Don’t be a Professional Virtue Signaler

We’ve talked frequently in this space about the dangers of spending too much time with toxic, dysfunctional people.  But frequently those aren’t the people who pose the biggest threat to your mental health and harmony.  You’re usually aware of their toxicity and approach them with a measured degree of exposure or put up a metaphysical forcefield for protection against them. 

The real danger could be your well-intended friends…

These are good people who start out well-meaning enough.  They have an issue or cause they believe in and want to champion.  This begins with helpful posts on their Facebook, Instagram, or other social media, designed to educate others about some perceived danger, or beseeching them to join in some noble cause. 

The whole idea seems decent, moral and virtuous.  Unfortunately, that’s no longer how it plays out today.  People interacting online practice much less respect, manners, and consideration than they offer when communicating in person.  Both traditional media and the social media platforms know this, and they need contrived controversy and outrage to maintain profitability.  This creates the perfect recipe for formulating culture wars, and like Pavlov’s dogs, we react mindlessly to the gratification of likes, shares, and followers. 

You make a post why oranges provide vitamin C and energy.  The people who like oranges give you hearts and likes and share the post.  You interpret this attention as validation that you’re a good person doing good things.  But people who like mangos are very upset with your systemic bias against mangos... 

They demonstrate their maturity by commenting on your profile picture, calling you names, or announcing that they’re unfollowing you.  You demonstrate that you’re an adult by making proclamations like, “If you honestly are so stupid you don’t understand why oranges are better than mangos, unfriend me right now!  I don’t want any morons like you on my timeline.” 

You’re both getting high on your own supply because you’re showing people just how virtuous you are.  Your posts are getting shared with all of the “oranges are good” people and your opponent’s posts are getting shared with all the “mangos are better” ones.  You both think you’re fighting the forces of evil, but all you’re really accomplishing is creating more ad views for Mark Zuckerberg.  If you’re smart enough, you can make intelligent people feel stupid.  But if you’re as brilliant as Zuckerberg, you can make stupid people feel intelligent. The social media algorithms get exactly what they need to keep everyone locked on their sites, frothing at the mouth, peacocking their virtues, and attacking the people on the other side. 

I was chatting with Bob Burg the other day about the current culture war mentality here in the (allegedly) United States.   We’re both incredulous about the way it is playing out.  I’ve been through my share of protests from Stonewall to civil rights to the Vietnam war, but I’ve never seen such a visceral “us versus them” divide as we’re seeing today.  People have always personalized disagreements and suffered from unconscious bias, but never like the situation now.  I believe the difference is 24-hours cable news channels, the Internet, and social media platforms.

There are millions of people with so much disposable time they can put up five posts a day signaling how righteous they are – and how evil the people who disagree with them are.  They develop an identity for themselves, which causes the need to defend that identity, which means switching off the critical thinking parts of their brain. (More about that in this post.) The algorithms and other feedback loops create a continuous escalation in intensity until you become a mindless twit, more bot than human. 

As I mentioned in my last “Friday Filosophy” newsletter, being “woke” has morphed from becoming aware of injustice and wanting to enlist others to remedy it – to pretentiously virtue signaling your devotion to the cause, regardless of how preposterous a level it is carried to. Here’s what the progression looks like:

We’ve now entered the era of the professional virtue signaler. 

This rancorous hate you find on the Internet today feeds our worst human tendencies.  Instead of feeling weak and disenfranchised, I can feel strong by attacking someone on Facebook.  If I can make them look naive, that will make me look sophisticated. If can make them look stupid, that will make me look smart. If I make them look heartless, that will make me look caring.  At least that’s the subconscious behavior we’re being led to practice by the memes we’ve let infect our brains.

We all have issues we hold near and dear.  But things like love, equality, empathy, and acceptance can’t be legislated or decreed.  Hearts have to be changed.  And you probably won’t change many hearts by trying to show everyone else how much more virtuous you are than them. Put down the cross, we need the wood.


- RG

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