I like most of the books I read, it is just that many of them are not for the average person. I read a lot of history and classical fiction, for example, and I know many people would not be interested in such books. But I just finished a book that is so good, so important, so relevant, that I think everyone should read it.
The book is entitled “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk” by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke. It came out in July of this year so your bookstores and online sellers should have it. Hopefully so many people are reading this important book that stores cannot keep it on the shelves. Here is the gist:
“We call people terrible names in conversation or online. We vilify those with whom we disagree and make bolder claims than we could defend. We want to be seen as taking the moral high ground not just to make a point, or move a debate forward, but to look a certain way —incensed, or compassionate, or committed to a cause. We exaggerate. In other words, we grandstand.”
According to the authors, much of our public discourse is so awful because it “consists of moral grandstanding — roughly, the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” It is closely related to another parasitic tactic, virtue signaling, or the act of telling others how great you are.
One grandstander confessed, “Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts and thumbs-up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation.”
The authors argue that grandstanding is nothing new. It has been going on since Romans expressed their moral superiority over Carthaginians. But the modern world of social media has aggravated it since it gives voice to those who would not have had one in the past. It creates a platform where anyone can express their moral righteousness or denounce others as wicked and connect them with thousands or even millions of listeners. Combining grandstanding with social media has produced such sewage as: “I’m so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m really not sad about a 2-year-old being eaten by a gator.” We would be shocked to hear that kind of thing coming out of the mouths of children, yet we tolerate it or worse, laugh at it when it is uttered by an adult or a late night talk show host.
One woman who took to social media to complain about the portrayal of women in video games received such feedback as: “How about you get cancer” and “Just putting it out there, you deserve all the death threats you are getting.” Most of us would never say such things face to face, but the anonymity and safety of social media dares us to be more abrasive, more aggressive. It opens the door for the darkest parts of our personalities, parts that are normally kept in check by accountability and human decency.
The authors believe, and I agree, that this is not just rude, it is dangerous. What happens to a society that lets all their monsters out? What happens to a people when we lash out at each other without fear of recourse?
One of my favorite lines from the book is, “Few biases in human judgment are easier to demonstrate than self-righteousness, the tendency to believe you are more moral than others.” The book is full of gems like that, designed to make a point but also make you think. Like much good writing, the book stimulates the reader to rethink themselves and make changes. After you have read about piling on, ramping up, trumping up, displays of strong emotions and dismissiveness, let’s talk about it. Just try to avoid the grandstanding.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.