Culture

REVIEW: ‘Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk’ by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke

Getty Images

One of the basic premises of Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk is that our ability to give a damn about moralizing claims is a sort of "scarce resource." So using moral claims to try to accomplish things has diminishing returns, suggest authors Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke in this timely and sharp new work bridging philosophy with online culture.

Look at this sentence from a New York magazine story airing the drama inside a progressive journalist email group: "Please for the love of all the babies, stop telling people how to process their own oppression and the offense that comes alongside it." Grandstanding is about the rhetorical and social dynamics that would make someone think writing that shriek of a nonargument is a good idea. While they are philosophers, Tosi and Warmke use as much research psychology as they do ethical theorizing, which keeps the book grounded—because the ways that grandstanding makes the world a worse place are not just theoretical.

These days, we're running very low on giving-of-a-damn. Our shared societal tank of damn-giving is exhausted by people who resort to moralistic claims over irrelevancies. People today are doing a lot of grandstanding, using high stakes moral language that's really just intended to "try to make themselves look good." The problem isn't just that it's a false, vain way of communicating. It's antisocial behavior. If almost every single car were using giant smoke-belching engines for simple grocery runs because people think it makes them look cool, we'd be choking on thick, acrid air. And that's what we have with our verbal environment, a sort of rhetorical pollution crisis. "By debasing moral talk, we render it a less useful tool for accomplishing aims more important than the promotion of reputation."

Examples abound. "Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger," tweeted much of the staff of the New York Times in early June alongside a screenshot of a Times opinion section op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.). Cotton's piece urged the use of troops to quell violent protests across the country.

But it's unlikely the people tweeting this really believed not only that Cotton's piece was a Trojan horse for a fascist takeover of America, but also that the senator's proposed takeover was contingent on whether it ran in the Times or some other paper. (Cotton does have the president's cellphone number.) If the constitutional order of the republic fell in an orgy of fascistic violence consuming the human rights of more than 320 million citizens, a judicious moral thinker might say there would be problems bigger than whether the distribution of state violence is racially proportionate. But if your aim is to show your exquisite virtue by signaling concern about Republican racism, then you might say your first worry is the danger posed to a subset of the 4,500 employees of the New York Times Company.

A piece by Times media columnist Ben Smith later confirmed that Times staffers were merely grandstanding. They'd picked their words because the "formulation was legally protected speech because it focused on workplace safety." The affair gets to what is so useful, timely, and brilliant about the book.

Grandstanding explains what has gone so wrong in public discourse and how. While it is not directly and explicitly about the internet, social media, and culture war politics, it gets sidelong at what those things have done to us as a critical culture. In a culture that rewards grandstanding, people who act like they're talking about the world are often just talking about themselves.

There are some unwelcome conventions of academic philosophy—a little bit too much worrying about getting out ahead of possible objections instead of just getting to the point. But the point is a great one, and ultimately the authors get it across vividly.

First, they show that "moral talk is not magic," demonstrating that you can't virtue signal your way to a better world. Talk is cheap, and it doesn't buy you much. Then they give us a "field guide to grandstanding" so we know what we're dealing with. You'll start seeing similarities between their examples and online articles or Facebook statuses you've seen friends posting. You're probably guilty, too.

Perhaps the most useful part of Grandstanding is a look at the social dynamics that make grandstanders say things that advance their status or anathematize some outgroup rather than express truth. ("Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.") People look for ways to advance their individual status inside the institutions they care about, not to actually make the world better. So when we offer social reward rather than scorn for moralizing bunk, people will claim the reward. Incentives matter in the rhetorical economy as well.

Readers with less tolerance for philosophy-speak are advised to skip the section on whether a virtuous person would grandstand, a look at how grandstanding squares with various ethical theories. But read the next and final two sections twice. They cover how grandstanding makes politics "a morality pageant" in a world where we've all become petty little politicians with an online constituency to please and pander to. And they suggest what any one of us can do to lessen grandstanding and improve things.

With a culture of grandstanding driving outrage cycle after outrage cycle, that's sorely needed. So, please, for the love of all the babies, send this book to all your friends. Not buying it puts America in danger.