Disagreeing with “How to Disagree”

This is cross-posted from my scratchpad, Maybe Days.

A visual representation of Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, also called the Argument Pyramid. Each layer in the pyramid can also be referred to as a numbered Disagreement Hierarchy level. For example, name-calling is sometimes referred to as DH1, while refutation is sometimes referred to as DH6.

In his words and from his essay, How to Disagree:

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.

Many who respond to something disagree with it. That’s to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there’s less to say. You could expand on something the author said, but he has probably already explored the most interesting implications. When you disagree you’re entering territory he may not have explored.

The result is there’s a lot more disagreeing going on, especially measured by the word. That doesn’t mean people are getting angrier. The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it. But though it’s not anger that’s driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.

If we’re all going to be disagreeing more, we should be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well? Most readers can tell the difference between mere name-calling and a carefully reasoned refutation, but I think it would help to put names on the intermediate stages. So here’s an attempt at a disagreement hierarchy

See also: solving disputes.

Not to be confused with arguments that rest on the shoulders of other arguments, ala, an Argument Pyramid where an argument is an explanation, reasoning, rational, or story.

While I agree with the majority of Graham’s points, I do disagree with one of his main rationales (i.e., arguments). Graham says:

[W]hile DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.

If I’m reading Graham correctly, he’s saying that disagreeing by using ad-hominem and name-calling tactics are “always unconvincing.” However, then he says:

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue.

I’m left wondering: If an eloquent speaker or writer does successfully “give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words,” does this leave the opponent or, often more importantly, the unnamed third party in any dispute (the observer) convinced of their argument? Often, at least in my experience, the answer is yes. In fact, the widespread “successes” of demagogues are a testament that it’s not always necessary to be correct—that is, to be truthful or, in Graham’s words, intellectually honest—in one’s assertions to either realize a particular intent or to sway people’s minds, but rather one merely be right—that is, to be perceived as the winner of the dispute.

I both personally appreciate and sympathize with Graham’s clear and noble intent to bring more happiness to more people. I even agree that using higher DH levels will generally achieve more happiness during dispute resolution, but I remain unconvinced that higher DH levels are always more convincing (or, “useful,” or “effective”) than lower ones. This is not to discount the usefulness of understanding DH levels. After all, one must know the rule to break it well.

Perhaps the most useful example of situations where lower DH levels are, potentially, more useful is applicable to leadership. For example, David Logan speaks of 5 “tribal” stages of leadership. Stage 1 tribes are, in his words, “a group where people systematically sever relationships from functional tribes, and then pool together with people who think like they do.” People in a “stage 1 tribe” may be gang members, prison inmates, or anyone else who, effectively, believes that “life sucks.” Logan describes “tribes” from stage 1 all the way up through stage 5. A stage 3 tribe, he explains, “is the one that hits closest to home for many of us because it’s in stage 3 that many of us move. And we park. And we stay. Stage 3 says, ‘I’m great and you’re not.'”

Indeed, Logan’s not just talking about some nebulous notion of community, he’s talking about the way people move between communities, and, moreover, how they talk to each other when they do that—he’s talking about communication. Now, it should almost go without saying that convincing people of something is simply one part of communication, and if one is to communicate convincingly with others, one ought know how others communicate. Moreover, one ought identify these others explicitly: opponent(s), comrade(s), and observer(s).

How do each of these groups communicate? In what “tribal stages” are these three groups? In my experience, and in many disputes, one is attempting to convince one’s observers rather than one’s opponents, and the more observers there are—such as is afforded by the Internet’s development, as Graham states—the less likely it is that all of these observers are in the same tribal stage.

So Graham is correct when he says that “you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6.” But if we are willing to accept Logan’s conclusion that “leaders need to be able to talk at all the levels so that [one] can touch every person in society,” then Graham is incorrect when he asserts that “[y]ou don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.”

I think, actually, it’s quite the contrary. Sometimes, being “mean” is the point. Moreover, depending on the context and, yes, perhaps counterintuitively, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Walt Whitman once famously said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then: I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

For antagonism, dearest loves, is not in fact the inverse of intimacy.