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How To Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

Have you noticed how much more disagreeing is going on now with the pervasiveness of the internet and the increased use of social media? It used to be that writers wrote and readers read. Now, the internet allows readers to respond with their own perspectives, and it seems that most who do, comment on something they disagree with. This has resulted in a profound restructuring of how we communicate, and it appears to be ratcheting up expressions of anger.

So, if we are going to disagree more, then we should do it well and with a degree of civility. In his essay “How to Disagree”, Paul Graham classifies the ways of arguing a point. He suggests that they should form a hierarchy of disagreement based on their strength and frequency of use.

The Hierarchy Of Disagreement

Graham’s disagreement hierarchy, when viewed as a pyramid, shows that the least convincing arguments are the most common and take the least effort to make. It further shows that the two lowest levels of arguing are clearly offensive, name-calling and the ad hominem attack. The closer an argument approaches Level 7, the refutation of the central point, the less offensive it is. This is somewhat of a paradox because the strongest form of disagreement is also the least offensive. It also takes the most effort.

  1. Name-Calling – It goes without saying that using language to demean an individual is the lowest form of disagreement.
  2. Ad Hominem – The second lowest form of disagreement is where genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by attacking the character, authority, or motive of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. It is a weak form of argument because it does not refute anything the author said.
  3. Responding to Tone – If the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone or the quality of the writing itself, then you’re not saying much. Unfortunately, how something is said often matters more to us than what is said.
  4. Contradiction – Responding to an argument by explicitly stating the opposite case is sometimes enough to see that it is right.
  5. Counterargument – Level 5 is the first form of convincing disagreement. Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence.
  6. Refutation – The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. Here you have to find a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken. To effectively refute someone you typically have to quote them.
  7. Refuting the Central Point – The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point. Here, at least, the author knows that you heard their central point.

What Good Is It?

 Several benefits to this approach come to mind. First, it prompts us to be more deliberate in our disagreements, slowing down enough to process and seek evidence to refute a central point. Secondly, it provides a structure to evaluate what we read and make better responses. Lastly, the number of arguments we have would decrease sharply, people would be less mean, making for much happier people!


Posted on March 10, 2020

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5