"Now here's why I'm punching you..."


Related: be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness.

A premise of this post is that punching people is sometimes better than the alternatives.

I mean that literally, but mostly metaphorically. Things I take as metaphorical punching include name calling, writing angry tweets to or about someone, ejecting them from a group, callout posts, and arguing that we should punch them.

Given that punching people is sometimes better than the alternatives, I think we need to be able to have conversations about when "sometimes" is. And indeed we can and do have those conversations. Many words have been spilled on the subject.

But I think it's probably a good idea to try to avoid having those conversations while actually punching people.

Here's what I mean. Alice thinks that punching Bob is better than the alternatives. But she thinks that if she just starts punching, Carol and Dave and Eve might not understand why. Not even if she tells them what Bob has done. She thinks punching Bob is better than the alternatives, but she thinks the reasons for that are slightly complicated and haven't previously been articulated very well, at least not in a way that makes them common knowledge.

So she writes an essay in which:

  1. She proposes a theory for when punching people is better than the alternatives. (She readily admits that the theory is not complete, nor is it intended to be, but it covers part of the space.)

  2. She describes the situation with Bob, and how the theory justifies punching him.

  3. She punches Bob.

I think this could be a mistake. I think she should maybe split that post into at least two parts, published separately. In the first part, she proposes the theory with no mention of Bob. Then, if Carol and Dave and Eve seem to more-or-less agree with the theory, she can also publish the part where it relates to Bob, and punch him.

I think this has a few advantages.

  • Suppose Alice can't convince anyone that the theory holds. Then Bob is kept out of things entirely, unless Alice wants to go ahead and punch him even knowing that people won't join in. In that case, people know in advance that Alice is punching under a theory that isn't commonly subscribed to.

  • Suppose the theory is sound, and also justifies punching Fred. Then someone can link to the theory post separately, without implicitly bringing up the whole Bob thing. This is especially good if the theory doesn't actually justify punching Bob, but it's somewhat good regardless.

  • Suppose Bob disagrees with some part of the argument. When he gets punched, he's likely to be triggered or at least defensive. That's going to make it harder for him to articulate his disagreement. If it comes split up, the "thing he has to react to while triggered" may be smaller. (It may not be, if he has to react to the whole thing; but even then, he may have seen the first article, and had a chance to respond to it, before getting punched.)

  • Suppose that splitting-things-up like this becomes a community norm. Now, if Alice just wants to come up with excuses to punch Bob, it's harder for her to do that and get away with it, harder for her to make it look like an honest mistake.

It might seem even better to split into three posts: theory, then application ("and here's why that justifies punching Bob"), and then wait for another post to actually punch him. But since "arguing that we should punch Bob" is a form of punching Bob, splitting those two out isn't necessarily possible. At best it would be "theory, then application and mild punching, then full-strength punching". It's more likely to be worth it if there's a big difference between the two levels. "Here is why I think I should kick Bob out of the group" is considerably weaker than "I hereby kick Bob out of the group". But "here is why I think you all should stop trusting Bob now" is not much weaker than "you all should stop trusting Bob now".

However, I don't think this is always unambiguously a good thing. There are some disadvantages too:

  • The initial post is likely to be drier, less compelling, without concrete examples.1 And perhaps harder to evaluate, especially for less abstract thinkers.
  • You can't really remove the initial post from its context of "Alice thinks we should punch Bob". You can hide that context, but that doesn't remove its influence. For example, if there are cases similar to Bob's that would be covered by the same theory, Alice's post is likely to gloss over the parts of the theory that relate to them-but-not-Bob, and to focus too much on the parts that relate to Bob-but-not-them.

  • Suppose the theory is sound, but the facts of the case don't support punching Bob. Splitting the posts adds more opportunity for sleight-of-hand, such as using a term to mean different things in different places. This would be harder to notice in a split post than a monolithic post, if each part is internally consistent.

  • It may be harder to write this way, which may cause some better-than-the-alternatives punching to go unperformed.

  • It's slower. Sometimes that's probably neutral-to-good. But often, if punching someone is better than the alternatives, it's because they're currently hurting other people. If punching them will make them stop, then ideally we want to punch quickly.

I'm not sure how all these factors really shake out, and I expect it'll vary from case to case. So I don't want to offer a blanket suggestion. I think my advice is: if you're thinking of writing one of those all-in-one posts, consider splitting it up. It won't always be the right thing to do, but I think it's an option to bear in mind. Here are some questions to ask that might sway you in one direction or the other:

  • How hard are you punching?2 If someone googles Bob, will they find your punches? (At least once, Scott Alexander used a pseudonym for a person he was punching; this seems like a useful tool.)
  • If the punching is delayed, does anything bad happen?

  • Does the theory apply more generally than it needs to for this specific case? Thinking of similar cases might help, especially real ones but also fictional. (If you can think of lots of real cases, the value of having a reference post for the theory goes up, and its value as a reference post goes up if it has less baggage.)

(As an aside: I want to note that a post which looks like an all-in-one might not be. It may be recapping previously established theory. Common knowledge is rarely absolutely common, so I suspect this will usually be a good idea.)

  1. See for example, this post. (Though the reason I don't have examples here is different. My motivating example hasn't been written yet3, and I didn't go looking for others. Still, I expect the effects of not having examples are similar.) 

  2. And not just you personally, but your audience. If your audience is large and vicious, then no matter how gently you yourself punch someone, they're going to experience a lot of pummelling. 

  3. And there's a decent chance it won't ever, given my track record.