Five years ago, when my friend Charles Krauthammer announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and would soon be leaving us to sort life out without his help, Bret Stephens of the New York Times joined the river of mournful celebration of Dr. K’s life and work. “Since I’m not aware of any precise antonym to the term ‘straw man,’” Stephens wrote. “I hereby nominate the noun ‘krauthammer’ to serve the function.”
And well it could. Charles wrote and argued without relying on disagreeable nuts to make his case for him, nor did he publicly revel (much) in the frequent flailing of his adversaries. Charles could often make the counterargument better than his opponent could and still dispatch it. He did this with good humor and his love for the absurd, but also through elevation. As Stephens put it, “by getting his readers to raise their sights above the parapets of momentary passion and parochial interest.”
It is one of my core beliefs that no one has ever won an argument. If we define victory as changing the opinion of one’s adversary, arguing doesn’t just fail to convince, it actively pushes the other side away. Never has a person in an argument said, “Wait a second, that part you said about my ignorance and hypocrisy—I’d never seen it that way, friend-o. You’ve shown me that I really am obtuse and morally blinkered. I hereby agree with you.”
But that doesn’t mean we cannot persuade. And to persuade, we must first identify the shared values we have in common—to get our heads above those parapets.