “bushwhacking” as the assailant crouched behind a convenient bush beside the road. It didn’t even matter to jump out if you still got a good shot under cover.
The term “bushwhacker” was applied to the individual who practiced this, and it was one of the worst things you can say about a person. According to Webster’s it was first used in 1866, the same year that “bamboozled” was used. Apparently this was a particular bad year for human behavior.
Most other dictionaries have a split in the word, in 1810 it was a person that lived in the forest, whacking bushes to get around. Later, during the American Civil War it described irregular troops that fought by ambush on the Confederate side, particularly in Missouri.
There are still “bushwhackers” today, and there are more than you might think. Without thinking about it, you may have done this a few times yourself. It’s not a good thing, but it does pop up now and again. And for some people they embrace it, and polish their abilities to a fine art.
I ran into one a few months back and it shocked me to the core. I was as surprised as some traveler walking down the trail when sudden rifle fire ripped up the landscape, trying to find my flesh. This time it wasn’t bullets, it was words!
Bushwhacking in conversation can be confusing, upsetting, and unnerving. It is always a surprise because of the very nature. Having an argument is clearly a problem, but you are not surprised by the comments, you are getting dished on, and you dish back. A bushwhack in an argument is like getting a frying pan hit your head from behind. Surprise! You lose!
My logic tells me there are at least four reasons to bushwhack.
1. You love the power of the sudden win.
2. You don’t believe a “fair fight” will go your way.
3. You aren’t sure that you will win, but you love the chaos it creates.
4. You can’t use a gun, and this is the next best thing.
But what is the expectation or the motive? In the Old West you might get the traveler’s money. But what is won in a surprise attack during a conversation? It can be a show of knowledge which directs the listeners to the bushwhacker. An effective way to gain the praise of the audience, so long as you are subtle about the bushwhacking. It is also a useful way to pivot off to a direction that is less dangerous. I suppose this might be the best use of the technique.
Again, the secret thing about bushwhacking is the surprise. It is generally the bush that you hide behind, but it can be the nature of your relationship. You meet a new person at a church function and you don’t expect a surprise attack. This was what happened to me recently.
It was someone older than me, and perhaps fearful that his communication skills had lost a step. Certainly in earlier years he was quite impressive with positions and responsibilities. But now the years had passed and he felt he needed the advantage. In a very conversational manner he invited a question. Of course he already had the answer. And his answer was powerful enough that even if you agreed with him, he had the upper hand. And if you didn’t agree with him then you were toast, and everything you said thereafter was suspect.
Wow, it sounds like politics. I suppose the most polished bushwhackers today are part-time politicians. I say this because bushwhacking takes up most of their time.
The problem for me is that the element of surprise is no longer there. I expect to be bushwhacked by politicians. I do not expect bushwhacking in Church. Although I suppose some people feel that it happens a lot. At least, in my experience it is a rare thing.
What can I offer you from this experience? Not much! I can say, do not be surprised, and be cautious! This sounds good but mostly it is bad advice. Expecting attack every moment is a sad way to live. I can say to take just a quick moment after being “bushwhacked”, to analyze the event. What is the motive? Understand the dynamics! Perhaps even be compassionate about the reasons found.
Instead of countering and drawing yourself further in the bushes, you might say, “Interesting opinion”, and leave it at that.
Most importantly, if you find that you tend to “bushwhack”, try another way. Spend more time phrasing your argument with reason and care. In other words, don’t shoot from the bush beside the road.