Monday, July 28, 2014

A Taxonomy of Discord

Most humans aren't so querulous as I, but at some time everyone is likely to find himself at odds with the mind of a fellow homo sapiens. It is often the case, though, that any differing of mind and the ensuing exchange is labeled a fight. This is a gross simplification, and an unnecessary one at that, for there is a whole range of ways we may disagree. The topic, our ability to act on it, the manner in which we dispute, all of these vary from disagreement to disagreement. Now since I love a good disagreement, much to the dismay of so many of my interlocutors, and would like to remove the stigma from some forms of disagreement, I would like to make some distinctions.

Some of these distinctions may differ from the words' usual meanings, but I hope in holding them to a more limited meaning, using the words closely to their literal definitions, and situating them in an organized taxonomy of discord, to justify my diversions from the norm.

Please note that while I mean disagree in a particular sense, see #4, for convenience I'll use disagree with its common usage to refer to simple, well, disagreement.

Finally, it is possible for a given disagreement to fit into more than one category depending on, 1) the structure of the disagreement, 2) the states of mind of the speakers, and 3) the purpose of their speaking.

1. Dispute

Disputation is the most the purest form of disagreement. From Latin's dis-puto, it literally means to think in different directions. To have a dispute with someone, then, is merely to have a difference of thought. No animus is implied, and one can even dispute with oneself, being of a different mind than that of a hypothetical point. A dispute is a state of being only, implying no process. It is a simple recognition of difference.

2. Discussion

In contrast, discussion implies some kind of exchange of ideas. They may be ideas which one or both parties hold, or one or the other may be playing the devil's advocate, or the argument may be an exercise. From Latin's discuto, a discussion is simply an examination of ideas. Again, there is no negative connotation to discussion and the styles and techniques of disagreement can be various.

3. Debate

Debate, however, implies some degree of organization to the conversation. The debate may be dialectical, parliamentary, Oxford-style, or what have you, but there is a system in place which moderates the discourse. Latin's battere to strike, suggests a tit-for-tat fencing, i.e., a pattern or organization to the discussion.

4. Disagree

Now disagreement implies something particular and important: the desire to act. Dis-ago means to go in different directions in Latin, and therefore the stakes of disagreement are high. You are only having a disagreement if you are going to act on one of the propositions. You can disagree about whether to eat Chinese food for dinner, but not whether Pluto is a planet (which would be a dispute.)

5. Controversy

Very similar to disagreement, controversy implies that you wish to turn the mind of the other individual, as suggested by Latin's contra-verto, to turn against. While in disagreement there is a possibility that you are simply looking for the truth and would happily follow the path of your interlocutor should he prove his point, in a controversy your sole goal is to persuade him.

6. Deliberation

The process of deliberation is disagreement exclusively between two points. From Latin's libra, scales, and librare, to balance, deliberation implies fixed points of opposition and also a slow, reflective process of weighing options, such as through research. It can be done by multiple people, or by an individual.

7. Argument

Perhaps the most abused of the words in this list, an argument implies the presence of premises and propositions from which one argues to a conclusion. Again, Latin's arguo means to prove, argue, or allege. The use of formal logical procedures characterizes an argument.

8. Sparring 

This is simply a disagreement in which the participants adopt a more sporting, competitive attitude. In sparring, the process is more important than either truth or ultimate victory. This is akin to a contest, which is sparring with a particular goal in mind.

9. Quarrel

Also on the adversarial side, you quarrel when you have a complaint with someone. Latin's queror, to complain or protest, gives the proper sense here. You may not be angry or fighting, but you think that the other person is somehow in the wrong. In a quarrel, unlike in a fight, there remains some order to the disagreement, though it is not strict.

10. Fight

This is where things get ugly. There isn't even a dignified Latin origin for this word, characterized by anger or animus. Tempers may or may not flare, but a fight is characterized by a lessening of good will and a lack of charity toward the motives of the other person. Formal structures break down in favor of censure.

11. Bickering

A favorite among couples and friends, bickering is ongoing disagreement. It involves frequent complaints, especially about the same matters over and over, with little if any development or progression of ideas.

12. Feud

Eventually, an unresolved issue can graduate from bickering to a feud, that is to say a tolerated enmity between parties who have learned to live with their disagreement rather than resolve it.

13. Censure

Censure involves disapproval of the interlocutor and not consideration of a point. The censure may be corrective, as in criticism, or abusive, which attempts to berate and exhaust the charges against the individual to whom you speak..

14. Dissent

Finally, we come to dissent, which is the most different of our categories for it implies only one party's dissent from an issue. No particular structure, purpose, or sentiment is implied by the recusal from debate.

So next time you find yourselves on opposite ends of an idea, decide in advance on your method of discord, lest improper expectations turn your congenial dispute, discussion, or debate into a fight, quarrel, feud, or worse, a fracas, melee, or outright brawl. Happy Strife!

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