Not everyone who uses the Internet to go onto social media platforms argues. It just feels that way, and if you’ve seen enough Internet arguments, you know that most people kinda/sorta suck at it. Or at the very least most of us — myself most definitely included — could use a little (or a lot) of help disagreeing in a more constructive way that makes our arguments themselves better.
Fortunately for all of us, Paul Graham was born. That’s because Graham — a British Ph.D. computer programmer who pretty much invented e-commerce among a whole host of other extremely impressive accomplishments– put his considerable brain power to the task of teaching people how to be better at debating. In “How to Disagree,” a now famous blog essay Graham wrote in March of 2008, he broke down into seven categories how people tend to argue, and then ranked them from most to least effective.
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The folks at BigThink recently did a great write-up on the essay, and did us all a huge solid by compiling Dr. Graham’s thoughts into a handy pyramid diagram, seen below.
Unsurprisingly, Graham puts things like name calling and ad hominem attacks at the bottom of the barrel, reserved for the least effective forms of persuasion. Interestingly, Graham doesn’t distinguish between coarse name calling and more refined forms of it. From his essay:
This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We’ve all seen comments like this:
u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!But it’s important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like
The author is a self-important dilettante.is really nothing more than a pretentious version of “u r a fag.”
Graham’s distinction between name calling and ad hominem is interesting and instructive. Essentially, he argues that ad hominems may be a more specific form of name calling, but ultimately they don’t address or refute any points being made.
This wouldn’t refute the author’s argument, but it may at least be relevant to the case. It’s still a very weak form of disagreement, though. If there’s something wrong with the senator’s argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn’t, what difference does it make that he’s a senator?
Dr. Graham’s essay even addressed what is known as “concern trolling” to a certain extent. In addressing “responding to tone,” Graham rightly points out that policing someone’s tone is an unspecific attack on their views without addressing the substance of their point. Similarly, contradiction isn’t viewed as being much better to tone policing because without specific information to refute the other person’s point, it’s just stating an opposing view, which is fine, but not going to convince anyone of anything.
It’s not very shocking that someone who deals in logic every day at the highest levels would put the most value in “refutation” and “refuting the central point” in debates. Graham’s essay points out these techniques are most effective in debates because they give specific critique of an opinion and then give evidence to back up the counterclaim. They work more effectively because they don’t focus on the character or personality of the other person debating, they focus on the logic — or lack thereof — of their argument, and the facts they used to back them up.
Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:
The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says:
But this is wrong for the following reasons…
Reading Phil Graham’s essay on debating should be required for all people before the open a Twitter or Facebook account, and I say this as someone who has most definitely utilized the wrong argument styles, the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, from time to time. What Graham’s essay doesn’t address, of course, is that sometimes name calling and ad hom attacks are just plain “fun” to use, but at the end of the day if reasoned, mature debate is what we’re after, then sometimes you have to put down the zingers and open your mind up a little to an opposing view.
Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.