“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.