It seems to me that this desire to publicly signal your loyalty to the right side – to show that you’re “one of the good guys” – underlies a huge proportion of the social, political, religious, and moral action going on in the world today. No doubt, a lot of it is also driven by a genuine desire to do good, to serve truth, and to promote the causes of virtue and justice for their own sake. When we decide to pledge our loyalty to one ideological side over another, these kinds of noble motives really can be key factors in determining which side we end up taking. But I think it’d be naïve to believe that they’re the only factors motivating our behavior; things like social status and the desire for prestige are almost always playing a role at some level as well. It’s not always enough just to be on the good side fighting the good fight; at a subconscious level, we also want others to see that we’re doing so. Here’s Alexander again:
It seems likely that everyone in politics is being a bit self-deceptive – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads Robin Hanson. Most people discuss political ideas not in order to help other people, but in order to signal how concerned and intelligent they are, or as part of group bonding rituals. Otherwise they wouldn’t be posting “I HATE ABORTION SO MUCH” on Facebook to see how many “likes” they can get, they’d be out canvassing door-to-door or (even better) just working overtime at their job to donate money to anti-abortion charities without ever mentioning it to anyone. Certainly the average person who puts an “Abortion Stops A Beating Heart” bumper sticker on their car isn’t doing it because they have theory by which their action later results in babies being saved (or women being oppressed, or anything at all happening in the external world). I can even notice this sort of process happening in my own head in real time when I think about efficient charity.
Yet all of these actions manifest on a conscious level as being genuinely concerned about the issue I’m talking about, or putting up a bumper sticker about, or donating money to.
So we have a model of the brain that includes at least two levels: a surface honest level, where you really care about fetuses, and a deep signaling level, where you just want to impress the other people in your church and signal to yourself that you are a compassionate caring person.
This seems to have become especially true in the age of social media. A few generations ago, you might have had a few scattered opportunities to signal your ideological loyalties throughout a typical day – maybe (say) chatting with your spouse over the morning newspaper, or sharing opinions with co-workers over after-work drinks – but it wasn’t nearly the kind of mass social experience it is today, where every news story is accompanied by a flood of millions of people weighing in with their opinions simultaneously, and where posting one punchy quip can earn you thousands of likes from friends and strangers alike. In this modern environment, being engaged with the big issues is no longer just about privately holding the right opinions or voting for the right people; as Geoffrey Miller puts it, the name of the game nowadays is “ideological self-advertisement.” If you go out of your way to be conspicuously vocal with your religious or political beliefs online, it can serve as a badge of commitment to your side, and as a way of making sure your declarations of principle are always at the center of everyone’s attention, in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you were just discussing your ideas the old-fashioned way. Having a public platform can amplify your feelings of self-importance – and accordingly, it can make you want to weigh in on every topic, even the ones you don’t particularly know much about, just so you can be seen to have weighed in on them.
The sense of satisfaction that comes with signaling your commitment to the good side – and the positive feedback you get from others as a result – can feel so rewarding that it can become an end in itself. You may have everyone (including yourself) convinced that the ideas and issues themselves are all that you really care about – but at some level, your outspokenness may be coming more from a place of just wanting to participate in the conversation and “show your stuff” intellectually. According to Simler and Hanson, that’s how a lot of ideological activism is these days – it’s not really so much about producing actual changes in the system, as it claims to be; it’s more like an act of consumption by its participants, a way of indulging themselves by giving the world a piece of their mind while simultaneously being able to congratulate themselves for their civic-mindedness. As Wong writes:
Last year’s controversies are boring. Do we still have troops in Afghanistan? Is Flint’s water safe to drink? Did the DACA thing get resolved? What happened with all of those refugees that used to be in the news every day?
It doesn’t matter. We’ve moved on to the next [topic], because many of us aren’t doing this to save the world – we’re doing it to keep ourselves entertained. Up-vote the stuff we disagree with, snark at the stuff we don’t, watch the Likes accumulate, and convince ourselves we won. It’s all game, something to kill time.
And Ezra Klein echoes this sentiment:
There is a danger […] that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand.
This isn’t necessarily limited to people’s behaviors on social media, either. Alexander notices how this kind of mentality can become prevalent not just in the online world, but in real-life contexts as well, including a lot of the mass political demonstrations that have made the news recently:
One thing that did strike me was this tweet about [how things like political demands and threats to power have been supplanted by a] focus on funny signs and who had the best costume. It seems to me that if we were protesting something genuinely awful (like a genocide abroad), we wouldn’t wear silly costumes and funny signs. Does that mean that a decision to go ahead with the signs and costumes reflects some kind of subconscious feeling that this isn’t really that bad, or a motivation springing from something other than true outrage?
John McWhorter makes the critique even more sharply, alluding to the pragmatism of the early Civil Rights movement for contrast:
[Regarding certain modern forms of mass protest,] what began as concrete activism aimed at getting justice devolved into abstract gestures unconcerned with justice. […] Many today genuinely think that the gestures are activism.
In the 1960s, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin was dismayed by a new breed of separatist black leaders. They shunned concrete, proactive lobbying and careful rhetorical suasion, instead preferring high-profile altercations, preferably involving getting arrested. In 1963, Rustin counseled the increasingly radicalized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that “the ability to go to jail should not be substituted for an overall social reform program.” In Rustin’s eyes, these scenes were ultimately, as he put it, “gimmicks.” The typical demonstration often had “no relation to the fundamental question of how to get rid of discrimination” and was just “an end in itself.” In other words, Rustin was watching activism devolve into mere gesture.
Philosophical writer Lee Harris recalls a friend who joined a disruptive protest against the Vietnam War involving laying down in front of cars crossing a bridge. The friend was openly unconcerned with whether it would help lead to America’s withdrawing from the conflict, participating instead because it would be “good for his soul”:
He had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were merely there as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private political psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve but rather in their symbolic value as ritual.
And Nathan Heller drives the point home:
In “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work” (Verso), a book published in 2015, then updated and reissued this past year for reasons likely to be clear to anyone who has opened a newspaper, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams question the power of marches, protests, and other acts of what they call “folk politics.” These methods, they say, are more habit than solution. Protest is too fleeting. It ignores the structural nature of problems in a modern world. “The folk-political injunction is to reduce complexity down to a human scale,” they write. This impulse promotes authenticity-mongering, reasoning through individual stories (also a journalistic tic), and a general inability to think systemically about change. In the immediate sense, a movement such as Occupy wilted because police in riot gear chased protesters out of their spaces. But, really, the authors insist, its methods sank it from the start by channelling the righteous sentiments of those involved over the mechanisms of real progress.
“This is politics transmitted into pastime – politics-as-drug-experience, perhaps – rather than anything capable of transforming society,” Srnicek and Williams write. “If we look at the protests today as an exercise in public awareness, they appear to have had mixed success at best. Their messages are mangled by an unsympathetic media smitten by images of property destruction – assuming that the media even acknowledges a form of contention that has become increasingly repetitive and boring.”
As Mark Lilla puts it, such activism “is largely expressive, not persuasive.” It isn’t so much concerned with accomplishing its stated socio-political goals, but more with providing a cathartic outlet for its participants to proclaim their opinions in a public forum, and to get some measure of recognition for doing so. If these actions actually were to accomplish their participants’ stated socio-political goals, of course, then so much the better; but if that were the main objective, it’s unlikely that these public demonstrations would take the form that they do. At best, the most charitable way to describe them is to say that they’re purely symbolic. Another term sometimes used to describe this kind of behavior, though, is “recreational outrage” – which may sound like an oxymoron, but I think accurately encapsulates a real phenomenon.
(An even more derisive way of describing this behavior is to dismiss it as little more than a form of glorified LARPing (live action role-playing). It has become increasingly common for liberals to say that pro-gun activists are just “playing soldier” when they openly carry their weapons and strut around like badasses, and for conservatives to say that social justice activists are just acting out an imaginary role as modern-day civil rights heroes when they endlessly indulge in overdramatic speeches and demonstrations, and so on. A lot of these accusations are unfair (and often only serve to make things worse when leveled as open criticisms). But sometimes there can actually be a kernel of truth to them. As Gwern Branwen writes, there’s a good case to be made that even the most extreme ideologues – like jihadists – are often driven not so much by a genuine feeling of necessity as by the personal thrill of fighting for their cause; they often seem to be playing “fantasy jihad” (as a means of socialization and status-seeking among themselves) more than anything else.)
Now, obviously, none of this is to say that ideological outrage can never be justifiable. If the things you’re protesting against really are outrageous, then what further reason do you need to justify being outraged in response? Nor is it to say that mass protest can never be a productive reaction to that outrage. When mass protest is actually well-targeted, it can be a genuinely effective way of drawing people’s attention to issues and incidents they might otherwise have overlooked; and if it’s part of a broader effort that includes real, concrete follow-up measures, it can (if nothing else) help disincentivize whatever’s being protested against by showing what significant backlash it will create if it continues to happen (in terms of electoral outcomes and so on).
Still though, when these positive factors aren’t entirely present, it can be hard to differentiate between protesting in a way that actually makes a positive impact, and merely telling yourself that you’re making a positive impact as an excuse to go out and protest. And it can be equally hard to disentangle genuine outrage from the kind geared more toward group signaling – because after all, visible outrage really is a highly effective signaling tool. One of the best ways to demonstrate your virtue and your commitment to the side of good is to make it clear that the issues at hand are more than mere intellectual abstractions to you – they affect you on a deep emotional level. To you, these problems aren’t just practical matters to be addressed through logic and pragmatism – you take them personally. The more outrage you’re able to muster toward any given issue, then, the more it conveys the message that you care about that issue. And if the issue is one of significant social, moral, or religious importance, then that can only mean that you must be all the more noble and admirable for being so deeply invested in such a worthy cause.
That feeling, that jolt of self-righteousness that comes with ideological outrage, can be invigorating and even empowering. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, as commenter 8footpenguin relates:
Maybe this is kind of a silly example, but it’s what came to mind. I remember watching movies like Remember the Titans and you get all these really warm feelings when the black and white kids start to bond, and when the white players show deference and respect to a black coach. When the context is this very ugly sort of background environment and you see the contrast of people becoming virtuous and bonding together, it’s a powerful emotion. However, there is also this – somewhat perverse – feeling I’ll admit to having that you almost wish you’d find yourself in such a situation so you could be part of this kind of virtuous, admirable thing.
It’s not unlike the feeling I had watching Band of Brothers like “Damn, I’ll never do anything as heroic and romantic and just staggeringly awesome as these guys parachuting in on D-Day.” It’s a little uncomfortable to realize your actions and life are just kind of mundane by comparison.
I think when we’re college aged we’re especially vulnerable to these kinds of pretensions and this desire to distinguish ourselves and take part in grand admirable things.
I think overall these are good qualities. Surely a huge part of human success is our deep, unborn admiration for altruism, virtue and sacrifice and the corresponding desire to exemplify those traits.
I’ve been guilty of throwing around the phrase virtue-signaling, but I think now that’s not really fair. I don’t think people are cynically wanting to appear virtuous. I think they truly want to be virtuous, which is a good thing. But we should be driven, ultimately, by a practical sense of doing good, effective work regardless of whether or not it requires any impressive acts of virtue.
Like I said before, it is undoubtedly admirable to fight for a righteous cause. But the fact that you know you’re fighting for a righteous cause, and are consciously aware of the nobility of your actions, can complicate things, as David Brin discusses:
I want to zoom down to a particular emotional and psychological pathology. The phenomenon known as self-righteous indignation.
We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported – even promulgated – by messages in mass media.
While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even… well… addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.
Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover, as Westin et.al. have found, this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology. (I discuss this general effect in The Transparent Society.)
Indeed, one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad modern problems. It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current “culture war.”
Dagny echoes these sentiments, again recounting her experience as part of an ideological movement based largely on outrage:
High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. Actions that would otherwise seem extreme and crazy become natural and expected. I didn’t think twice about doing a lot of things I would never do today.
And this is the real problem – once you’ve made your mind up that your level of visible outrage is a symbolic badge representing your level of commitment to your cause, the natural conclusion of this logic is that you therefore need to maximize your level of anger, to show everyone that you are the most outraged, dammit. You need to show that you are willing to stop at nothing to achieve your aims, because they really are that important to you. And if anyone disagrees with you, well then, this just means they are an enemy of the good, and must be vanquished.
After all, that’s the other thing about being part of a group; if you want to feel like you’re part of a special club, it’s not enough simply that you be included – others have to be excluded. You can’t have an in-group without having an out-group; and you can’t consider yourself a hero unless you have a villain to fight against. As Mason explains:
In order to have society, you have to have some reason for membership. There have to be some rules for being a part of a group of people, and if you’re part of a group of people, that group has to have boundaries. If it doesn’t have boundaries then you’re not really a group; you’re just everybody. And there’s a scholar, Marilyn Brewer, who basically defined this by saying we have a psychological need for both inclusion and exclusion. So, we need to feel that we are part of something, but we also need to feel that not anybody can be part of it in order for us to feel important ourselves. We need to feel like we’re included in some group, and that there are outsiders. There are some people that don’t get in.