Tapestry

'It makes the world worse': Why grandstanding is better ignored and avoided

Philosopher Brandon Warmke is getting on a podium in hopes you might step off yours. Warmke believes that grandstanding is a moral issue, one that makes conversations worse and can tear people apart.

Philosopher Brandon Warmke is getting on a podium in hopes you might step off yours.

Brandon Warmke, an assistant professor at Bowling Spring State University, says that the tendency for grandstanding isn't a political issue - it's a human one. (Submitted by Brandon Warmke.)

There was a time when Brandon Warmke used to get into fights on social media, which as a philosopher and assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, was potentially not his best look. 

His brother, also a philosopher, sent him a message one day, offering some advice: "You might want to tone it down."

"I realized there's more, there's more important things in life than being a Facebook war hero, or a Twitter war hero," said Warmke.

Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk is published by Oxford University Press. ( Oxford University Press)

Warmke's learned his lesson now and, along with co-author Justin Tosi, he's put together a book on avoiding the pratfalls of the social media stage, called Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. 

In his book, he argues that there's a fine line between fighting for what you believe in and simple attention seeking. The former is necessary for progress, for justice and for democracy, but the latter, Warmke believes, can be destructive for those exact same ideals. 

Warmke joined Tapestry host Mary Hynes to discuss the morality of standing on a podium and hoping people will see you as a moral authority.

I want to quote you here, "Grandstanding is worse than being annoying. It is usually morally bad and should generally be avoided." How is grandstanding morally bad?

One way that something can be bad is by having bad consequences. It harms people. It makes the world worse. It increases polarization. It pushes us further apart and makes us hate each other more and increases cynicism. When you see people engaging in public discourse, just to show off, just to make themselves look good. We all start to think of moral discourse as a kind of nasty, unhelpful project and that's bad. 

We also argue that it has the effect of what we call outrage exhaustion. When everything on Twitter and Facebook makes you angry, you make other people think that you're really sensitive because you're angry all the time and outraged, that devalues the currency of outrage. It makes [outrage] harder to muster when it's really appropriate, and it devalues the signal. It's a bit of a crying wolf problem. 

But we also argued that grandstanding is disrespectful. So when you see social media piling on, using people to make yourself look good, that's just not respectful. And then we also argue that as many moral philosophers pointed out, it's important to be virtuous. And a grandstander is typically not acting virtuously. They're privileging themselves over others. They're treating public discourse as a way to, to egotistically seek status. And as Nietzsche would point out, this is just not what's what morality is for. That's a pretty pathetic use of morality. So for all those reasons we go into in the book, we think that there's a strong presumption against grandstanding, it's just not a good way of treating public discourse. And it's not a morally admirable way of treating other people.

You've written that this isn't something that happens purely on the left or on the right. Politically speaking, this is not a partisan thing. It's a human thing. So what are some of the human reasons people are so tempted to engage in grandstanding? 

One of the most basic fundamental human desires is for status. We are highly social creatures. And one way to get social status is by being seen as a very moral person. It gives you social credit. It allows you to boss people around or blame people. And so a lot of people in an attempt to seek status, thinking that they are morally better than average, engage in public discourse as a way to make themselves look enlightened. 

Psychologists tell us there's two primary ways to get status. One is through prestige, and one is through dominance. What grandstanders do when they're seeking prestige is they want to be seen as a moral exemplar, a moral angel, they want to be deferred to in public discourse. They want to be asked what they think about things. 

Grandstanding for dominance is a bit darker and grandstanding for dominance is really the nasty stuff you see online. Often it's people pushing other people down and embarrassing them, shaming them in order to lift themselves up and make themselves look good morally. And as you pointed out, you know, what we found in a lot of our studies is that grandstanding is not a partisan phenomenon. I think in much of the West, that it's the political left, who's sort of accused of grandstanding more than the right but that's not what we found. The left and the right are equally liable to grandstand.

There's this idea of virtue signaling. The phrase is often used to mock any kind of concern for fairness and for justice. How do you make your case against grandstanding without dumping on people who are speaking up because of a genuine moral concern?

So you're absolutely right, that we do not want people going around accusing people of grandstanding. You know, a lot of people when they read the book or when they read some of our work, the first question they ask is, "How do I identify grandstanders so I can call them out?" Our first response is, "That's not what public discourses is about." It's very hard to tell for certain whether someone's grandstanding. It's going to be unfair to criticize them. It's also just going to be unproductive to just accuse someone of grandstanding. I mean, I say, "Mary, stop your grandstanding." And you say, "Brandon, you're grandstanding by calling me grandstanding." And then we're locked into this never-ending argument about what's in my heart and what's in your heart, it's not going to be productive. 

What we suggest in the book is really two things. One is to turn our moral gaze away from others, and onto ourselves. Our aim should not be correcting other people's behavior, but looking at our own and trying to try to improve our own character. But there is this sort of social aspect of grandstanding, and our view is that you shouldn't try to sanction or punish or call out grandstanders. Instead you should ignore them. If you see something that looks like a self-serving social media post, it's not going to do anyone harm to ignore it. 

If I craft this long, detailed post about how much I care about the American flag, and anyone who disagrees with me should be put in jail. If no one likes that post, for most of us, that's embarrassing. And we think that the goal, the goal should be to slowly change our norms, around how we engage each other in social media. It's a very new technology, and we're all trying to figure out how this works. And those are safe, effective ways of changing the norms that don't undermine really important moral conversations that we need to be having.

Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.

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