By Alexandre Leskanich
Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk
Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke, Oxford University Press, 2020
Most of us want to be moral. Even more of us want to be perceived as moral. In fact, some people want to appear moral more than they want to be moral: they would rather say moral things than do them. Some even equate saying moral things with being moral people. Chiding others for their immorality, for their impurity of moral opinion, is a popular way to signal one’s superior moral standing to a like-minded community. The authors of Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, think they’ve hit upon something important concerning what’s gone wrong with our public moral discourse. Moral talk, they emphasise, is a Good Thing. Yet ‘much of our discourse’, they lament, ‘is so awful because it consists of moral grandstanding—roughly, the use of moral talk for self-promotion’. In other words: ‘to grandstand is to turn your moral talk into a vanity project. Grandstanders are moral showboaters trying to impress others with their moral credentials’. ‘Invested in impressing others’, grandstanders intentionally disguise their self-indulgence through indirect language. Usually, they’ll imply there’s something moral about themselves rather than coming out and saying so.
When you talk about rights, respect, responsibility, justice, and dignity—that’s moral talk. When you refer to ideas, policies, or people as right or wrong, good or bad, that’s also moral talk. When you frame a person’s behaviour in terms of what it deserves, or when you express your emotions in the face of what someone has said or done (admiration, praise, condemnation, disgust), that’s moral talk too. Moral talk is, then, ‘a powerful and important social tool for making ourselves, our neighbors, and our world better’. At its best, it can persuade others to consider an issue in a way which heightens their sensitivity to moral concerns. You might expect, given its influence, that moral talk would be carefully used. But people are often irresponsible in their use of it; ‘co-opting it for inappropriate purposes’, weaponising it to ‘humiliate, intimidate, and threaten people they dislike’, ‘impress their friends’, and ‘feel better about themselves’.
Written in clear, simple sentences devoid of jargon or stylistic flourishes—not a gripping read, but certainly an instructive one—this book concedes that grandstanding is hardly new. But social media has, these philosophers suggest, increased the ability of grandstanders to display their moral credentials to a wider audience. People are consequently excoriated, expelled, and expunged for expressing unpopular opinions. It’s now easier than ever ‘to find and consume moral and political discussion’, which in turn makes it simple to ‘monitor and harass people with whom you disagree’. To this extent, it’s harder to avoid grandstanders these days because most people are online in some capacity. The fact that people might not care about what you have to say—that you might be ignored entirely—goes some way towards explaining why the content of our moral talk as it appears online has become increasingly divisive and accusatory. There are so many people out there to compete with, particularly those who capture more cognitive attention than you do. To compensate, and going by example, grandstanders suppose that being moral has something to do with saying virtuous things at another’s expense, or puffing oneself up in order to put others down.
The result is an environment chock-full of fervid grandstanders looking for a moral hill to die on. Perhaps inevitably, the authors reference academics falling foul of ‘the latest ideological trends’, and becoming enveloped in ‘the wrath of an attention-seeking mob’. They give examples of resentful and disparaging ‘moral’ talk from Twitter: for instance, someone remarking that victims of the Las Vegas concert massacre in 2017 were probably gun owners themselves, and so he had little room for sympathy. There are countless instances of online harassment directed towards both prominent and marginal figures in our fetid, over-excitable digital landscape. Politicians and journalists are plagued by death threats, threats of physical and sexual assault, and racial hatred. Bigotry and prejudice are swiftly and efficiently relayed to their intended target. And if they wish, people can hide behind false usernames, allowing them to freely dispense their displeasure.
In being designed to disperse a cacophony of half-baked thoughts and feelings, social media becomes a giant megaphone for the amplification of outrage, a medium through which grandstanders can showcase their possession of moral principles. Focused on their self-aggrandisement in order, perhaps, to overcome their personal insecurities, grandstanders afford themselves a degree of moral latitude that they refuse to countenance in others. Through public displays of virtue, they compete for—or at least seek out—the attention of others in order to earn ‘tokens’ of approval or recognition. A Facebook ‘like’ seems meagre recompense for sullying our moral talk, but it provides an explanatory or at least motivating factor for its coarsening, the herd-like recourse to ridicule and shaming.
Ironically, this sort of behaviour would not be tolerated in children. Most teachers and parents go out of their way to inculcate virtues conducive to social cohesion, like respect and empathy. In other words, we discipline children to avoid the antisocial behaviour to which they are sometimes prone. ‘We don’t allow our children to mock, shame, or gang up on others,’ Tosi and Warmke point out, ‘but if we mock, shame or gang up on people who express moral views that we find offensive, that’s different’. In other words, because we think their views immoral, we feel free to tell them so; to use language not in order to engage with them, but to shut them down, or up—anything so we don’t have to hear or see them anymore.
The authors imagine a naïve defence of this toxic playground: ‘if you really care about what is right and wrong, then it shouldn’t bother you that moral talk is rough. If someone expresses moral views that offend you, it is fair game to tell them in no uncertain terms that they are despicable. That’s just public moral discourse’. This is the ‘get over it, toughen up’ line of argument. Apparently, there’s something so important about our moral talk that we—because we’re moral—give ourselves a free pass to talk however way we wish. But where it predominates, the abuse of moral talk ends up disaffecting people: its nastiness dissuades them from participating in any moral talk whatsoever. So, in either persuading people to opt-out altogether, or to coarsen their language in order to be noticed, the abuse of moral talk, being based on the belittlement of others, is destructive of civil discourse. That it is consequently ineffective at advancing moral outcomes is unsurprising: incivility makes people dislike you; abuse is unpersuasive. If someone anticipates—and receives—only ridicule, there’s little chance of changing their mind. Whether you have a good moral principle to defend or promote is irrelevant if you can’t politely communicate it to those of an opposing view.
Frustratingly, people often don’t recognise, or refuse to recognise, that behaving like this isn’t morally admirable. Rather, they implicitly think ‘moral talk is magic’: they imagine that employing noble terms like ‘dignity’ and ‘equality’ while hectoring people ‘magically transforms your nasty, abusive, selfish behaviour into something heroic and praiseworthy’. In fact, they do these terms a disservice: ‘we do not have free rein to treat others badly simply because we are invoking sacred words’; ‘being morally outspoken is not in itself an achievement’. Because the point of moral talk is to make life better, not just any sort of moral talk will do. It matters what kind of moral talk you decide to engage in. If you think moral talk is about promoting yourself instead of the morals you profess, you’ve missed the point. If we’re trying to promote ourselves by demoting others, we’re not doing good, we’re just trying to look good.
As this book shows, we are not mere consumers of media, constantly subjected to the unfiltered opinions of others, but are increasingly active participants in an ecology of information (and, regrettably, disinformation) that has become integral to how and in what ways we perceive the world. We have ample opportunity to influence the moral thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of others. We exhibit a considerable degree of autonomy in terms of who we want to read and listen to. We are hardly exempt, therefore, from ensuring our moral talk is constructive. Our manner of saying what we want to say matters, as does the intention behind saying it. It defeats the point of moral talk to use it to further our own egotistical ends.
Some might ask, however: isn’t self-promotion a ubiquitous and rational feature of the competitive marketplace in which we are expected to ‘outperform’ other people? Don’t we have to play this game of one-upmanship, and learn the art of the pithy put-down? But what is accomplished, precisely, if I call Boris Johnson a conceited fopdoodle, a vainglorious dissembler, or a shifty, slothful, philandering ‘spaffer’—a man who has variously described human beings as ‘turds’, ‘letterboxes’, and ‘picaninnies’—even if that is what he is? Unfortunately, nothing is improved, morally speaking, by describing anyone in these terms, and certainly not Johnson himself. There’s nothing morally edifying in the diminishment of people different to oneself, however distasteful they may be. In fact, the use of moral language to malign others in order to gain the applause of the moment is deleterious of our ability to meaningfully talk in moral terms. The resulting rancour and fatigue make for bad moral judgements. A lack of charity towards others limits the capacity of our moral talk to make positive change a reality; it fails to convince either ourselves or others to extend our moral horizons. Instead, people are constantly on their guard, distrustful and suspicious. In this sense, grandstanding, Tosi and Warmke argue, is detrimental to compromise: it deepens rifts in moral thinking by disabling the social conditions (for example, courtesy and mutual care) which might make agreement possible. This is what they call the ‘No Compromise Problem’. Through both ‘in-group appeals’ and ‘out-group attacks’, grandstanding prevents any repair of the deplorable divisions it creates.
This is bad news for politics, which has become a supercharged ‘morality pageant’ in which character trumps policy. Evidence shows that people rarely have much, if any, knowledge of policy positions, so they default to who appears the ‘better’ candidate. This ingrains grandstanding as a technique essential to the attainment of political power. Want to get elected? Seem competent. Look powerful. Make people like you. Politicians hence grandstand more than most, having ‘more incentives’ to do so. It’s no surprise that mountebanks and narcissists are perfectly adapted to this environment. It encourages the proliferation of deceit as politicians vie to look better than their opponents. We can thus anticipate, in the contest between Biden and Trump, the sort of wearisome grandstanding that will pitch two politicians with a tenuous grasp on the truth against each other; both willing, as the record shows, to bend or ignore reality to suit the occasion. So, there’s the man who lied about how well he did at university, about being a civil rights activist, and about being against the war in Iraq (among many other lies) versus a walking falsehood who averaged a mind-blowing twenty-two lies per day in 2019. We know why they do it—it works. And if anyone bothers to check the record, people are so ideologically riven it will hardly matter anyway.
What can we do about any of this? Clearly, we should look first to our own behaviour. But the authors also suggest we sanction grandstanders by withholding praise, or by calling them out publicly for the self-promotion they are trying to conceal. Ultimately, don’t ‘give people credit for their attention-seeking’. Eventually, if enough people get the message that grandstanding ‘doesn’t pay’, it might wither away altogether. These seem the only options, short of an unprecedented outbreak of soul-searching. Yet just as people badly overestimate how much they know or understand, they are similarly overgenerous judges of their own virtue. Overly reliant on external recognition, we may find it difficult to persuade grandstanders that their need for attention could be mollified using less socially damaging means. For that would require a degree of modesty the grandstander is unlikely to possess. As Montaigne wisely observed, ‘vices generally cling together and become interlocked in anyone who is not on his guard’.
Art by Ollie Cowley