OCTOBER 17, 2020
A FEW YEARS AGO, I was an adjunct instructor in an English department where my colleagues and I were not paid well. So a few of us organized labor meetings. While a lot of instructors showed up, other instructors did not. We learned that some of the instructors who didn’t attend the meetings were afraid, thinking they would be canned. In an email, we explained the reasons why it would be difficult for our higher-ups to replace us on a large scale. Among those reasons, we mentioned the skill and education threshold to our jobs.
Someone responded by accusing us of classism. They claimed that our email had suggested adjuncts and graduate students were better than workers off campus. Someone else chimed in to say they couldn’t associate themselves with the labor movement. They were taking the moral high ground by distancing themselves from the fight for fair pay. At the time, I thought these two people were provocateurs. They had never attended our meetings, and now they were accusing us of moral transgressions. Looking back, I think they could be classified as “grandstanders.”
According to philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke in their new book, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, this particular art form is “the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” It can be used in political campaigns to show that you are the right person for the job or in business to show that your corporation is ethical. As my own experience shows, it can be used in workplaces to show other workers that you really are a moral person, even if you have no interest in the moral issue at hand. In short, grandstanding occurs anytime someone uses “moral talk” to showcase their moral qualities. Tosi and Warmke’s book not only illuminates the nature of grandstanding, but it also offers a cogent argument against it.
For Tosi and Warmke, grandstanding has different expressions. These include “piling on,” “ramping up,” “trumping up,” “strong emotions,” and “dismissiveness.” The first expression, piling on, occurs when people enter moral discussions to contribute nothing more than a “Hell yeah!” or a “They’re wrong!” Put otherwise, they contribute nothing besides a proclamation of their moral agreement. These people are the foot soldiers of callout culture.
Ramping up is different. It denotes the moral arms race that occurs when people make increasingly strong moral claims to show how righteous they are. For example, after The Nation published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee in which he used “Black English,” the criticisms quickly outdid each other in moral fervor. First, there were those who said the poem used stereotypes. Then there were those who said the poem was white supremacist. Finally, there were those who said the poem was so “dangerous” that it needed to be retracted. Yes, The Nation was accused of publishing dangerous white supremacist poetry.
Whereas ramping up escalates the moral stakes of an issue, trumping up looks for moral transgressions where there are none. As the authors put it, “Just as a prosecutor might trump up false charges against a suspect, participants in moral discourse sometimes make spurious moral complaints.” For example, after former President Barack Obama saluted two Marines as he held a cup of coffee in his free hand (military decorum suggests against saluting while carrying an object), Karl Rove was outraged. In Rove’s eyes, Obama had disrespected America’s heroes. And if Americans didn’t see this coffee cup faux pas as a moral transgression, then they must not be as moral as Karl Rove.
Strong emotions are an additional feature of grandstanding culture. In the case of emotions, people express outrage to show the world where they stand. If you’re tweeting about how infuriated you are by the cultural appropriation of Indian food in your campus dining hall, you must be one of the good people. Likewise, if you’re slamming your keyboard because some teenager in Seattle spat on the American flag, you must be a real patriot. Among both liberals and conservatives, the display of strong emotions has become a central part of impression management.
Finally, grandstanders, according to Tosi and Warmke, “often bat away any suggestion of moral complexity, expression of doubt, or disagreement as revealing either an insensitivity to moral concerns or a lack of commitment to morality.” For these people, dismissiveness is a moral virtue. The immoral person will embrace conversation, debate, and even disagreement with the Other Side. But the moral person tips their nose at all this hokum. It is morally beneath them to listen to, much less consider the Other Side. The echo chamber is their safe space.
If grandstanding is as pervasive as Tosi and Warmke suggest it is, then we have a real problem on our hands. For starters, grandstanding fuels political polarization. On the one hand, it can lead to “intra-group polarization.” People change their views to impress those who have similar views. For example, let’s say my fellow activist proposes to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage. To boast my moral reputation in our activist group, I propose to fight for a $30/hour minimum wage. I also tell members of our group that any demand less than this is not a truly progressive demand. In the process, I will push members of our group to hold a stronger moral position on this issue, regardless of how pragmatic this position is.
On the other hand, grandstanding can contribute to “inter-group polarization.” In this manifestation, polarization occurs in response to another group’s views. For example, the right has shifted from a demand for more border control agents to a demand for a Great Wall. Accordingly, many on the left have shifted from a demand for immigration reform to a demand for open borders. If you’re a progressive who doesn’t support the stronger moral position, then, according to some, you must not be a real progressive.
This moral arms race doesn’t just escalate polarization between groups. It escalates ostracization inside of groups, as the grandstanders interlace their ramping up with piling on and dismissiveness. At the same time, their trumped-up search for ever smaller moral transgressions to be upset about makes their side of the political spectrum look even more extreme to the other side. Karl Rove’s coffee cup outrage and the disgruntled student in the campus dining hall are two sides of the same polarized coin.
The grandstanding that contributes to intra- and inter-group polarization is not wrong because it pushes people toward more extreme positions. Some positions, such as support for gay marriage, were once considered extreme. And activists had to trump up moral concern for this issue in order to gain political traction. Furthermore, ramping up and other behaviors are not wrong per se. Certainly, the environmental movement has benefited from ramping up its concern about carbon dioxide emissions, as it draws on the strong emotions of people who want to preserve the future of our planet. And I think the movement will be even more impactful if liberals piled on CEOs of oil companies like they piled on a poet who wrote a 14-line poem they disliked. Dismissiveness, however, is just obnoxious and politically useless.
That said, grandstanding is wrong because it is driven by misguided incentives. A desire to display moral righteousness is not a desire to seek truth. It is not a desire to pursue a political agenda that can actually be realized. And it is not a desire to create a robust public sphere where debates grounded in reason, evidence, and good faith disagreements triumph. Grandstanding is, as the title of Tosi and Warmke’s book puts it, the abuse of moral talk for selfish reasons.
According to Tosi and Warmke, it’s unhelpful to call people out for their grandstanding because it’s impossible to know what people’s motives are. You might think someone is condemning the subtle sexism in an old Snoop Dogg song to look good on Facebook, but you don’t know that for a fact. Instead, Tosi and Warmke encourage their readers to stop grandstanding themselves, to not “like” social media posts that look like grandstanding, to spend less time on social media, to educate others about the social costs of grandstanding, and to focus on the truth when grandstanders try to cover up their immoral behavior with grandstanding. For example, when an accused Harvey Weinstein prattles about his donations to scholarship funds for women directors at USC, people should stay focused on the crimes he committed against women.
The latter part of Tosi and Warmke’s book reads a lot like a self-help manual for people who want a more robust and civil public sphere. Just as I don’t think Jeff Bezos will pick up How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century by Erik Olin Wright, I don’t think the grandstanders will pick up Grandstanding.
Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I think there needs to be real sanctions for people who use piling on, ramping up, trumping up, strong emotions, and dismissiveness in ways that are wrongheaded. Of course, what is wrongheaded is a subjective matter, which is why more people need to discuss and debate the concrete manifestations of these behaviors. Otherwise, people will continue to abuse the tools that can, in some contexts, be useful tools for building a more just world. These points aside, Grandstanding is a lucid field guide to and persuasive case against the abuse of moral talk.
Adam Szetela is a writer who splits his time between Ithaca, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts. His website is Adam-Szetela.com.