Shooting First Online

Vincent Hancock at 2008 Summer Olympics men's skeet finals 2008-08-16

"Shoot first, ask questions later." You've all heard this expression. Are there situations where shooting first and asking questions later, if at all, makes sense? Hell yes, there are! It is not difficult to imagine combat scenarios where shooting first is the only sensible way to stay alive and to help those on one's side to do the same. Failing to make quick decisions may cost someone their life. One could also imagine scenarios in civilian life where pausing too long to assess a threat (e.g., is this strange man who just broke into my home armed?) could get one killed. In such cases, shooting first may make good sense.

My question is why the "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality now seems to characterize much of how people communicate online. The "shooting" I am referring to in this context are the sort of verbal attacks we see on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and even the comments sections of some blogs. Instead of pausing, even momentarily, to make sure one is understanding something accurately or giving anyone the benefit of the doubt, one assumes the worst and lets the insults fly. You've all seen it. Why do so many people do this? What is being gained here?

As easy as it is to understand the literal "shoot first" scenario when an actual gun is involved, the Internet version baffles me. Pausing to make sure I understand what someone is saying costs me nothing. In the gun scenario, my failing to pull the trigger quickly enough could mean the loss of my life because the other party could take me out first. Nothing remotely like this applies online. If I pause and ask questions, I can still opt to verbally assault the person if I like. I do not need to be worried about them getting me first. And if I pause to re-read something or ask questions of the author, I might discover that no verbal assaults were necessary. Thus, there seems to be no cost to me in asking questions first.

Contrast this with the cost of my launching verbal attacks based on my poor comprehension of whatever I'm reacting to. I end up making an ass of myself, feeling stupid, and being at least somewhat inclined to apologize. And if I keep behaving like this, I run the risk of acquiring a well-deserved reputation for being the sort of moron most rational people would go out of their way to avoid.

I suppose some small number of people might do this because they lack the impulse control we expect from reasonable adults. But even if there are people like this, they can only be a tiny fraction of everyone doing it. In the majority of cases, I suspect that the person can stop themselves and just chooses not to. I am left with the suspicion that many people do not value reason or kindness.