How To Disagree

Sometime last year,  a comment was left on one of my articles which said that I was being simplistic and my argument was childish. It was the first and only nasty comment I got, and it took me by surprise. After the sting, what I wanted to know was why he thought my argument was childish, so that I could consider something in my argument that I hadn’t before. I even wrote to him (oh, naiveté) but the email response just reiterated the main point rather forcefully. The net result was that neither of us really got anything from the conversation.

Hierarchy of Disagreement; By Rocket000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hierarchy of Disagreement; By Rocket000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Back in 2008, Paul Graham wrote an essay “How to Disagree“. Graham (a computer scientist) wrote his essay given that with the increased use of the web, “there’s a lot more disagreeing going on.” Someone has made a diagram based on it and put it on Wikipedia. The essay itself is short, and as you can see from the diagram, it essentially outlines different levels of argument. These range from name-calling to refuting the central point of the argument. 

I think it has broader appeal too. In getting students to write, and argue, it can be hard to get them past personal opinion and on to using evidence to back up their point of view. I think this diagram is useful to show that; although perhaps it leaves out the ethical component – distinguishing between refuting a central point because it is backed up by a consensus of evidence and refuting a central point because it agrees with your point of view and you have found a piece of evidence to use to this effect.

4 thoughts on “How To Disagree

  1. Thanks for this useful diagram Michael – I will be passing it on. It does need a bit of grounding though, and has its limitations as you acknowledge. I was interested that it was created by a computer scientist as it seems to me to operate at a logical level of communication. To me a great thing about the Internet is it enables communication between people with different world views. Such communication can be very challenging, and so I would think the bottom 4 or 5 layers would work but less sure about the top two. I think a relational view of communication can help – by thinking about how the other person might read what you say, as well as the actual content of what you say.

    1. Hello Frances,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, perhaps it is the top two layers where the diagram becomes a bit one-dimensional. The computer-scientist element surprised me too; though he has an interesting website.

      All the best,

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