During a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, a naked woman sat down in the middle of an intersection, spread her legs, and faced off against a phalanx of cops, their spotlights illuminating her. Captured in a photo that went viral, the image of the woman, described as an “apparition” and “Naked Athena,” became a symbol of the city’s BLM protests. Hailed as vulnerable and brave, she pirouetted as cops shot rubber bullets at her feet.
Not all were impressed by the spectacle. E. D. Mondainé, president of the NAACP’s Portland branch, found Naked Athena’s act symptomatic of a larger trend: “As the demonstrations continue every night in Portland, many people with their own agendas are co-opting, and distracting attention from, what should be our central concern: the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Mondainé is right. Many activists embrace protests as a stage on which to preen—and they’re not alone. As our current political discourse shows, many people employ moral talk for self-promotion and status-seeking. Hoping to be viewed as morally impressive, they use self-righteous attacks to shame political opponents and earn praise from their own political tribe. This moral grandstanding clogs up the public square with words aimed not at helping others but at promoting one’s own moral reputation. Grandstanders turn discourse into a vanity project.
Studies suggest that most of us think we’re morally superior to the average person—and we want others to think this of us, too. People constantly compare themselves with others and try to get a boost in the competition for social status. Social media and public protests offer ideal platforms to put moral credentials on display. Some grandstanders seek social prestige, wanting to present themselves as moral exemplars. Others want to dominate others, joining in on public shaming to humiliate strangers.
Grandstanding, it turns out, has poisoned social media, causing polarization, cynicism, and outrage exhaustion. It also infects our politics and activism. The incentive for grandstanders is not to do good but to look good. Too often, these goals conflict, and grandstanders prioritize the wrong one.
A political culture dominated by grandstanding makes it harder to solve problems. When grandstanding overtakes public discourse, activists face a paradox. Activists, like politicians, draw their support from people who want them to solve important social problems. But if they solve those problems, then they’ll lose the support that keeps them in business, and they’ll have to find something else to do. A more sustainable model, then, is to use activism to impress others and gain status, which then bolsters popular support. The more gratifying this approach to political action becomes, the more that people will dedicate themselves to activism for its own sake. If an activist exploits morality and politics to impress others, he will be motivated to pursue vague or open-ended goals and create or “discover” new problems, leaving real problems unaddressed.
The paradox arises at both the individual and organizational levels. For the individual, his identity as an activist and reformer is at stake. If he achieves his goals, he will have no reason to remain active in his cause, aside from watching vigilantly for a reappearance of the issues that once moved him. He could find a new cause, but that would take time and effort. When efforts conclude, they can bring an end to meaningful relationships based on a common purpose, which can lead to a sense of loss and a desire to reminisce over past victories. Surely, though, these regrets count for little against the possibility of solving an important social problem. Injustice isn’t an opportunity to show off for friends or feel important. It’s a call to make things better.
Organizations also face the paradox. If an organization is established for a specific cause and is successful in pursuit of it, its employees may eventually find themselves out of work. They may have planned their lives around the continued existence of the organization. Thus, the institution’s achievement of its goals could throw their lives into disarray. But again, that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to hope that a serious problem never gets solved—or, if it does get solved, to insist that something is still wrong. Many activists, seeking to continue their work, find it irresistible to hunt for moral wrongs.
The point of political action is to solve problems, not to create a forum for the glorification of those who participate. But formulating clear goals and identifying workable solutions often take a backseat to the need to grandstand. When politics becomes a morality pageant, the contestants have an incentive to preserve the problems they campaign against.
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