Do you know how to disagree?

Debate on today’s Internet is pervasive. It cannot be avoided; it’s present in product reviews, in political discussions, in any type of analysis that provides even a smidgen of leeway for divergent opinion.

Argument and disagreement in online content is rather like a dark perversion of the good old food pyramid: a whole lot of rather nasty stuff at the bottom, improving in quality but diminishing in quantity as you rise up the levels.

Paul Graham, the well-known Lisp programmer, venture capitalist, and author of A Plan for Spam, derived a “disagreement hierarchy” to help us understand the levels of of argumentative debate. While the seven levels might be a tad blurry at the edges, they offer distinct value in classifying the quality of argument. Here’s a distillation.

The base level

Mr. Graham, programmer that he is, laudably numbers the first and most common level ‘0’. Level 0 is easy enough to find online with only a little searching, and is simply name-calling. “Well, you’re stupid!” is an appropriate level-0 response to a debate.

Not much better

Level 1 is barely distinct from level 0. A level-1 response is basically a level-0 response cloaked in slight politeness or factuality. The respondent has not yet actually begun debating, but is merely appealing to emotion instead of logic. “What would she know? She’s just a housewife!” is an example.

Shifting targets

Stepping up the hierarchy to level 2, we now see the attacks moving from the opponent’s character to the opponent’s writing — not what was said, mind, but how it was said.

Examples of this level might be “That article was so snooty,” or “He is so smug.” The tone of the opponent is maligned, rather than the opponent’s content.

“Look, if I argue with you I must take up a contrary position”

Level 3 reminds me of Monty Python’s “Argument” skit (from The Final Rip Off). Michael Palin pays John Cleese for an argument; Cleese’s repeated “no it isn’t” replies to Palin’s attempt to have a debate illustrate level-3 debate, which simply all about contradiction.

In level 3, proof or actual substance is still absent. The respondent simply states a contrary case. There no real effort to convince that the alternative viewpoint is valid.

At least we have risen above personal attacks at this point.

Emotions still rule the day

At level 4 the respondent begins to embellish their contradiction with facts, evidence or other reinforcement. And although level 4 seems a nebulous and subtle state, it’s seems clear that Mr. Graham’s point is that here we are witnessing mismatched counterargument. In other words, emotions still rule over logic and the debaters may not even be arguing about precisely the same point.

Now we’re getting somewhere

Level 5 is merely steps away from the level 6 summit. Here we are finally witnessing true debate — and yet it ever so slightly misses the mark.

Here we see the respondent specifically refuting their opponent’s assertions, often with quotations and explanatory, evidence-based material. The respondent has discarded emotional response and attack, and has chosen to use facts to respond in a logical way… but has failed to address the central point of their opponent’s case. That omission has cost them, because they are addressing side arguments and not the main one.

Level 6, the pinnacle of debate

To truly win an argument you absolutely must understand what your opponent is arguing. That important, central point is what you must refute at a factual, evidence-based level. The difference between this level and the preceding one is that the debater has grasped their opponent’s central, core idea — or one of its key dependencies — and taken pains to address it specifically.

Mr. Graham’s original essay is quite interesting and worth reading. I encourage you to read his original here.


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