Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement

When you discuss a topic and everyone agrees, the conversation often dies out quickly. But when you disagree, you’re putting yourself in opposition to what was said and the discussion continues. Paul Graham, a computer engineer, therefore proposed a “Hierarchy of Disagreement” in 2008. Learn at which level you are able to articulate your disagreement. Hopefully it’s not just name-calling or responding to tone.

introduction
Intro to Graham's Hierarchy

Here are four quotes and one statement. After hearing them, let us know if you agree or disagree and why. Ready?

  • “Abortion is legal because babies can’t vote.” 
  • “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.”  
  • “Race and skin color are socially constructed, not biologically natural.” “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” 
  • And finally: “We are educators and the world ain’t round!”

To optimize for learning and retention, pause the video, write how you agree or disagree in the comments below, and then continue.

graham’s hierarchy of disagreement
Graham's Hierarchy of disagreement

When you discuss a topic and everyone agrees, the conversation often dies out quickly. But when you disagree, you’re putting yourself in opposition to what was said. You take risks and have skin in the game. This can bring the discussion to a level where everyone involved learns more about the issue. If we are going to disagree, we should be careful to do it well.  But what does that mean?

In 2008 Paul Graham attempted to answer this question by proposing a hierarchy with 7 stages of disagreement ranging from weak to strong.

1. name-calling
1 Name-calling

The lowest level is name-calling which attacks the person and not what they say. If Bob and Jen say “We are educators and the world ain’t round”. You may answer “you are idiots!”.

2. ad hominem
2 Ad Hominem

Second is the ad hominem attack, which questions the authority of someone without addressing the argument. If they say, “We are educators and the world ain’t round”, you can respond “you may be educators, but you certainly aren’t scientists”. Like name calling it’s a weak form of disagreement as it attacks them but not what they say.

3. responding to tone
3 Responding to tone

Third is responding to tone, meaning to criticize the style of language, rather than its content. If they say, “We are educators and the world ain’t round”, you can reply: “Ain’t is bad English. First learn to speak properly!”. It is a weak form of disagreement, as you object to the tone and not the content. You’re still not saying much.

4. contradiction
4 Contradiction

Fourth is contradiction. Now we get responses to what was said, rather than by whom or how. If they say, “We are educators and the world ain’t round”,  you can retort: “It is round!”. Contradiction can have weight, because sometimes seeing the opposing case stated explicitly is enough to get the point across. But this is not always the case.

5. counterargument
5 Counterargument

The counterargument is a contradiction with reasoning and the first form of convincing disagreement. If they say, “We are educators and the world ain’t round”, you can answer: “I’m a scientist and it isn’t flat either! In fact, from space it looks pretty round”.  When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But often two people who are arguing passionately about something are actually talking about two different things.

6. refutation
6 Refutation

The refutation is quoting someone and explaining why they are mistaken. If they say, “We are educators and the world ain’t round” you may respond:  “When you say that you are an educator and the world ain’t round, you actually imply that you have authority  and that the world is flat. Videos from space are proof it’s pretty round.” It’s a convincing form of disagreement. It’s also a rare form, because it’s more work.

7. refuting the central point
7 Refuting the central point

Refuting the central point is the most powerful form of disagreement. Prior to this level you have been unclear or, in the worst case, deliberately dishonest. If they say, “We are educators and the world ain’t round” you can refute the central point as such:  “Your statement that the earth is not round is technically right — the earth being closer to an ellipsoid — “

“But, by only sharing what the earth is not without adding any clarification  you lead people to believe whatever fits best with their own convictions, provided it is not that the earth is round. Assuming educators are meant to help people understand better, this is in direct contradiction with the idea of you being an educator and thus makes your statement an oxymoron.”

benefit of knowing the forms of disagreement

Graham stated that there are 3 main benefits of knowing forms of disagreement.

  • It helps us to evaluate what we read, see and hear. In particular, it helps us spot intellectually dishonest arguments from speakers who use words eloquently.
  • It makes conversations richer, because participants focus on the actual point.
  • It makes us happier. Lower levels of disagreement attack the person, which is mean. Higher levels of disagreement attack the idea, which is easier to accept and assimilate. Most people don’t really enjoy being obnoxious; they sometimes are because they haven’t found a better way to express themselves. If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, it will probably make many of them happier too.
what do you think?
Graham WDT

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with Graham? If you don’t feel strongly about this topic, you’ll probably disagree with one of the other four statements we made at the beginning. But can you refute the central point? We will now repeat them. Let us know how YOU disagree with them in the comments below.

  • “Abortion is legal because babies can’t vote.” 
  • “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” 
  • “Race and skin colour are socially constructed, not biologically natural.” 
  • “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Sources

Dig deeper!

QUOTES: WHO SAID WHAT?

  • “Abortion is legal because babies can’t vote”  — Joseph Bonkowski
  • “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body” — Margaret Sanger
  • “Race and skin color are socially constructed, not biologically natural.” — 1st tenet, Critical Race Theory
  • “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” — George Orwell

Classroom exercise

To better understand at which level in Graham’s hierarchy each student disagrees, you can do the following:

  • Play the first two scenes of this video
  • Ask your students to choose one statement with which they disagree and one with which they agree
  • Give them 5 minutes to discuss between students who agree with a statement and those who disagree with it
  • Resume playing the video until the end
  • Give students 5 to 10 minutes to improve their arguments for disagreeing with the initial statement
  • Give students another 5 minutes to discuss their disagreement
  • Ask each student to evaluate another student’s arguments and place it on Graham’s Hierarchy of disagreement

One Reply to “Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement”

  1. Classroom exercise:

    I chose one idea that I agree and another that disagree, explaining why.

    Agree: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
    The liberty of speech certainly includes the right to speak your mind, even if some won’t like to hear it. As human beings, diversity of thoughts is natural. To develop ways to understand each other better, freedom of speech is essential. The more we understand one another, the more we are able to create better ways of living, therefore, we get happier.

    Disagree: “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body”
    I believe this statement has to do with the first one.
    In this sense, is not just a matter of having control of your own body, but also having to deal with the life of another human being.

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