Narrow Disagreement

by pgbh

Robin Hanson laments a trend which he sees in discussion of projected futures: people assume that discussion of the future is intended to either avert negative trends, or promote positive ones. The reason why this assumption is made seems clear: in general it is true, people argue to steer the future in a direction they prefer.

This observation generalizes to other areas. Frequently I’m frustrated by people who make assumptions about my motives during arguments. A simple factual claim will be interpreted as my allegiance to an entire belief system. The arguer will then attack other claims of that belief system, which I often don’t hold or even have interest in.

While it’s an annoyance, it’s hard to blame people who act this way. In fact most human communication is done covertly, via subtext. So it’s reasonable to think that a simple claim could be intended to mean much more than it does on the surface. But such beliefs sure make it difficult to have a reasonable conversation on a limited topic.

So what can people do who want to debate facts without being dragged into larger discussions? My advice is to repeat, as often as possible, that disagreement is just disagreement, and not (unless stated) a symbol of a large, ideological conflict.

In fact, I’ll take my own advice right now: Sure I’ll tend to disagree more with people who I’m broadly opposed to, but that doesn’t mean I’m broadly opposed to you if we happen to disagree. Quite possibly, I just disagree with you on a narrow, specific topic.