The Disagreement Hierarchy - How do you Argue on Social Media?

Dr Roshan Radhakrishnan

Trust me. This article is not as boring as that title. It is actually extremely relevant to you as a social media user.

In 2008, a computer programmer named Paul Graham made a disagreement hierarchy, placing the logical form of disagreement at the top and then tapering downwards to the most illogical and uncouth form of arguing. He could not have predicted how telling his chart would be as a mere decade later, social media is pretty much a war zone with friends, strangers and faceless trolls all looking to just debate, insult and target one another.

Graham's hierarchy of disagreement is more relevant than ever today and a must-know for all social media users

Online arguments - you have been a part of it and so have I. The key thing to ask yourself is - on which end of the spectrum do you lie when it comes to explaining your stand? Do you resort to a strong, irrefutable argument with evidence or in the end, are you just a hater out to troll?

The Hierarchy of Disagreement

Let us do this with examples.

We shall start with a false statement and see how the three positive forms of disagreement would go.

Original statement:
He cannot sexually assault that child because he is a religious man.

1. Explicitly refuting the Central Point:
"The DNA evidence and CCTV camera clearly identify him as the assaulter."
(Provide Video or text link of official evidence)

2. Refutation
"As you can see in this article, it is clear he did it."
(Provide link to news article stating the documented case facts.)

3. Counterargument
"A religious man is also capable of sexual assault."
(A logical statement but offering minimal or no evidence.)

Now, we move to the 4 negative forms of disagreement.
For this, we shall use a true statement as the original template:
The priest sexually assaulted that small girl.

4. Contradiction
"You're wrong."
(A response relevant to the topic but offering no explanation.)

5. Respond to Tone
"I can't believe people can think such a thing about priests."
(The attack is on what was written rather than at the writer but offers no further explanation.)

6. Ad Hominem
"Someone like you who is an atheist will say such nonsense."
(Attacking the authority of the writer to speak on such a topic but does not correct the perceived mistake.)

While not a part of Graham's original hierarchy, I am adding these sub-divisions to help clarify this point because Ad Hominem, while annoying, is SADLY now the most common form of argument used in social media.

  • 6a) Tu quoque/ Whataboutism - "Where were you when your religion's priest raped a child?" (A false argument because while the original speaker may indeed be a hypocrite for similar crimes committed elsewhere, it does not make the present statement false.)
  • 6b) Circumstantial ad hominem - "You will say that because you have always been against my religion." (Accusing the speaker of bias because of past stances taken does not again negate the facts of the present case.) 
  • 6c) Guilt by association - "You voted for Party A who is always against my religion. Naturally you will support this." (Here, the attack is directed towards the fact that the original speaker has, in the past, had similar views with a party whom I hate. Hence, I club the two together even if there is no connection in this particular case.)  

7. Name Calling
"You're an idiot!"

A must know for all social media users - The hierarchy of disagreement is more relevant than ever today.
Don't forget to Save it / Pin it so that it can help you the next time you are debating online

Advantages of knowing the Hierarchy of Disagreement

  • It helps you look beyond strong words or social media personality and identify the legitimacy of an argument - was clear evidence of the opposite ACTUALLY given?
  • Helps you become better in a debate - even if you know you are right, you may unintentionally forget to provide evidence which harms your reputation.
  • Improves conversation - if you have an actual point, you don't need to resort to the bottom layers, do you?   

Graham's hierarchy of disagreement is more relevant than ever today and a must-know for all social media users

I hope the hierarchy of disagreement is clear. More importantly, I hope you will remember this hierarchy the next time you find yourself about to launch into an argument on social media.
Touchwood, I hope you stay on the right side of the disagreement. Remember, you don't need to insult someone when you can refute them with facts.

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Let me know what you think.

  1. despite being a blogger I tend get afraid by using social media (time to time) because of all these kind of issue. all these terms were new for me and I had learnt a lot with this post. thanks for sharing. please read my week 9 post here

  2. I always avoid any sort of disagreement or controversy on social media but at times it's difficult to keep quiet and just watch , so then intervene and try to handle it with patience .
    Your article is an interesting one :)

  3. I absolutely had no idea about all these terms earlier, thanks for sharing with us, very informative post #superbloggerchallenge2018 #instacuppa

  4. This is great, Roshan. Thanks for spelling it out.

  5. Hierarchy of disagreement. Well, I disagree with u.. Neither the name nor the post is boring 😁
    Social media in today's perspective is a lot about faceless trolls.
    The more logical reasoning ones, are greatly missed. As a Blogger n author, I try to keep safe distance but I know wen u become famous keeping away is no longer an option. Scary!

    Pls read my week9 post for #superbloggerchallenge2018 #instacuppa

  6. This is super interesting! I didn't know there is so much thought to arguments too! I still need to figure out where do I fall :p

  7. A problem of human nature .We hate being wrong.Great post .Much needed in these times

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