Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is insulting people behind their back better than insulting them to their face?

A couple posts back I took the opportunity to gripe about what I thought was a ridiculous comment thread moderation decision at Econlog. It was just interesting and something I see a lot on the blogosphere: a combination of hypersensitivity while turning a complete blind eye to crudeness that's right in front of you.

Bob had an interesting comment on the thread:

"Daniel I don't think they should have deleted your comment, but there *is* a difference in discussing someone who's not "in the conversation," versus talking to people who are right there. I.e. just because someone called Ezra Klein a hack, and then you got zapped for saying something about the people "in the room" that was milder, by itself doesn't prove hypocrisy.

E.g. let's say you come to my house for a dinner party, and lots of people in the room are talking about what a socialist Obama is. Then you say, "I can't believe the fools in this house!" I think any reasonable person would agree that you were ruder than my other guests.

However, if Ken B. were there too, I am sure he would be more annoying

I found this fascinating because I really, really don't agree with it. Now there is one area where I could kind of agree. There is an extent to which commiserating with people about someone you find aggravating isn't really rude to do behind their back. Commiseration can be an important thing to engage in. You might even be more blunt behind the person's back, but presumably it's something you would raise more diplomatically with them if the appropriate opportunity presented itself.

That's one thing.

But is outright insulting someone (say, calling them a "political hack") better behind their back than to their face? I wouldn't think so at all. If anything I think the rudeness factor is about the same and the people who do it behind their back are more cowardly to boot.

All of this is a fine line, of course. We can have frank discussions about whether someone is convinced by evidence or ideology. Some people really are guided by ideology (shocking I know!), so you can talk about that sort of thing without being guilty of rudeness. But the sort of broad dismissivenes of saying "oh he's just a political hack" clearly isn't doing that kind of careful calculus, particularly when it's about someone like Ezra Klein.

What do you all think? Is insulting someone behind their back (genuine insulting - not just a commiseration fest) really better? That just seems foreign to me.


  1. No offence Daniel, but what kind of high school experience did you have? This seems like more of a question that one would ask in high school (even though it's human nature to be duplicitous and to act differently in different situations and contexts at all stages of life). Were you picked on, or no?

    1. Ha! Well, I thought "don't talk about people behind their backs" was settled long ago too, which was why I found Bob's comment so interesting.

      I was not exceptionally popular, but I wasn't picked on either. I was a good grades type, but I don't think a particularly nerdy type. I spent most of my time at crew practice and on the river, which I hope avoided some of the nerd stereotype.

  2. I think insulting people who are present at the party is more disruptive and so in that sense more worthy of moderation. No matter how many times I call Obama a socialist in your comment threads, he's unlikely to show up here to defend his honor. On the other hand, if I call Blue Aurora a hack, we might get into a shouting match which would inconvenience everyone. That's rude to everyone.

  3. I tend to agree. If the person you're insulting ultimately finds out, it may be worse (more likely if you care about their opinion). That being said, in the short-term and generally, I think it is better to insult people behind their back rather to their face.

  4. Daniel I think you are generalizing incorrectly from what my principle was. (I'm not saying you did it intentionally; I didn't write out a treatise in a quick blog comment.)

    Does anybody here want to argue with me in the analogy I chose? I.e. is anybody going to say it's ruder to call Obama a socialist at a dinner party, versus insulting the people who are literally standing right there at the dinner party?

    OK, assuming you're all with me, then I claim that is a lot closer to what happened at the EconLog thread, versus Daniel's more generic "should I insult someone to his face or to his back?" principle. I'm not saying if you and your friends are going to mock friend X, is it ruder to do it to his face or back. I'm saying, if you are going to mock friend X to his face, versus mock public figure Y when he's not there, the former is way worse.


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