In Defense of Disagreeables

[This article contains generalizations. If you are the type of person who thinks generalizations are always bad, please don’t annoy me about it.]

The only personality test proven to be reliable is the “Big 5 Personality Test.” It tests five psychometric traits: extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and agreeableness.

To be “agreeable” means you are trusting with respect to the intentions of others and compassionate towards those you perceive as weak, often to the point of gullibility or naivety. According to Wikipedia, agreeable people are “kind, sympathetic, corporative, warm, and considerate.” They are more nurturing, but also more submissive, than disagreeable people. Disagreeables are more skeptical, competitive, challenging, and they tend to be frank (use less filtered language), which some perceive as argumentative.

I believe that there is bias in the nomenclature of “agreeableness.” It gives “disagreeableness” a bad name.

A useful dichotomy for understanding this is that of conflict initiation vs conflict resolution. Archetypically, conflict initiation is a more masculine virtue, while conflict resolution is a more feminine virtue.

You may be inclined to think that only the latter is good. Conflict is bad, right? That is a huge error of thinking in the West. A functioning society requires both. Some conflicts must be initiated to fix injustices* in the status quo.

As time has progressed, Western society has become** more interpersonally conflict-averse. Maybe this is good: a consequence of society becoming more interconnected, where people must interact with countless others that they do not know personally.

But whether or not this is a good thing, it is a type of feminization of society. And it corresponds with falling testosterone levels.

There are two principles that I think encapsulate the agreeable mindset:

  1. Whoever initiates conflict first is in the wrong
  2. The path that makes the least number of people upset is the best

I happen to disagree with both.

“Tolerance” and “inclusivity” are buzzwords thrown around by agreeable types. However, I find that the agreeable mindset lends itself to a kind of intolerance.

For example, they will fiercely impose themselves to steer conversations away from any form of disagreement. As a fan of friendly debates, I find this aggravating.

Agreeable types will not just obey, but enforce unspoken rules of social engagement. This contradiction between tolerance as a virtue and intolerance by self-imposition manifests as passive aggressiveness.

Though it sounds noble that agreeable types are drawn to self sacrifice for those they perceive as weak (and can be quite vicious on their behalf), there are two problems. First, the weaker party is not always in the right. Second, it’s patronizing. As a former little kid, it was irritating that agreeable types were drawn to my demographic.

But the problems with agreeableness go beyond personal annoyance. The key to understanding this issue is my underrated article on late culture change aversion.

Recall my two principles of the agreeable mindset. Agreeables purvey the please-all mentality, which acts as a defense of the status quo. Additionally, agreeables defer to consensus, which makes them vulnerable not to tradition, but to intellectual fads.

As an aside, you may ask if I’m schizophrenic: praising tradition in one link, and promoting change in another? The common theme is that I reject any structure that isn’t at least open to change, from “change aversion” to “irreversible fads.”

The true heroes of positive change over the status quo are those who resolve to be hated. They accept that they will have to cause conflict as they challenge people who either worship consensus or benefit from the existing system. These are the disagreeables who risk repetitional shame for the benefit of the world.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb is purportedly a huge jerk. I don’t care.

Whether or not I agreed with any of his beliefs, the most interesting thing about essayist and orator Christopher Hitchens was his manner of speaking. The juxtaposition of the elegance of his accent with his deliberate yet genuine bellicoseness, or “ability to get theatrically angry,” was captivating. “Civility is overrated,” he said once.

I haven’t seen studies on this, but I strongly suspect that disagreeables are unlikely to be taken in by nonsense spirituality, pseudoscience, and cults. All of these things use the tactic of “social proof,” which disagreeables have no qualms about calling BS on.

Disagreeables make the best critics of BS, because they react in correct proportion with the rudeness it deserves. It is a politically correct myth that “we just ought to be nicer to our enemies, and they will convert to our side (or at least be less crazy).” Insofar as that is true, plenty of people are doing that already. The “no BS” style resonates with more people than you think (including some of our enemies).

We suffer from a a deficit of prominent disagreeables:

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Related quote from him in an interview with Rebel Wisdom***:

Right now we have all sorts of things that need people to say no to them. No we should not be pushing for citizenship to everyone who is here illegally. No we should not be allowing the claim that Islam is a religion of peace… Obviously trade is extremely redistributive… We need to clean house about people who are obviously lying about very simple things. The only people who are likely to say that are going to be people with their own theories. They’re going to be people who are highly disagreeable, highly creative, and somewhat self-destructive.

We want those people. We have excellent people. That’s our problem. It’s a plague. And it’s not that excellence is bad, its that we have way too many excellent people in proportion to the number of geniuses and heroes in the population.

“Excellence” in this quote refers to people whose beliefs and proclivities are optimized for a particular peak on the adaptive landscape. “Excellent” people are low-variance, i.e., excellent at whatever peak society has agreed to aim for. This has its place, but excellence will not jump the adaptive valley; deviance will. Disagreeable people are these deviants. Though it might make some of them intolerable, this high-risk high-reward strategy is necessary for continued progress.

*I didn’t mean to use a loaded word, so ignore its connotation.
**On a micro level, not necessarily a foreign policy level
***I originally misattributed this to Big Think, I meant Rebel Wisdom