On Tapping Outpost by Screwtape · 2023-11-17T03:23:55.880Z · LW · GW · 13 comments
There is a technique known in some parts of the rationalist community called "Tapping Out." Tapping out in this context means you would like to exit an argument or debate. I believe this technique was first imported to LessWrong in this comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] by Rain, and it is defined in this tag [? · GW]. As someone who has been practicing martial arts for most of his life, I have some thoughts on the ritual that is tapping out.
If you're unfamiliar with the term's origin, let me describe the physical form. Tapping out looks like slapping either the ground or the opponent three times in an open handed strike of light to medium force. It's about the amount of power you'd use to clap your hands, and in fact the sound is pretty similar to clapping. It doesn't have to be exactly three times either; if you're wrestling and your opponent keeps tapping you over and over, you let them go, you don't hold on because it was seven instead of three. You can also say you're tapping out aloud; while some competitions will have an exact rule for what you're supposed to say, I usually heard (and gave) the signal as "Tap tap tap."
Tapping out can be more exactly codified in competitive martial arts like MMA matches or intercollegiate wrestling. It's also used in martial arts dojos where there isn't a competitive focus, and I all but guarantee you'll learn about it if you go to a dojo that does a lot of sparring or partner practice. Notably, tapping out is functionally the same in every dojo I've every learned at. There is a good reason for this: you want it to be immediately clear whether someone is tapping out. I was repeatedly told that if it was ever unclear to me whether my opponent was tapping out, I was supposed to assume they were doing so and let them go.
Actually, I want to back up and look at that sentence again. I used the phrase "my opponent" to refer to the other person, but the majority of the times when I or the other person tapped out wasn't during a competition. It was common for a drill to start with me attacking them, for them to deflect the attack and pin me, and then for me to tap out as soon as the pin was complete. Often we would do this a few dozen times in a row, alternating which of us attacked and which of us defended. I learned to start tapping as soon as the pin became painful, because if I tried to bear it and push through the pain then
- I would be in pain during the pin, and
- I wasn't going to escape anyway since that wasn't the drill, and
- I risked it hurting later after we'd stopped, because my arm had been wrenched repeatedly.
In a competition, tapping out generally means that you lose the point. In a drill, what would it even mean to say that I "lost" the round? At the end of twenty minutes, the score would probably be forty to thirty-nine, and the winner would entirely be down to who went first. We'd tie half the time! Even when we weren't drilling a specific sequence and were instead freely practicing, tapping out didn't have a negative connotation or stigma. You tried something, it didn't work, so you stopped and set up again.
Saying someone "lost" when they tapped out in that context would be like a music teacher saying a new student had "lost" when they played a chord wrong or worse, like a skilled musician feeling that they'd "lost" when trying to write a new melody and discovering they didn't like how it sounded. Yeah, ideally you'd play it perfectly the first time and it would be great, but what you're reinforcing is never trying anything new [LW · GW].
While I'm on the subject: the ability to tap out did not depend on whether or not you were the "aggressor." If we both stepped into the ring, I swing first, you counterattack, and then I tap out? That's fine, everything working as expected.
If you're part of a debate club and it's a competition day against another school I would expect saying that you tap out to mean you lost the round. Don't do that unless you're genuinely stuck. If you're messing around arguing on the internet or trying to convince your friend that Bulbasaur is the best starter Pokemon (which he totally is, fight me) then there's nothing to lose by tapping out but your pride. If you're drilling or in any other context where the goal is to improve how well you discuss – and note the distinction between a discussion and a debate – then tapping out should cost you nothing. I would even say that tapping out should be lightly rewarded. That's how I learned in the dojo! You want the students to feel comfortable admitting they're stuck rather than hurt themselves trying to escape a checkmate.
Also, not letting someone tap out is kind of a jerk move.
I've gotten the chance to spar against some gifted martial artists. It's fun to push against them, even when I'm losing. I like the feeling of improving myself, of learning new tricks from having them used on me. It's good for my own fundamentals to test them against someone else, and there are moves I've practiced that way which I couldn't perfect in more "live fire" environments.
All of them let me loose immediately when I tapped out, usually smiling and complimenting me on something I'd done well or saying how they'd enjoyed it. If they had instead kept me pinned and twisted until something broke or I somehow managed to escape then I never would have volunteered to spar with them again, and I would have warned other people away from them as well. I do not speak with particular title or authority, but I believe I correctly describe the consensus viewpoint of martial artists when I say that ignoring a tap out is Not Done.
In Guided By The Beauty of our Weapons, Scott Alexander points out that there is a useful distinction between throwing insulting memes at your political opponents and having a purely logical debate. One of the five criteria he lists for a debate is "2. Debate where both people want to be there, and have chosen to enter into the debate in the hopes of getting something productive out of it." I would argue that both people should want to be there throughout the debate, and that in addition to having chosen to enter, they're also free to leave. And that's with the stricter rules one could have for debate over friendly discussion.
In that article, Scott also discusses the responses he got from an essay he wrote arguing against electing Donald Trump. He says:
Am I saying that if you met with a conservative friend for an hour in a quiet cafe to talk over your disagreements, they’d come away convinced? No. I’ve changed my mind on various things during my life, and it was never a single moment that did it. It was more of a series of different things, each taking me a fraction of the way.
This was also the response I got when I tried to make an anti-Trump case on this blog. I don’t think there were any sudden conversions, but here were some of the positive comments I got from Trump supporters:
These are the people you say are completely impervious to logic so don’t even try? It seems to me like this argument was one of not-so-many straws that might have broken some camels’ backs if they’d been allowed to accumulate.
Even if you're not just trying to sharpen your skills for discussion and trying to practice triangulating on the truth with another person, and are now actually attempting to convince them of something, you probably can't do it in one knockout uppercut or perfectly timed bon mot. You need them to show up for the next debate; if not with you, then with someone else on your side. If after talking with you they decide you're a jerk and they don't want to talk to you any more, not only are you unlikely to get that chance, but they may decide they're not interested in arguing with anyone under your banner.
"Urgh, I hate talking with Conservatives/Liberals/Athiests/Christians" is kind of a common complaint around the internet. Once someone is in the frame of mind where they hate communicating with you, you have kind of lost your most useful method of changing their mind. I used to call myself an Objectivist; trust me when I say that other people under your label can be sufficiently obnoxious as to make it hard to argue your views.
My own tactic is to try and make debating me pleasant and enjoyable regardless of whether I'm winning or what the topic is. In my experience, this means people are much more willing to come back and let me have another go at changing their minds. Sometimes this involves putting tasty food in front of them while we talk, other times it involves complimenting the better made points they offer and thanking them for their time. Reward what you want more of [LW · GW]. Letting people tap out easily and without shame is one facet of that.
Given all that, what would I want tapping out to look like in a discussion among rationalists?
- Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept. Try to use the exact phrase "I'm tapping out" when you want to drop but let someone else drop or at least check if they seem like they're trying to drop a conversation or exit the discussion.
- Tapping out is good and should be lightly encouraged, not punished. Unless you are in some kind of competitive debate people should not feel like they are bad or have failed if they tap out with you. Ideally they feel good about having gotten in a bit of practice.
- A clearer distinction between practice, competition, and a fight, but tapping out is always allowed. Yes, even in the fights.
This seems to me like it formalizes tapping out slightly, so I'd like to take a moment to be clear. I am claiming that rules lawyering whether someone has or has not tapped out correctly is wrong and should feel wrong. If you are in a physical martial arts dojo with a classmate in an armlock, and they wave their hand almost like a tap out except they don't connect with you or they say "done done done" instead of "tap tap tap," so you keep going and hurt them? I predict your sensei will not be amused.
Accidents happen, and screwing up a discussion tap out seems like it does less harm than screwing up a physical tap out. Still. Don't take the written points as formal rules.
I'm not certain this is the right set of points to hit, and maybe commenters will suggest better ones. Certainly these points seem to me to be improvements on not having them, and easy enough to function as a rough social norm.
Areas of improvement!
In physical sparring, it's common to tap out, dust ourselves off, and then try again. Resets are a little easier physically. What would it mean to tap out of an argument, take a breath, and then restart? Do we each have to pretend we don't know what points the other person made? This feels like something lawyers might know how to do.
"Tapping out" is a pretty distinct phrase. We're unlikely to accidentally say those words in common conversation. Is it worth having a different, clearer ritual phrase? I don't currently think it's worth losing the analogy to martial arts tapping, but "tap tap tap" would be equally clear.
Since often the "points" at risk are the social views of onlookers, how do we make tapping out painless? If Adam and Bella are arguing, and Bella has a clear and concise refutation of every point Adam makes, I can't deny I am going to remember the convincing arguments even if Adam taps out.
Also, as with any rationalist technique I am interested in how to practice tapping out and train it. As an extra benefit, practicing with a group means that everyone has common knowledge. If you do a quick tapping out lesson with your regular rationalist meetup group, then you all know you all know how tapping out should work. In physical martial arts, the sensei goes over the basics with every new cohort.
Why did I write this?
I've often said that I love the idea of rationality as a martial art. That naturally gives rise to drawing comparisons between the two, and it's why I enjoy drilling rationalist techniques so much. This idea of "tapping out" is one of the clearest places rationalists borrow from martial arts traditions, and seeing it done wrong bothered me.
The specific impetus is a few instances where I've seen one person continue arguing with another, well past the point where it looked to me like the second person was trying to exit the conversation. Let me be blunt: If someone says that they are not enjoying a line of conversation and you keep going, then you are giving them negative reinforcement around talking to you.
I'm asking people to please stop doing this. As in the examples of political or religious sides above if you do it too much, especially under the aegis of rationality, people will reasonably decide that discussions with Rationalists are unpleasant and so they won't want to have more discussions like that. I don't think tapping out should depend on if they're wrong, just like I don't care if they weren't keeping their centre of gravity low or weren't guarding their left side. A weak guard in the ring means you can hit them, but I think you should stop hitting as soon as they indicate they're done.
Let people tap out. Praise good tapping technique and those who accept with grace.
I do not claim that I am an expert martial artist. I switched forms a lot, too many times to get very good in any one of them, and somewhere around the middle of college I lost the dedicated motivation I'd had and slowed from three to ten hours a week down to an hour or two. Still, in the process of switching so much I went to a lot of different gyms and dojos.
If you get into a shouting match with your crazy uncle at the Thanksgiving table, I believe it is to both of your benefits if one of you is allowed to say "I'm done, I'm going to go take a walk outside," leave, and come back later having cooled down. I wish the norm was that doing so cost no points and did not mean the person tapping out had lost the argument, because then more people would do it and fewer people would say things in the heat of anger.
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