November 1, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

“Every generation is invaded by barbarians,” wrote twentieth century philosopher, Hannah Arendt. “We call them children.”

People sometimes ask me, “Do you see children as clients?” I usually respond with a somewhat smart aleck answer: “I do… they just have 50-year-old bodies.”

Here’s what I’ve observed in my 30+ years of practice: Adults tend to fight like children. I’ve watched couples use barbaric combat methods in my office, but I’ve also seen them employed by combatants in the public square. For example, how often do we hear the term “tribal” used to describe the current state of our politics?

I came across an article this past week written by Daniel Krauthammer, son of the late Charles Krauthammer. While attending Harvard Medical School, Charles broke his neck after diving into a pool and spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic. He finished medical school with his class and became a board-certified psychiatrist. After moving to Washington, D.C. to work on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he got interested in politics and became a nationally syndicated columnist, writing a weekly column for the Washington Post beginning in 1985. He had limited use of his hands and drove his specially designed vehicle to watch the Washington Nationals play whenever he could. He would indeed be happy this week.

As a political commentator, Krauthammer garnered the respect of people across the political spectrum, even those who disagreed with him. Perhaps you’re familiar with the old Emerson quote “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Krauthammer exemplified the opposite. His manner of communicating rarely—if ever—got in the way of the message he was trying to communicate.

In the article, Daniel describes some of his dad’s important contributions to the way we should all communicate about political differences. I’d like to highlight a few of his comments and offer some brief analysis of each.

“Members of the other party may be your opponents, but within the walls of our democratic constitutional order, they are not your enemy. Where freedom and pluralism reign, you must convince, not overpower.”

It’s human nature to view your conflict opponent as an enemy to be defeated rather than a friend to be convinced. We’re naturally more attracted to scoring points than to making points.

“It means meeting the other side face to face in a battle of ideas, respecting their right to promote their viewpoint and recognizing that winning the debate means mounting the superior argument: using sounder reasoning and marshaling more compelling evidence. And it means not attempting shortcuts to victory by trying to delegitimize the other side before the debate even begins… When we contend that those with differing views are not just wrong but are bad people — criminals even — we abandon genuine debate. If we hold that their conclusions stem not from faulty logic or evidence but from fundamental ill will and nefarious intentions, then no progress can be made.”

Delegitimizing your opponent is a way to cheat in the “War of Ideas.” It excuses you from having to make a better argument. Because, why would you waste your time arguing with someone who’s evil, sinister, or just plain stupid? There’s no need to give such a person the time of day. You cross the finish line first, not by staying on the track, but by cutting across the field.

“No one ever changed their mind because their opponents called them evil.”

There’s nothing I could add that would make this clearer.

“A second, twin strategy that my father criticized was apocalyptic alarmism. The other side’s program is leading to the destruction of all we hold dear, and certain disaster can be avoided only by following our own side’s particular political path. With the stakes so high — sometimes even the literal end of the world — everything else becomes secondary. Procedural obstacles — even constitutional ones — become intolerable. The only justifiable option becomes overpowering the opposition by any means necessary… We hear partisans on both sides claiming that their adversaries are full of evil intent and hatred; that if their own party doesn’t win, America will be lost forever.”

One public figure recently warned of, “a Civil War–like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.” If your conflict opponent is truly an enemy bent on your destruction, then any and all means of fighting them becomes justified—or so the thinking goes.

“Such strategies are good only for rallying those who already agree with you; for whipping them into a panic; for making them less willing to even consider the other side’s position and more willing to do whatever it takes to keep others out of power or — even more drastically — to silence them.”

For some people, preaching to the choir and being applauded by them is all they (the panic producing opponents) really want.

“In contrast, my father came to the national debate with humility and in good faith. He saw his political sparring partners as mistaken and perhaps ill-informed, but still as fundamentally decent and well-intentioned souls who wanted the best for their country, too. He sought to dismantle their arguments and ideas, not to assault their character. And he never presumed his arguments so obviously right that they could be opposed only by those wishing harm or destruction on the nation or the planet.”

“He sought to dismantle their arguments and ideas, not to assault their character.” Here’s another way to put that: Agreeing to disagree agreeably.

“My father appreciated the incredible preciousness and also the fragility of the democratic system we are blessed to have inherited. He recognized that it is neither the natural nor an automatic state of being for society. It is the exception in human history, and it takes great and continual effort — the hard work of democracy and of civil debate — to sustain it. It is, he wrote, the ‘ceaseless work of every generation. To which I have devoted much of my life.’”

Yes, we all start out as “barbarians.” But, we’d become more “civilized” if we followed the advice of Charles Krauthammer.

Till next week.

2 replies
  1. Jonathan Rubin
    Jonathan Rubin says:

    I wonder how the Power Paradox plays into this? I’ve read it discusses a study(s) that indicates that as people feel more powerful, their empathy circuits are idled.

    Is, there, I wonder, a cause and effect? It seems to me, if you’re less empathic, it would be much easier to demonize your opponents.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      I haven’t read that but, from what you’ve said, I feel certain it plays a part. There’s also a lot of power in groupthink which can lead to an us-vs-them mentality. We’re the good guys so they must be the bad guys, or so the thinking goes.

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