The Hierarchy of Disagreement

//The Hierarchy of Disagreement

The Hierarchy of Disagreement

I came upon this graphic the other day, illustrating the Hierarchy of Disagreement — with seven stages of argumentation based on the Paul Graham essay, How to Disagree.


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.


Diagram released into the public domain – Wikimedia Commons

A Facebook friend offered a counterpoint to this methodology:

This pyramid of hierarchies seems to be centered on someone being right and the other being wrong. Sounds like the parlance of debate where there is a winner/loser. I’m thinking about establishing dialogue that accepts another viewpoint as being just that: another viewpoint

I think Graham’s layers of civility (or incivility) are useful as a rhetorical measure — and as a guidepost of reason, particularly when the discussion hinges on misleading claims. When genuine dialogue isn’t even possible until the misrepresentations are swept away, it’s obviously preferable if people can resolve those differences with some logical tools and Socratic skills.

(I can, however, think of times when working your way down the pyramid — starting in good faith at top and ending in exasperation with “you are an ass hat”  — would seem justifiable.)

By | 2017-09-24T01:51:59+00:00 July 23rd, 2013|Blog, Philosophically Speaking|15 Comments


  1. Larry Jordan July 24, 2013 at 6:01 am

    Thank you so much for posting this most interesting piece on how to disagree, and including the link to the essay. With so many people commenting via electronic media, sometimes without even giving their identity, more folks need to learn how to disagree well. It seems that there are far to many responses occurring at the bottom of the pyramid rather than the top.

    Love the Monty Python skit, especially the first half of it. After watching it, one of the links to other videos was a short interview where John Cleese was asked about Sarah Palin:

    • ingrid July 24, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Larry, I guess a model like this would have to go into very wide and repetitive circulation for anything to change in public discourse. It’s so unfortunate that for the past few decades, we’ve had political role models that have enshrined demagoguery — and media entities who live in those bottom two tiers. There are people who have no memory whatsoever of a more circumspect and investigative news media. I’m really struck by it when I watch roundtable discussions from the 60s and 70s, between disparate viewpoints, where the comparatively high level of debate pulls back the curtain on today’s wizardry.

      (Living overseas as a kid, Monty Python was one of my formative influences. 🙂 Oh, and … hadn’t seen the Palin bit! The funniest Palin.)

  2. M. Firpi July 24, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Sometimes at forums or comment sections at the cybersphere, there’s that moment when I tell myself, “well, here it is again: I must refute this; or must I really?” Precisely because of all the intricacies entailed in a disagreement, as seen in the pyramid, I question myself the “time” factor. I’ve witnessed many times how the “immediacy” of the internet can be so tempting as to make participants dwell in the “name-calling”, or “Ad Honimen” levels in Paul Graham’s pyramid all too often. Is it because of this sense of “immediacy” why so many “flame” arguments are seen at forum posts and/or comment sections? Is this sense of “immediacy” that the internet gives me, that not seeing the other’s face, uninhibited me to the point of dwelling at the bottom of the pyramid? Even at “virtual video” conferences, can I reach the top of the pyramid, if and only there is enough time to do so, and how does seeing my opponent’s face change the whole approach as opposed to not seeing him/her? If one dwells in the “name-calling” level, all too often, then it must be fun for some because after all, no one can see us?

    The concept of “winners and losers” and “accepting a viewpoint just as simply another viewpoint” leads me to think that arguments simply may not exist. If viewpoints are going to be seen as “judgements”, then there may not be arguments. Arguments may be based on exchange of sound, informative and factual information, but then they may convert to “viewpoints” that may be seen as opinions. As to why I may or may not be quick enough to give an opinion, or support an argument with sound evidence may be critical, at least in the internet, because if I don’t dispute it (at any level at all), it may remain buried or merely unaddressed for posterity. I agree with the notion that if I have chosen to dwell at the bottom of the pyramid, I must accept the consequences of such action. I agree with you when you say “Graham’s layers of civility (or incivility) are useful as a rhetorical measure— and as a guidepost of reason, particularly when the discussion hinges on misleading claims”. I also agree with Graham that one has to choose their own battles, and the risk involved in doing so.

    • ingrid July 26, 2013 at 6:19 pm

      Maria, I agree with you about both the immediacy and the anonymity of the Internet leading to some of those ad hominem attacks. I also think there’s a free access factor at play. That is, letters to the editor were, and still are, vetted. That cut the public discussion by extraordinary measures when you compare to today. You have people across the spectrum of political affiliations, belief systems, education and cultures trying to make sense of their perceptions and interpretations. Sometimes it feels (to me) like abject mayhem. And then, of course, we have public role models who engage these very tactics, giving legitimacy to discussions that shouldn’t have any validity whatsoever.

      I like your comment, “… if I have chosen to dwell at the bottom of the pyramid, I must accept the consequences of such action.” That’s a sound perspective. If you can dish it out, you’d better be able to handle it, right? I can’t help but think, though, that if someone is stuck at the bottom levels, they are there, in part, because they lack a certain degree of accountability for their words and actions. So, the very quality they’d need to embrace the consequences is lacking by virtue of the fact that they’re there. 🙂

      • M. Firpi July 26, 2013 at 7:56 pm

        I also see it as it depends on how you see what the bottom of the pyramid is. Considering that human’s basic instinct may begin at the impulsive level and expressed through daily activities (e.g. driving in traffic; getting fired from a job; the sudden death of a loved one; a panic attack; lack of education), it doesn’t mean I have to be “caught” in there; nor the other person, not necessarily. I’ve seen people coming in and out of these states as if nothing had happened; and at times be prepared to evolve through more sophisticated levels of argument. I don’t necessarily enjoy being at the base of the pyramid; but at times it is what has taught me great lessons. So, I don’t necessarily like to steer clear of people who are at the base of the pyramid (or seem to stay there for a long time). The old saying to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” is something to think about; although it immediately implies peril or risk; and I don’t like the word “enemies”. These “name calling” arguments may eventually shed some light as to what may evolve into a mature argument at the top of the pyramid. Those who are able to stay within the top levels of the pyramid may be there precisely because of all the rambling the bottom level has provoked.

  3. Bea Elliott July 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you for the laughs in the Monty Python skit! Love to giggle at silliness sometimes!

    I also appreciate the visual diagram of disagreement hierarchy. It helps to see where the status is of another person’s argument – Or to keep your own in check. I suppose we all have standards as to who we’re going to invest time in debating… A good rule might be if you’re starting at the highest, rational point and are immediately met with the bottom response – Don’t bother. Keeping discussions at the top 3 stages can be delightfully stimulating. An engaging courtship of ideas should give both parties evidence that their message is heard and valued. My favorite lines after such (rare) discussions is an equal exchange of thanks for civil debate. Gosh when that happens it gives me hope that right, clear thinking might actually fix some of the pending perils. Leave the bottom of the pyramid to fight among themselves! 😉

    • ingrid July 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      Hi, Bea, I agree with you. I think people who love an exchange of ideas can be positively challenged by a debate that tests their critical thinking — and even their long-held premises. If a hierarchy like this got wider circulation, I wonder how many people would be affected by this illustration and actually change their methods. It’s so easy to throw out insults. You can effectively avoid building a good argument in doing so. If all of us were actually forced to scrutinize and defend our positions based on reason, I think the public discourse would fall off dramatically.

  4. CQ July 26, 2013 at 11:14 am

    A belated thanks to Ingrid for introducing this subject and especially for including the pyramid, which enabled me for the first time to think about the tiers that exist in disagreements.

    Maybe I’m the only one whose funny bone is not amused by the Monty Python skit! It both drove me batty and bored me to tears. Go figure….

    Thank you also, commenters, for your astute observations.

    This sentence from M. Firpi rings true to me: “As to why I may or may not be quick enough to give an opinion, or support an argument with sound evidence may be critical, at least in the internet, because if I don’t dispute it (at any level at all), it may remain buried or merely unaddressed for posterity.”

    And I appreciate what Bea says about the stimulating nature of civil debate, as well as her point that “right, clear thinking might actually fix some of the pending perils.” That is, head the perils off at the pass — and send them into oblivion, where all error belongs! 🙂

    Deep down, we all crave truth — it is the bright sunlight without which no being can live. And we all crave to share truth and receive truth in a spirit of lovingkindness.

    • ingrid July 26, 2013 at 6:28 pm

      CQ, not as belated as my own replies! Thanks for weighing in. Oh, and on the Monty Python skit — I had to laugh at your reaction because I get it. When you consider how dated that piece is, it doesn’t surprise me that it would be unfunny, depending on your frame of reference. For me, Python points to formative television experiences and thus holds some sentimentality. I have friends of the same era who never could stand Monty Python.

      When you say that “deep down, we all crave truth –” I believe you’re right. Do you think the ideas of “truth” and “certainty” are far to confused in terms of what we humans tend to cling to? And, given how far we sometimes fall from the ideal of lovingkindness, what are those things which effectively bring us back to that core of truth?

      • M. Firpi July 26, 2013 at 10:39 pm


        I thought of you when I remembered this:

        “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” John 8:7

        So it is at the base of the pyramid, that judgement begins. Introspection, spirituality, how do I find that???

        • CQ July 27, 2013 at 6:20 am

          Ah, yes, Maria, THAT woman. The one who was “taken in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:4). How did she find her true self? Well, the other character in that account saw her with such perfect love, with such clear vision, that he was able to “explicitly refute the central point” being made by her accusers, right? He found a way to “disagree” with them that not only didn’t alienate them and saved the accused’s life, but also lifted each and every one of them higher mentally, morally, spiritually.

          So how did that woman find and reclaim her innate-but-latent spirituality, we might ask. The straightforward answer: she followed the sinless Master’s advice: she simply stopped sinning.

          Starting three years ago, I developed a list of qualities that I think express our spiritual nature. I add to it each time I find a new word that describes an aspect of Love and of Truth and of Life. I’ll send it to you privately, because I think you’d relate to it, Maria. Ditto Ingrid and Bea.

      • CQ July 27, 2013 at 5:56 am

        If there were a hierarchy of AGREEMENT, asking sincere questions would be at its peak! Being interested in another’s viewpoint must surely be a mark of kindness, or maybe civility — or at least curiousity! 🙂

        Yes, Ingrid, I believe, as I gather you do, that there’s little-to-no resemblance between the kind of truth you and I are talking about, of which one can be spiritually certain, and the subject-to-change beliefs, opinions, theories, doctrines, creeds, so-called laws, and supposed knowledge that humans profess and practice. Often the latter prove to be counterfeits of the former, don’t you think? Though we don’t readily discern the difference between rock-solid, permanent, universal, impartial truth and what passes for it, I don’t for a minute think truth is unknowable to spiritual sense.

        As to your second question, I came across a familiar citation the other day that, to me, hints at an answer: “A little more grace, a motive made pure, a few truths tenderly told, a heart softened, a character subdued, a life consecrated, would restore the right action of the mental mechanism, and make manifest the movement of body and soul in accord with God.” ~ Mary Baker Eddy

        Note: For those who are unsure of the existence of God, I substitute the word “Good” — because that is what best describes the nature and essence of Spirit, the cause of all that truly is. 🙂

        • ingrid August 2, 2013 at 2:31 am

          I like your God/Good term as an all embracing one. Thanks, CQ, for that — and for the thought-provoking commentary. “A heart softened” … how critical in any age like ours where cynicism rules. There is poignant universality in all teachings that aim to bring people in accordance with a higher truth.

  5. Ron Dudley July 29, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Gotta admit, I almost didn’t click on the link. When I did I laughed out loud through much of the first 2/3 of it.
    As soon as I saw the disagreement graphic I thought of friends (and others) who fit so perfectly in many of the hierarchal layers. Then I thought of where I fit – I think I know but wonder if some of those friends agree. Ahhh, perspective…

    • ingrid August 2, 2013 at 2:18 am

      Ron, I imagine many of us travel up and down the hierarchy. 🙂 As I mentioned in the comments earlier, I have a soft spot for Python since it was one of my earliest comedy memories as an expat. It helped me think outside the box.

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