An Initial Look into ‘Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement’

  1. Name Calling
  2. Ad Hominem
  3. Responding to Tone
  4. Contradiction
  5. Counterargument
  6. Refutation
  7. Refuting the Central Point

In Graham’s own words:

“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.”

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This is an interesting and somewhat useful tool to help philosophy students (and people everywhere) to better understand the different levels of analysis (and fallacious thinking) that are possible. Moreover, though we would like to think that Logic is a tight, concise science, in light of the forthcoming observations, it makes sense that it isn’t and we often get sidetracked or distracted when engaging in philosophical analysis. My goal here is to explore the Hierarchy of Disagreement as initially depicted and understood by Graham.

  1. Name Calling Instead of engaging with the argument or the evidence that your opponent or critic puts forth, you resort to insulting the person and trying to make them feel ashamed, embarrassed, or degraded in some significant way. Perhaps if you make them feel awful enough, they will concede the debate or discussion and simply leave. Unfortunately for you, even if they do this, you have given up all pretenses of rationality. You are implicitly saying that you have no rational way of responding to what they said and you don’t even care about trying. To be blunt: this level of disagreement is both immature and inadequate.
  2. Ad Hominem Related to ‘Name Calling,’ an Ad Hominem attack is not only an informal logical fallacy, but also it is also meant as a tool for you to plunge the debate into chaos by emphasizing non-rational (i.e. emotional or psychologically manipulative) elements or buzzwords. The hope is that the audience, as well as your opponent, will focus more on your opponent’s character or reputation rather than their argument and its supporting evidence. Similar to ‘Name Calling,’ it is meant to shift the focus away from rationality and instead emphasize some emotional or psychological aspect so as to save face.
  3. Responding to Tone With this level of disagreement, it could very well be the case that you ultimately agree with what your opponent has to say, but you just believe that they could either word it better or modify their tone so as to be more inclusive/calming instead of antagonistic/hostile. Regardless, by responding only to the tone of your opponent, you are still not directly addressing their argument or the evidence that they use to defend it. By skimming the surface or only indirectly casting aspersions, you will never actually get to the core of a particular matter or phenomenon.
  4. Contradiction With contradiction, you are only asserting the opposite. You’re taking a definite stand, which is admirable, but with little to actually back up what you’re claiming, you don’t yet have anything to write home about. Perhaps if this is a situation in which the loudest or bravest voice wins you’ll do well. But all it takes is one well-aimed question to bring down your House of Cards. Be careful not to exaggerate or lie about the strength of your case, especially if you haven’t actually advanced any convincing arguments or supporting evidence…
  5. Counterargument It is only here, at the 5th level of GHoD, that philosophers (and you) actually acknowledge a sincere effort advanced by their opponent(s). A counterargument argues for a different or contradictory conclusion from the one advanced or defended by your opponent(s). The counterargument will address, either directly or indirectly, your opponent’s argument and supporting evidence. The counterargument will also provide alternative reasons and evidence for your alternative conclusion.
  6. Refutation Refutation seemingly goes further than ‘Counterargument’ by pinpointing or identifying some kind of elementary, comical, or factual error in your opponent’s argument or their supporting evidence. Identification of this error undermines both your opponent’s credibility as well as the strength or convincingness of their argument.
  7. Refuting the Central Point According to GHoD, this is the highest level of disagreement possible. This involves refuting your opponent’s key claims directly and unequivocally. Not only do you demolish their argument, but you also make their supporting evidence seem either unconvincing, incomplete, or downright irrelevant. It is the ‘total victory’ of philosophical debate.

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