Shoot first, ask questions later

Published on 2024-02-15

A lot of what we'll call threatened social groups adopt what we could call the "shoot first, ask questions later" policy when dealing with threatening people. This makes a lot of people feel upset, at least in part because the policy necessarily treats threatening people as threats, and few threatening people actually realize the consequences of what they're doing.

I've been thinking a lot about this model. I find myself using it all the time in life. A bit less than I used to, but it's still there, surely. It has problems, and I'd rarely admit it in the heat of the moment, but I want to take some time to explore them, giving myself and others the benefit of the doubt and see where it takes us.

As an abstract example, lets say you're making yourself vulnerable in a semi-public space. Someone you don't know says something you feel takes advantage of that vulnerability in a hurtful way. If your community is following the shoot first, ask questions later, they might "excommunicate" that person in self defence. A very classic, concrete example might be something like, you post online saying "wow, it seems like every time I post about my problems online, some guy shows up in my mentions denying it ever happens," and then some guy shows up in your mentions saying "I never see that happening!"

"Excommunicate" here might mean blocking them, or if it's a more extreme case then maybe someone will make another post warning others about them.

That "guy" may or may not have realized he was doing anything wrong. He might feel like getting blocked is a disproportionate response to what seemed like a mundane comment. This is the sort of thinking that stokes a lot of resentment, and often leads people to characterize threatened groups as being fragile.

We are often told that this approach is problematic, and I do think that at least outside the heat of the moment those problems are real and do merit some discussion, though rarely with the people who make the accusations themselves. The problem is that this policy is very exclusive. It makes groups that follow it feel like very tightly-knit cliques. It makes you seem unapproachable.

On its own none of these things are really that bad, but I think it can be a problem in some contexts. There are many people who could benefit from having the community and security net that comes with being "in" your social group. People outside the group are naturally less familiar with our customs and will likely make mistakes as they try to develop relationships that bring them in. That creates a really high barrier of entry, and can often be isolating as a consequence.

I think having that awareness can be invaluable, but on it's own it's not enough to abandon the policy altogether.

Threatened groups are threatened because we are threatened by threatening people on all fronts, all the time. The guy who makes an annoying comment in someone's mentions isn't an isolated case. While he obviously isn't conspiring with a League of Objectively Evil People to make us feel unsafe all the time, he is incidentally repeating a hurtful pattern in chorus with countless other people, perhaps without even realizing it. It's rarely worth the energy to seriously engage with and give the benefit of the doubt to everyone like him every time.

The stakes of an idea

It is always easier to just write them off, to focus on more important things.

People don't handle this well. Threatening people don't handle this well, obviously--it's very accusative, and nobody wants to feel like they're a threat just for doing what they've always been told to do. Threatened groups I'm a part of generally don't handle this all that gracefully either in my experience. But I think the utilitarian in me doesn't really care, because if I had to choose between some isolated cases having their feelings hurt after at best being annoying, and threatened groups not feeling safe to express themselves, constantly feeling like they're under attack, I'd take the former.

It is a sort of negotiation. Do we want to constantly be inviting of new people, or do we want to invest in the network we already have? I don't think I have a definitive answer to this. Generally I lean towards turning my attention inwards, but both have their benefits and drawbacks.

Looking inwards, prioritizing the relationships you already have, can make those relationships stronger. I'm generally a person who works well with a few really good friends, and so this system feels very natural to me. It's also easier, I find, but it does hurt a lot more when things go wrong.

Looking outwards, prioritizing new relationships, is much better overall for growing your community. It's a lot harder, though. It demands making yourself vulnerable to people you don't know--people who could hurt you. It can challenge your investment in your stronger relationships. But we do have strength in numbers.

There's not a good answer to this problem; it depends a lot on who you are and what you need. But I think having a "shoot first, ask questions later" sort of policy is very natural when you're constantly under threat. It's a defence mechanism. Maybe it's unhealthy, but we often have bigger health problems to worry about.

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