It’s never too soon

I wrote most of this post back in 2017. I am editing it (just a little) and moving it to the front because (1) I still (maybe mistakenly) think this is an interesting idea; (2) I haven’t heard it anywhere else; (3) it’s appropriate today.

You very often cannot control the basic circumstances of argument, especially public argument. A public argument, let’s say, is one you have in public, with, um, the public, about matters that concern the public (I suppose this could be anything). You can try to bring about a public argument on your own by inviting those around you, or the people who read your blog, or maybe someone in some comment thread. But you’re more likely to be at the mercy of events. I think this is the point behind trending topics on Twitter. You’d be jump on board because by yourself you can’t start a trend (unless you’re somebody famous). You have to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

This may run counter, however, to certain social norms. One such norm is not to speak ill of the dead or dying, or not to take advantage of misfortune to “score political points,” or the more general comedic injunction to avoid making jokes, “too soon.”

As an epistemic matter, however, arguments require you to put evidence before your audience. This means you must spring upon them where they are and when they are there.

The injunction against taking advantage or forcing unkind thoughts runs counter to the imperative to present your case when the opportunity arises. My case in some circumstance might involve alighting upon some uncomfortable aspect of a public official at some weak point in their life, or using someone’s misfortune as an example.

It just doesn’t land if you wait.

3 thoughts on “It’s never too soon”

  1. It seems to me that the “jump on board” strategy works in at least two directions for controversial topics.

    1. For the recipients who are open-minded or predisposed to be sympathetic to the cause, it’s great, because they get to learn about things to which they might not otherwise have been exposed.

    2. For the recipients who are close-minded or predisposed to be antipathetic to the cause, it’s bad, because they have to be confronted with things they may not otherwise want to see.

    Of course, I’m painting with broad brush strokes, but I think these are the types of confirmation bias that show up loudest in public discourse.

    Another thought regarding:

    > It just doesn’t land if you wait.

    I agree, but I also think shutting down a conversation using social norms is often used when the conversation does not suit your viewpoint/political goal. And it’s hard to argue against social norms because they’re not really arguments.

  2. I think that the classic use of “too soon” to prevent the discussion of important issues is that which follows a mass shooting incident.

    “We need to do something about this!” “No, too soon, it’s time for thoughts and prayers.”

    “We still need to do something about this!” “About what? That old story?”

    Off the cuff, I can think of three general (overlapping) categories of potentially negative obituary — the cautionary tale (e.g., Cain and masks), the history lesson, and “I didn’t like the guy”. It makes sense to tell a cautionary tale at a time when people are paying attention. Perhaps also, the history lesson is best taught in the moment, even if the obituary speaks to a deceased person’s negative or mixed role in history. But that element of “I didn’t like the guy”, such as Bette Davis’s alleged comment about Joan Crawford’s passing (“You should never say bad things about the dead, only good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”), can potentially overshadow the message of an obituary, even if it’s an important message.

    One way or another, we use deaths of lesser-known people as cautionary tales on a relatively routine basis, and I suspect that there would be a lot less resistance (perhaps little to none) if the issue of mask-wearing hadn’t been politicized.

    Is it really an attempt to score political points to note that somebody advocated against masks then died of COVID-19, or are the politics on the other side, those who were part of the effort to politicize and downplay or reject the importance of mask-wearing who are trying to avoid a political hit? In the case of Cain, I suspect it’s actually the latter. I suspect that had he died of an anti-mask facebook meme (e.g., “Wearing masks gives you COVID”) many of the same people who are presently saying “too soon” would not be able to stop talking about it.

    Wait long enough and, if you’re sufficiently notable, becoming the subject of a flattering or unflattering obituary-style history lesson probably becomes inevitable.

  3. Hi Sean:

    I agree with your conjecture. I think the crucial thing, however, is that you don’t usually make the argument in order to persuade people who disagree with you so much as to (1) capture the unaffiliated and (2) reinforce the base. I think your point underscores why this is.

    Hi Aaron:

    I had something on the Gun “too soon” argument a while ago. I think I wrote that there’s sense to “too soon” only in very marginal cases (where the basic facts aren’t in, for example). There’s no sense in “too soon” when the event is repeatable and preventable in some sense.

    I think Sean points out that the “too soon” business is likely to be distributed according to one’s prior commitments. But you point out something interesting: not mentioning some relevant feature in someone’s death is playing politics also: maybe it’s even an attempt to be, er, “politically correct” by not offending feelings with facts or somesuch.

    Great story, BTW, about Joan Crawford (and great link).

    Thanks both for commenting.

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