The Mannerly Art of Disagreement

Alt.StarTrek.Creative, The Mannerly Art of Disagreement
or Jeffersonian Debate is Alive and Well on the Internet
Written by Macedon
Version: 1.01
Revised: November 11, 2000

A FAQ intended to compliment Peg Robinson’s “The Mannerly Art of Critique.”

Table of contents:
I. Introduction
II. Rules of Engagement
III. What If One Participant Refuses To Play Fair?
IV. Is It Ever All Right To Break The Rules?

————————–I. INTRODUCTION—————————

Among the greatest problems faced in a public forum is how
participants may disagree without descending into either personal
attacks or not-so-witty one line repartee. There are certain “rules
of engagement,” if you will, which can prevent name-calling and other
debate no-nos.

But first, we must dispel the myth that polite equals namby-
pamby. In fact, it is possible to disagree — even to disagree
significantly — in civil manner. Disagreement is never comfortable,
but if we refrain from permitting it to become a war (or on the
internet, a flamewar) we might learn something and keep our blood
pressure down at the same time. Disagreement can be fruitful. But it
will be fruitful only so long as certain guidelines are followed.


1. THE paramount rule of Jeffersonian Debate: Grant your opponent
respect. This means you must allow that he or she can examine the
facts and come to a different conclusion from you. This is harder
than it sounds, particularly for those who view disagreement as a
personal affront, or a sign of stupidity. Persons who hold such views
cannot engage in fruitful debate.

2. …Which brings up the second point: Learn objectivity. Be able to
separate other’s disagreement with your ideas from attacks on your
person. Beware of the overly subjective individual who identifies
with certain ideals/ideas to such an extent that disagreement is
considered to constitute a personal threat. Such persons hold to the
perception, “You’re either with me or you’re against me.” Should you
meet with such a one, disengage immediately unless you enjoy being
subjected to Scream and Leap.

3. Part of learning objectivity means recognizing the difference
between a fact and an opinion. 2+2=4 is a fact, more or less.
That John Mellencamp writes great lyrics is an opinion. In order to
disprove a fact, one MUST present contrary evidence. Just saying,
“That’s wrong!” isn’t good enough. It’s an opinion, not an argument.

“That’s wrong because…” is an argument. When presenting an opinion
in a debate, it’s usually a good idea to indicate in some manner that
you realize it’s an opinion. “It seems to me…” or “It’s been my
experience…” or (in nettese) the ever-popular, extremely-useful IMHO
(in my humble opinion). In short, avoid stating your opinion as if it
were a fact: e.g. “Romance stories are gross,” or “Action-adventure is
boring.” Likewise, another’s experience or feelings cannot be “wrong”
or “right.” Don’t confuse the existential with the objective. My
experience (the existential) is MY experience and no one else can
gainsay it because no one else is living in my head and body but me.

What someone else might justifiably do is question my interpretation
of my experience: “Well, it didn’t strike me as….”

Now for the fine point: While experiences can never be right or
wrong, opinions arising from incorrectly interpreted experiences can
be. When dealing with fiction, in which opinions and interpretation
come from the experience of reading, this “fine point” is more than
splitting hairs. Without encroaching too much on Peg’s “Mannerly Art
of Critique,” being able to recognize that interpretation of fiction
is opinion, not fact, is as essential to productive feedback as to
productive debate.

4. Refrain absolutely from ad hominem attack. What is ad hominem
attack? To criticize or belittle the one who holds a certain position
rather than the position itself. Example, “How stupid can you be?” or
“That just goes to show you don’t know anything.” Attacking your
opponent rather than your opponent’s ideas merely indicates a weakness
in your position. It wins no brownie points.

5. Absolutely. Never. Use. Invectives. What’s an “invective”? A
verbal attack, often one that employs obscenities. No matter what
your opponent says to you, do not respond with obscenities. Doing so
shows deplorably bad manners and convinces any onlookers that you were
raised in a barn. Locker-room talk doesn’t belong on the debating
block. There’s simply no excuse for it. Period. It doesn’t matter
who started it. (Incidently, there is a difference between obscenity
as invective and simple adjectival use: “Fuck you” is invective;
“that’s a hell of a note” or “you know damn well” is adjectival.)

6. Avoid irrelevancies and non-sequiturs. Perhaps that goes without
saying, but be sure your points relate to the topic. If your opponent
(or someone else) says, “What do you mean by that?” or “Your point/
parallel/example doesn’t seem to follow,” you must be able to explain
how it does. By the same token, think through points and parallels
before you make them to be certain they DO relate. A good way of
weakening any argument is by using non-sequiturs or bad metaphors.

7. Remember that there may be more than two sides to any debate. You
may find yourself agreeing with neither debater, or agreeing with some
points made by one, and some points made by the other. Polite debate
includes frank admission of where one may agree with an opponent.

It’s a debate, not a war. Insisting “You’re with me or you’re against
me” merely points to lack of objectivity mentioned in point #2 above.

8. In any debate, even polite ones, there is always a certain degree
of side-taking: onlookers who are convinced by, or agree already with
the arguments of one participant or another. Onlookers who choose to
speak out should obey the same polite rules of engagement as anyone
else. Also, it is helpful to state why one agrees. “John’s right
and you’re wrong” is neither convincing nor helpful. However “I find
John’s arguments persuasive because….” can contribute to the debate
in a positive way. It also prevents “side-taking” from becoming mere
ego-massage, which in turns helps to keep the focus on the matter at
, not the personalities involved. It IS permissible to disagree
with a friend. This goes back to being able to separate subjective
from objective. I may like you very much, but still disagree with
your position.

9. Persons who have tender egos should think twice before leaping into
a debate. As Apollo advised, “Know thyself!” If you have a tendency
to take disagreement personally — stay out of debates! People have
skins of differing thicknesses. What may strike you as insulting may
have been meant innocently. Assume ignorance, not malice, and inform
your opponent if he or she just said something which struck as hostile
or personal. Allow the other the opportunity to qualify remarks which
may have been innocently meant. If your opponent says, “I didn’t mean
it that way!” — accept the refutation. Don’t insist otherwise!

10. By the same token, recognize that phrasing is everything.

Bluntness can be plain rude, not charmingly honest. If you are one
who does have a thick skin, realize others may not and take some
care with what you say and how you say it. Such simple things as
noting that your opinion is an opinion (the “In my experience” or
“IMHO” mentioned above) can go a long way towards keeping feathers
smooth and unruffled.

11. Don’t be afraid to employ humor, as long as the humor is not a
cover for personal attack. Humor in debate keeps blood from boiling.

12. Don’t use religious principles or canons as absolutes. Recognize
that not everyone may hold the same beliefs. Some debates directly
concern religious points, but introducing them into an otherwise
unrelated issue is inappropriate. “The Bible says…” is not an
argument unless participants agree on the Bible as an authority, and
on a particular interpretation of the Bible, to boot. Otherwise,
the reaction will — justifiably — be “So what?” The use of religious
principles or canons in debate must be treated as opinions, not facts.

13. Be man or woman enough to concede. If one’s opponent convinces–
admit it! Those who can never admit to being wrong show fragile ego
structure. The real point of any debate is not to win, but to learn.

If one enters a debate merely to win, one has entered for the wrong
reasons. Whatever the ancient Greeks thought, life is not a continual

14. Know when to quit. There is a point in any debate when continued
discussion ceases to be fruitful and becomes mere argument. Graceful
closure is as important as graceful conduct. One does not have to
have the last word, and it is permissible to say, “I’m sorry, I’m just
not convinced.” Agree to disagree.

15. Finally, watch grammar, especially when debating in written forms
such as that found on the Internet. This is not a petty point. One
cannot convince others of one’s glittering wit and clever insight if
it’s delivered full of misspellings and grammar errors. Instead,
participants will wonder how one passed eighth-grade English. More,
bad grammar or lack of clarity will contribute to misunderstanding.

One may say the opposite of what one means, or say something that is
unintentionally amusing. (“Except” means the opposite of “accept,”
yet I see the two all-too-commonly confused in Internet posts–with
sometimes laughable results.)


If these simple rules are followed, even extremely controversial
topics can be safely discussed. If these rules are not followed, the
most mundane of matters may turn explosive.


In order for Jeffersonian debate to flourish, all participants
must be willing to obey the rules of engagement. If one individual
refuses, there’s not much the rest can do but ignore him or her.

Nevertheless, a couple of things to keep in mind when this happens:

1. Some people feed on conflict; this is how they get their
jollies. It’s a sign of unhealthy social adjustment. Such
individuals will make inflammatory remarks simply to irritate.
On the internet, this may manifest as “trolling”: those who
post intentionally controversial or insulting statements
simply to stir things up. (Trolls are not usually regular
participants in any particular group.) Yet there are also
individuals who aren’t trolls but still jump into debates with
both feet for the thrill of pissing off others: gadflies.
Don’t confuse the two. Nevertheless, the wise response is the
same: ignore them and they go away (or at least shut up).

2. Replying to rudeness in kind simply makes you look foolish.
As my grandfather used to say, “Don’t lower yourself to their
level.” Temper, temper. Grit your teeth and keep the rules
of engagement.

3. In the rare circumstance that a gadfly or troll does not leave
even after being ignored for weeks, or whenever one takes
his or her harassment from a public forum to a private one
(such as email), immediately notify that person’s ISP provider
(i.e. postmaster@_gadfly’s address_). If the mail bounces–
that is, if the real ISP provider has been camouflaged–then
immediately notify your ISP provider of the harassment and
ask them to track the person down, or to give you a new mail


Aren’t there some topics that just don’t deserve Jeffersonian
debate? Aren’t some positions so disgusting that they shouldn’t be
dignified by polite responses? What about posts by hate groups, neo-
Nazis, pornographers, etc.?

This is a problematic question since it may lead down a slippery
slope — rather like censorship. The automatic pitfall of free speech
is that it IS free: people you don’t like and with whom you disagree
have just as much right to state their positions — short of slander — as
you have to argue with them. Child pornography or its advertizement
is illegal; debate about it is not…however disgusting or horrifying
one may find the phenomena.

There are certain topics which are so widely regarded as morally
objectionable that if one attacks them with non-Jeffersonian methods
such as name-calling and invective, one may be cheered by most if not
all the on-lookers. Yet there are other subjects, more controversial,
which involve opinions just as virulent — such as homosexuality or
abortion — but about which there is far less consensus. Some consider
homosexuality or abortion to be as reprehensible as child pornography
or murder, and refuse to engage in any polite debate about it because,
of course, they are right and everyone who disagrees is wrong (and
usually disgusting and stupid, too). The reverse can be equally true:
defenders of either may automatically see all opponents as bigoted or
irrational (often based on past experience), and refuse to even listen
to other positions as they’re too busy screaming their own at the top
of their (virtual) lungs.

Neither side is trying to debate. They’re just on rampage and
should be treated accordingly: Laugh at them, ignore them, or get out
of their way, but don’t lower yourself to their level by copying their
methods. Doing so certainly won’t accomplish anything except to make
you look just as foolish. If, however, you meet up with someone who
IS being polite in debate — no matter what you may think of his or her

In other words, No, it’s never wise to break the rules. Not
unless you’re applying for God’s job.



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