Debate: different ways of disagreeing

This hierarchy of disagreement is fairly accurate for blog debate and discussions.

That is from Big Think – How to disagree well: 7 of the best and worst ways to argue

A great tool, the web also seems to drive dispute. It is also a reflection of the larger reality, where divisiveness has spread throughout our society. A classic essay from one of the Internet’s pioneers suggests that there is a way to harness such negative energy of the online world and disagree with people without invoking anger—a lesson that extends far beyond the web.

Paul Graham is an English-born computer programmer with a Ph.D. from Harvard, an accomplished entrepreneur, a VC capitalist as well as a writer.  In his essay, Graham proposed that the “web is turning writing into a conversation,” recognizing that the internet has become an unprecedented medium of communication. 

He says this tendency towards disagreement is structurally built into the online experience because in disagreeing, people tend to have much more to say than if they just expressed that they agreed.

To disagree better Graham came up with these seven levels of a disagreement hierarchy (DH):

DH0. Name-calling

That can be done crudely by saying repulsive things like “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!” or even more pretentiously (but still to the same effect) like, “The author is a self-important dilettante”.

DH1. Ad hominem

An argument of this kind attacks the person rather than the point they are making—the literal Latin translation of this phrase is: ‘to the person.’ It involves somehow devaluing a person’s opinion by devaluing the one who is expressing it, without directly addressing what they are saying.

DH2. Responding to tone

The lowest form of responding to writing is disagreeing with the author’s tone, according to Graham. For example, one could point out the “cavalier” or “flippant” attitude with which a writer formulated their opinion.

Stick to the material, Graham advises: “It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what [their] tone is.”

DH3. Contradiction

Offering an opposing case but very little evidence. You simply state what you think is true, in contrast to the position of the person you are arguing with.

For example “I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion. Intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory.”

DH4. Counterargument

A counterargument is a contradiction with evidence and reasoning. When it’s “aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing,” wrote Graham. But, alas, more often than not, passionate arguments end up having both participants actually arguing about different things.

DH6. Refuting the central point

This tactic is the “most powerful form of disagreement,” contended Graham. It depends on what you are talking about but largely entails refuting someone’s central point.

This is in contrast to refuting only minor points of an argument—a form of “deliberate dishonesty” in a debate. An example of that would be correcting someone’s grammar (which slides you back to DH1 level) or pointing out factual errors in names or numbers. Unless those are crucial details, attacking them only serves to discredit the opponent, not their main idea.

The best way to refute someone is to figure out their central point, or one of them if there are several issues involved.

This is how Graham described “a truly effective refutation”:

The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says:

<quotation>

But this is wrong for the following reasons…

This may be “the most powerful form of disagreement’ but it doesn’t guarantee success in a debate. Sometimes people just won’t concede an argument even when proven wrong. In debate some minds can be changed some of the time.

Having these tools in evaluating how we argue with each other can go a long way towards regaining some civility in our discourse by avoiding the unproductive lower forms of disagreement. Whether its trolls of other nations or our own home-grown trolls and confused spirits, the conversation over the Internet leaves a lot to be desired for many Americans. It’s hard not to see it as a social malady.

Graham also viewed his hierarchy as a way to weed out dishonest arguments or “fake news” in modern parlance.

Forceful words are just a “defining quality of a demagogue,” he pointed out. By understanding the different forms of their disagreement, “we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons”.

We can all learn to disagree and debate better – more civilly and more effectively.

Paul Graham’s full essay: How to Disagree.