“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.