On page 272 of Six Crises, Richard Nixon says the following about Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union:
“As I look back over my conversations with Khrushchev, I could see how right my friend had been. A picture of Khrushchev, the man, began to form in my mind. Intelligence, a quick-hitting sense of humor, always on the offensive, colorful in action and words, a tendency to be a show-off, particularly where he had any kind of gallery to play to, a steel-like determination coupled with an almost compulsive tendency to press an advantage—-to take a mile where his opponent gives an inch—-to run over anyone who shows any sign of timidity or weakness—-this was Khrushchev. A man who does his homework, prides himself on knowing as much about his opponent’s position as he does his own, particularly effective in debate because of his resourcefulness, his ability to twist and turn, to change the subject when he is forced into a corner or an untenable position.”
The friend Nixon refers to was a diplomat who disagreed with press observers who considered Khrushchev to be a light-weight and lacking in intelligence in comparison with Joseph Stalin. The press observers did not expect for Khrushchev to last that long! But this diplomat said regarding Khrushchev that “No man could have fought his way up through the jungle of Communist intrigue, through purges, exile, and disgrace, during the period of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Malenkov, without having not only iron determination and unlimited stamina, but also intelligence and extraordinary all-round ability.” And he’s probably right on that!
When I was reading Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician, Nixon’s comments on Khrushchev’s ability as a debater stood out to me, and I was thinking of blogging about that subject and relating it to the topic of effective debating in general. But I blogged about something else in my reading of Ambrose instead. And yet, as has happened before, my reading of Six Crises has given me an opportunity to blog about something that I was going to blog about when I read Ambrose’s book, but did not.
On the one hand, I can think of reasons that Khrushchev could be characterized as a poor debater. When he was backed into a corner, he did not answer his opponent’s argument, but rather he changed the subject and asked a question that put his opponent on the defensive. That doesn’t particularly impress me because, whenever I am reading or listening to a debate, my main interest is in seeing whether or not a debater addresses and effectively answers his opponent’s arguments.
On the other hand, I can see why Khrushchev could be characterized as a good debater. Projecting a strong presence and oratory do go a long way. A person can weakly make a good point and end up losing the debate in the eyes of many in the audience because the other person’s style was better. One has to make a good point effectively—-in a manner that enables it to stand out to the audience—-in order to do well in a debate.
This works when the debates are spoken. How about when we’re dealing with written debates—-such as political or religious discussions on blogs or on social-networking sites? In that case, arguments and facts do matter a lot more. Whereas Khrushchev could dominate a discussion and prevent his opponent from getting a word in edgewise (though Nixon did manage to get his arguments out in a timely and an effective manner), that’s not really possible when the format is online, for everyone who wants to contribute to the discussion can do so. And yet, my impression is that style matters even online. To be effective in online debates, one has to write his or her argument clearly, and in a manner that gets people’s attention and resonates with them.
What sorts of comments get attention and what ones do not, I don’t entirely know, but I will guess, based on my observations. Comments that are extremely short can easily be overlooked. “On the one hand” and “on the other hand” comments may not resonate with readers because they find them to be too complicated. I think that readers like comments that have a thesis and that provide an actual argument, from a certain perspective, especially if that perspective agrees with what they already believe, though one can also be impressed by the other side’s argument. Are those the kinds of comments that I usually contribute to online discussions? Not really.