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How to disagree

Posted by Simon Parke, 27 August 2020, 5.49pm

Disagreements, like the poor, are always with us.

But is some disagreement better than others? Can we apply some sort of quality control as we listen to a dispute unravel?

Various models have been offered to help us discern the quality of argument. Here I draw on Paul Graham’s helpful ‘Hierarchy of disagreement’...though it differs a little from his.

So as we listen to disagreement at home, online or in political speech, what is the gold standard to aspire to – and what is fit only for the sewer?

Working from the sewer upwards, from base to pure….

6) Name-calling. My answer to my opponent is to call them ‘an odious fool’ or ‘misguided activist’. I don’t touch on the issue itself.

5) I attack the characteristics of the person. ‘This poor fellow hasn’t got a lot of friends. I think he’s trying to get attention! Is he a bit lonely!?’ I don’t touch on the issue itself.

4) I criticise the tone of the person. ‘I could do without the self-righteousness, thank you very much!’ I don’t touch on the issue itself.

3)  I state the opposite case with little or no supporting evidence. This could be on the side of a bus or wherever.

2) I offer a counter-argument to my opponent’s, backing it up with some evidence.

1) I answer the question directly. I address the issue itself and explicitly refute my opponent’s central point. 

Not all disagreement is the same.

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