Column: Coming to disagreement

Published on May 27, 2008

It could be that, in a pluralist political culture, the fundamental civic virtue is learning how to disagree without being disagreeable. At least that is how discourse on the Wild, Wild Web appears to me. 

To be sure, incivility may be as common or even more bruising in off-line life. But something about the nature of the Internet both encourages more discussion and attracts verbal abuse. 

Last year, provoked by a run-in with a couple of commenters and prompted by Butch Dalisay’s “anti-rant rant” and Randy David’s misgivings on the use of “demonization” in political discourse, I wrote about the hazards of incivility for’s Current blog. 

“The limits of our virtual public square … are considerable. In a real plaza, we can hold forth on our political or other views—and our audience, plus the occasional passerby, can see our facial expressions, our sometimes unconscious gestures, our body language. See and appreciate. A smile or even an apologetic look can excuse a direct insult; a ridiculous argument can be demolished with a hearty laugh. There are many things we can get away with, in face-to-face conversation, simply because so-called non-verbal clues are processed too.” 

I remain a great believer in demolition-by-raucous-laughter. 

“Much of this ‘background’ is lost in virtual forums like ours. (Heck, we don’t even have bottles of beer or cups of coffee to argue with.) This, in part, explains why there is so much incivility in Internet forums. (Thankfully, it bears repeating, not so much in ours.) Some people can be discourteous online because other communication clues they take for granted (the twinkle in the eye, when a well-argued line issues from our mouth; the nodding-in-agreement of others in the audience, which encourages us to pursue an argument) are missing.” 

Web guru Paul Graham recognizes that something in the technology-enabled environment partly explains the rise in disagreements. “The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it.” But he prefers to understand the problem as a moral challenge. “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.” 

In “How to disagree,” Graham has done just that. (His seven-level hierarchy of disagreement was transformed about a couple of months after it was written into a compelling graphic, courtesy of the bright boys and girls at Create Debate). 

Graham’s pyramid can still stand some improvement. But I certainly think it can prove useful in improving the level of public debate. The bottom of the pyramid (name-calling and ad hominem argument) adds nothing to discourse. Calling attention to tone may sometimes be useful, but it can never be mistaken for substance. Real discussion begins to take place at the levels of contradiction and counterargument. The most effective forms of disagreement lie at the top, at the level of refutation. 

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Cris Sevilla’s “Batang Ina,” a photo documentary on teenage pregnancy, will be launched Wednesday at the ground floor of the Legislative Building at the Quezon City Hall. I’ve worked with Cris on TV projects before; I found her work as producer and director informed by a strong visual style. Now she has trained her “eye” for the apt, the striking, image, on the tragedy of 15- or 16-year-old mothers. The 32-frame exhibit runs until June 7. 

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Jose Carillo, who writes the grammar column for the Manila Times, has a second book out. If you enjoyed his first book, “The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors” should prove to be most agreeable.


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