PostHeaderIcon Being Disagreeable

I have a well-earned reputation as a contrarian. In part, this is a result of my extreme ‘mismatcher’ (a NLP input filter sort) mind. Where most people, being ‘matchers,’ compare new data with what is already known, looking for similarities, my mind automatically looks for differences. Ask me to compare similar objects (e.g. a few coins), and my mind will assume that it is being asked to report all the things that are different about them, while a strong matcher will report all the noticed characteristics they have in common. Submit a new idea, and it will immediately search for the hidden flaw that dooms it as unworkable, no matter how good it initially sounds.

This trait has driven colleagues around the bend over the years; but it has also saved a lot of wasted time, effort, and grief. In a business meeting, someone will present a great sounding idea and everyone else jumps aboard with enthusiasm – until the contrarian in their midst asks, “Have you considered {hidden flaw}…,” which renders it stillborn. In my own enterprises, I had to learn to bite my tongue when the flaws were inconsequential, in order not to dampen employees’ enthusiasm for innovation.

Naturally, this affliction appears in my writing and can be a turnoff to readers. I really enjoy debate on forums and in comment sections, so it was with pleasure that I encountered a flawless little essay by Paul Graham entitled “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:

Profound! A cogent license to be disagreeable! What follows is a hierarchy of disagreement techniques from DH0, Name-calling, to DH6, Refuting the Central Point. I intend to refer to them often in the future, and look forward to the time when I can from memory declare, “That is only a DH3 class argument on the Graham scale, and not as convincing as a better effort might be.” The value of this scale cannot be explained any better than he does:

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. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional. Someone arguing against the tone of something he disagrees with may believe he’s really saying something. Zooming out and seeing his current position on the disagreement hierarchy may inspire him to try moving up to counterargument or refutation.

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You 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 suspect I will still be thought mean, because I don’t suffer fools easily and come by my reputation as a curmudgeon honestly; but I intend to work on the promise of that second paragraph. ◄Dave►

2 Responses to “Being Disagreeable”

  • I too have a reputation for being contrary.

    I tend to think that if you can’t hold your own in an argument, you probably don’t know what you are talking about. Calling someone contrarian is a synonym for that. It says, ‘you are wrong because you often disagree with me’.

    Whoever said ‘ignorance is bliss’ must have known a lot of optimists.

  • The SGT says:

    There are arguments that cause men to go on automatic defense where their brain stops processing data in an objective manner and there are arguments that cause men to pause in their convictions and process new evidence. Instances of the second circumstance in my life have been like a breath of fresh air and I have found them to be freeing. Unforunately we have a tendancy to entrench ourselves in the confidence of our own “rightness” and refuse to seriously consider other views. Every once in a while a solid two-by-four upside the head is just what someone needs and for those of us doing the swinging the solid ‘thunk’ can be very satisfying. ( :
    As long as we are making sure we aren’t the ones entrenched and make sure we aren’t swinging away with abandon .. there is nothing wrong with that.

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