Scott continues to raise the bar of blogging to heights never before imagined. In his recent post VARIETIES OF ARGUMENTATIVE EXPERIENCE he discusses what he calls the “hierarchy of disagreements”. At the bottom is shaming, followed by ‘gotchas’, nitpicking, etc., and at the top of the pyramid are ‘high level generators of disagreement’.
My experience has been that most online debates are civil, but also limited. Usually someone will make a post, then someone will make a reply, and there is maybe a 50% chance the first person will reply to the second. Most exchanges terminate after four posts. There isn’t more incivility, not because people are adept arguers, but because most people seek to avoid conflict. They want to get their ‘piece’ out and then slink back. Nitpicking is common on ‘smart’ communities, and is related to how, for smart people, correctness is more important than consensus or ‘tribal’ values, which is a tenet of intellectualism culture. This can get out of hand. But if a nitpick refutes part or all of the broader argument, then I think it ceases being a nitpick and is upgraded to a counterargument.
If a voting system exists in the comments, it’s not uncommon for people to down-vote to express disagreement, avoiding debate altogether.
Scott gives the following example of a high-level generator disagreement:
“Yes, there are some arguments for why this war might be just, and how it might liberate people who are suffering terribly. But I feel like we always hear this kind of thing and it never pans out. And every time we declare war, that reinforces a culture where things can be solved by force. I think we need to take an unconditional stance against aggressive war, always and forever.”
Note how even this example of a good argument contains a potential flaw: the qualifier ‘aggressive’. You see such qualifiers a lot in online journalism nowadays..it’s much more prevalent now than in the past, possibly due to the advent of online fact checkers and a more astute readership. Is there such thing as a war that is not aggressive? The Cold War, maybe, or maybe he means non-preemptive wars, but the quantifier is a way to express a belief but give room for cover. If the author is called out on it, he can just defer to the qualifier. In some instances the qualifier justified when it’s obvious and likely to be little objection by reader as to its veracity: for example, “most clouds are grey.” But it can be used a shortcut for having to be precise. Consider the example, “Donald has the lowest approval rating of any president.” This is less certain the cloud example, but the author still has a hunch that it is low, so instead writes “Trump has among the lowest approval rating of any president.” Precise speech opens the possibility of being wrong and having to buttress claims with research.