Why We ‘Grandstand’ and Why It Matters

17 Nov, 2020


Why We ‘Grandstand’ and Why It Matters

November 2020

Sick to death of virtue signaling? Do you sometimes wonder why it seems so prevalent these days ? In Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, two professors of philosophy — Justin Tosi at Texas Tech University and Brandon Warmke of Bowling Green State University — help explain this often-irritating phenomenon and even offer some suggestions for getting past it. The answers below are Tosi’s.

You make a distinction between virtue signaling and what you call grandstanding. So what’s the difference?

We see grandstanding as a subset of virtue signaling. Maybe it is a fine distinction, and we can see why the two are alike. But we have nothing against virtue signaling, if you define it as we do, even if that isn’t how the general public sees it. Virtue signaling is simply saying or doing something that others might or might not observe and conclude from that observation something about a person’s values. In that case, it really doesn’t matter if the person is saying or doing these things consciously or not. But grandstanding is when you do or say something for the very purpose of impressing others with how righteous you are. Virtue signaling doesn’t have to be self-conscious or “performative.” We normally tend to phrase things in a way that will make us more attractive to others, especially when we are discussing things about which there might be some disagreement.

Unless we are just trying to be provocative and start an argument?

Probably, and the problem is that grandstanding as we define it has social costs. It can lead to the disrespectful behavior you seem to have in mind. Internet pile-ons, which are really disrespectful, are like that. Another cost is that grandstanding increases political polarization. It can result in a kind of moral arms race. If people are eager to stand out and look more noble than others, they tend to embrace increasingly extreme views.

An example?

You can begin calling for reforming the police, and then advance to “defunding” the police, to saying there should be no police at all. And looking enlightened in this way can lead us to advocate positions that don’t really help the people we think we are trying to help.

But you say it imposes other social costs, too, right?

Yes, because this moral arms race makes people cynical about all talk about moral values. When so many people talk this way, it makes others distrust all talk about important moral questions.

Why is this such a concern today? Why do people seem so eager to engage in this “moral arms race”?

It’s really not a new thing. But there are explanations for it that can be found in the field of social psychology. First, we are hard-wired to be self-enhancers.

Meaning what?

It’s a complicated thing to explain, but whenever people in studies are asked to rate themselves in terms of some complimentary attribute — let’s say kindness — they invariably rate themselves as “above average.” But when you show them that virtually everybody else in the study rated themselves as “above average,” too, they say, “Well, I’m better than that!”

So they say they are even better than themselves?

Exactly, and it is called the Better Than Myself Effect.

What else?

Second, we make social comparisons. We want to see ourselves as better than others. But third, we are “impression managers.” We don’t want to be seen as racists or Nazis or whatever, so we pay attention to these images of ourselves. And there’s one other factor that makes it harder than it used to be to avoid seeing others engaging in these activities.

And that is?

Social media. And it’s easier than ever, because of social media, to do it ourselves.

So how do we get out of this mess?

A good question, because what people usually ask is how we can know when someone is grandstanding and then how can we slap them down for it. And that — of course — is another form of grandstanding. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way out of it, except maybe to develop a social norm that sees grandstanding as embarrassing. I wish it were simpler than that, but it’s not.

Reach Tosi at 480.415.5279 or  justintosi@gmail.com.

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