Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk

Here are some highlights from this 2020 book:

* A once-​enthusiastic participant in the online culture wars recently reflected on his history of grandstanding: “Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts, and thumbs-​up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation.”

Why do we care whether our moral talk earns tokens of approval from people, many of whom we barely interact with? And why are we willing to throw people under the bus to get that approval?

* Using the tools of moral philosophy, we’ll argue that grandstanding is a moral problem on all three major moral theories: it has bad consequences; it is a way of failing to treat people with respect; and it is not virtuous.

* In 2016, a two-​year-​old boy from Nebraska was killed by an alligator at a resort in Orlando, Florida. Tragic. Twitter user @femme_ esq, had another take, however, announcing to her twelve thousand followers: “I’m so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m really not sad about a 2 [year-​old] being eaten by a gator [because] his daddy ignored signs.”

* many people don’t see the downside of abusing moral talk. They act as if moral talk is always admirable (at least when their side does it). For these people, moral talk is magic. Invoking sacred words— justice, dignity, rights, equality, or honor, tradition, faith, family— magically transforms your nasty, abusive, selfish behavior into something heroic and praiseworthy. Want to be cruel to those people you don’t like and have your like-​minded peers congratulate you? Wrap your behavior in high-​flying moral language. Voila! Brave, Admirable, Speaking Truth to Power…

But moral talk is not magic. We do not have free rein to treat others badly simply because we are invoking sacred words, or because we are showing in our own way that we care. Being morally outspoken is not itself an achievement.

* moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-​promotion. To grandstand is to turn your moral talk into a vanity project. Grandstanders are moral showboaters trying to impress others with their moral credentials.

* 1. Grandstanders want to impress others with their moral qualities. We call this the Recognition Desire.
2. Grandstanders try to satisfy that desire by saying something in public moral discourse. We call this public display the Grandstanding Expression.

You can therefore think of grandstanding in terms of a simple formula: Grandstanding = Recognition Desire + Grandstanding Expression

* Just like you might try to look busy at work to get others to believe that you are hard-​working, grandstanding is a means people use to make others think they are morally impressive.

* Sometimes the grandstander wants others to form a vaguely positive impression of her moral respectability. The goal is to receive a general form of admiration or respect for being “on the side of the angels.” Other times, the grandstander wants something more specific. For example, she might want others to think she has morally respectable beliefs: her views about what counts as fairness or moral progress are truly something special. Or she might want others to be impressed by her sensitivity when it comes to moral issues: few others are as saddened by earthquakes or as outraged by minimum wage laws as she is. Or perhaps a grandstander wants others to think she has impeccable moral priorities: her Twitter followers might care mostly about lowering their tax burden, but she cares first and foremost about justice. Sometimes a grandstander might want to impress others with her moral insight about how to solve a problem: everyone needs to see that she knows exactly what causes extreme poverty and what must be done about it.

We can also think about what grandstanders want by framing their desires in terms of social status. Psychologists argue that there are two ways to attain social status: prestige and dominance.6 Prestige refers to the status that comes from people thinking well of you for your knowledge, skills, or success. You have access to important resources that others don’t, so they treat you with deference. In ancient times, this might mean knowing how to make a slingshot, or being a great hunter. In modern times, this might mean having expert knowledge of patent law, or being a world-​class tennis player.

Dominance, on the other hand, refers to the status you get by instilling fear in others through intimidation, coercion, or even displays of brute force. The dominated treat you with deference because they fear being treated harshly. Our ancestors gained dominance by beating up or killing rival mating partners. In modern times, people still use physical violence, but we can also gain dominance by embarrassing others on social media, or lashing out at a colleague in a meeting.

This distinction between prestige and dominance can help us think about what motivates grandstanders. Grandstanders seek to elevate their social station, at least within some relevant social network. Often, they do this by seeking prestige for their moral qualities. They want the reputation for being inspiring moral exemplars, for example. They want this reputation, not necessarily for doing anything that is actually morally heroic, but for simply typing on their keyboard or uttering certain words. They think having this prestige will result in deference from others, at least when it comes to matters of morality.

But some grandstanders use moral talk for darker purposes. They grandstand to dominate others. They use moral talk to shame or silence others and create fear. They verbally threaten and seek to humiliate. They try to impress people by derogating their rivals, an all-​too-​common human impulse.7 Instead of seeking status by trying to elevate their own prestige, they seek status by taking others down a notch. “Shut up and submit to my view of the world or I’ll shame and embarrass you! I’m the morally good one here!” While grandstanders are usually after moral prestige, some are also out for domination.

* Typically, grandstanders try to imply something about themselves without just coming out and saying it.

* Some readers will be familiar with another form of indirect speech, humble-​bragging: braggadocio wrapped in humble or complaining language. “Amazon won’t let me order more than three copies of my book at a time. Is there some kind of limit on bestsellers? Annoying!”13 “Why does my boss always assign me to the most important clients?” Humble-​braggers are trying to show off. But they also try to cloak their true intentions in unassuming language. Grandstanders use indirect language for similar reasons.

* Since there are social costs to obvious self-​aggrandizement, grandstanders give themselves a way of denying what they are up to. Yet the fact that they use indirect language suggests that they often know what they are doing is gauche.

* Chances are, you think you are better than most people at lots of things. Perhaps you think you are a better driver than most, or that you are more responsible, or a better parent. Chances are, you think that in many ways, you are better than the average person. Psychologists call the tendency to take such a flattering view of ourselves self- enhancement… we think we are more competent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and wiser than the average person.15 We also think we work harder, are less prejudiced, are more upset by the events of 9/ 11, and care more about the environment than the average person.16 In a particularly embarrassing finding for the authors and our colleagues, one study revealed that 90 percent of college professors say they are better than average teachers. In general, we give ourselves pretty good grades.

* Studies show that we tend to rate our conduct as morally superior to the average person’s.19 We tend to think that we are more likely than others to do good, and less likely than others to do bad.20 We also tend to think we are more likely to be honest and trustworthy.21 Psychologists call this moral self- enhancement.22 As psychologist David Dunning puts it, “people place themselves on moral pedestals that they deny their peers.”23 This tendency is not difficult to demonstrate empirically, either. According to psychologists Nadav Klein and Nicholas Epley, “Few biases in human judgment are easier to demonstrate than self-​righteousness: the tendency to believe one is more moral than others.”24

* People tend to think they would feel worse than others after committing an unethical action, and they believe they are less capable of extreme unethical behavior than others are. Even violent criminals think their behavior compares favorably to that of the rest of us. Prisoners rated themselves as above average for every pro-​social trait except for law-​abidingness, on which they modestly rated themselves as average.28

* Furthermore, we rate ourselves as highly moral, not only relative to other people, but also in absolute terms.29 Moral self-​enhancement seems to be a universal human phenomenon, appearing in Eastern and Western cultures alike.30 When it comes to morality, we tend to think of ourselves as pretty impressive specimens. Psychologists call this flattering view of ourselves the illusion of moral superiority.31 Why is it an illusion? For one, we can’t all be better than average. But further, decades of research on moral character suggest that we aren’t as virtuous as we think we are.32 Our grandiose self-​evaluations are likely mistaken. You are probably just morally average.33

* Our moral self-​conceptions are very important to us.35 Much of our lives are spent attempting to control the impressions others form of us. These attempts are known in the psychological literature as “impression management.”36 If you think of yourself as a competent, hard-​working employee, you will want others to think of you this way, too. So you try to cultivate that impression of yourself in your colleagues. You might always try to look busy, for example. In all kinds of ways, we try to project a positive image of ourselves. We make sure the barista at the coffee shop sees our tip. We display Auden and Dickens but hide our pulp romance novels. Shakespeare was right that we treat the world as a stage. It is no surprise, then, that we care deeply about our moral reputations and go to great lengths to curate and protect them. Andrew Vonasch and colleagues performed a study that revealed just how much we care what others think of our moral qualities.38 They found that many people would prefer to spend a year in jail, lose a hand, or even die before being known as a criminal in their community, being assumed to be a Neo-​Nazi, or falsely thought to be a pedophile. Many subjects chose to stick a hand into a bowl of writhing, wriggling, beetle larvae to prevent the larger university community from learning that they had received a (doctored) high “racism” score on an implicit association test (IAT).

If it is important to your self-​conception that you are morally great, you’ll want others to know this, too. No wonder so many people go out of their way in public discourse to get others to believe what they already believe about themselves: that they are morally exceptional. In other words, it should be no surprise that people are motivated to grandstand.

* People who make high-​minded moral pronouncements on social media and use moral talk to shame and silence people often explain their behavior by saying they are standing up for the oppressed or defending what is right. But these same people probably wouldn’t speak this way in a private face-​to-​face conversation. This suggests that what these people really want is to use their public platform to garner moral prestige, or worse, to dominate others for social benefits.

* Let’s start with why grandstanding might work. We typically assume that others are not deceiving us.45 Social life would be very difficult if you couldn’t rely on others to be truthful. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, we generally expect that “an individual who implicitly or explicitly signifies that he has certain social characteristics ought in fact to be what he claims he is.”46 When people use moral language to signify they are morally special, they do so against the background presumption that people generally present themselves accurately. Grandstanding may be successful simply because we tend to take people at their word…

* First, your grandstanding will be less successful if the image you are trying to project is inconsistent with what your audience already believes about you.

* Second, grandstanding is successful to the extent your audience already shares your moral beliefs and values. The more different they are from you, the less likely it is that you will impress them.

* At least in the United States and United Kingdom, public accusations of grandstanding have disproportionately been leveled by the political right against the left, and particularly against the progressive left. However, some circles of progressives are also concerned about the grandstanders in their midst.

* people who hold extreme political views are more likely to grandstand to raise their prestige status than are those with more moderate views.

* We identify five common ways people grandstand: piling on, ramping up, trumping up,2 displays of strong emotions, and dismissiveness.

* For a real-​world example of piling on, consider the case of Keziah Daum, a white teenager who shared pictures on social media of herself in a traditional tight-​fitting Chinese dress that she wore to prom. One user commented on her photos, “my culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” a war-​cry to pile onto Daum for cultural appropriation. That comment was subsequently retweeted more
than forty thousand times.

* the worst thing you can be according to members of your group is the black sheep. Being the black sheep is even worse than never having belonged to the group in the first place. When people from your in-​group are discussing a moral issue, the stakes are high. Even minor missteps can be a big deal and can throw your status in the group into question. Thus, it is often worthwhile to chime in and remind everyone that you are with them, even if you have reservations about what the group is doing.

* Moral talk often devolves into a moral arms race, where people make increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion. Call this ramping up. When people ramp up, they are not trying to arrive at the correct moral claim any more than the Soviets and Americans were trying to produce the correct number of bombs. Instead, they are trying to outdo one another. What drives them is the desire to be the most morally impressive. So they use increasingly strong moral claims to signal that they are more attuned to matters of justice, and that others simply do not understand or appreciate the nuance or gravity of the situation.

* People often imagine themselves as occupying a certain position in comparison to others. Psychologists call this “social comparison.”16 For example, we rate our attractiveness or sense of humor by reference to how attractive or funny other people are. As we saw in chapter 2, most of us think we are pretty morally impressive.

We often make these judgments about our relative moral purity before hearing what others believe. Once we hear what others’ views are (or at least what they say they are), we have two options. We can either accept that we are morally ordinary and keep our views as they are, or we can ever so slightly shift our views (or at least our presentation of them) to retain our status as the moral exemplar within the group. For many, the latter option is preferable. And so what once seemed like a reasonable view must now be exchanged for something a bit more morally exacting.

* Trumping up is a useful tool for grandstanders. By trumping up, grandstanders try to look morally impressive by objecting to features of the world that we moral peasants regard as insignificant, innocent, or even laudable. As moral princesses, they are simply more sensitive about injustice than the rest of us. Notice that, unlike piling on and ramping up, trumping up requires saying something false about morality. You can pile on by repeating an accurate moral assessment, or ramp up by presenting a more radical but true moral view. But to trump up, you must get something wrong.

* Ecologists use the term “invasive species” to refer to species that are not native to an ecosystem but can take hold and dominate within it. Once introduced, they cause instability and damage to other species. The example of kudzu will be familiar to many American readers. A species of vine native to Japan, it was introduced in the American South to combat soil erosion. However, it spread quickly throughout the region, smothering and killing millions of acres of native trees and shrubbery. If you’ve ever driven through Georgia or the Carolinas, you may have seen hundreds of miles of kudzu lining the interstate. Our tendency to moralize is like kudzu. Once the search for new problems takes hold, it is hard to stop. British philosopher and moral reformer John Stuart Mill observed this tendency in the nineteenth century, writing that “it is not difficult to show, by abundant instances, that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities.”23

* Skitka’s research suggests a display or report of your outrage about a moral issue can be used to signal the strength of your moral conviction about it.35 “Emotion,” she tells us, “plays an important role in informing people about whether their attitudes are moral convictions.”36 Grandstanders can use these emotional displays strategically to communicate to others their heightened moral convictions. Where moral outrage gains social purchase, the implicit assumption is that the most outraged person has the greatest moral insight or the strongest moral conviction about the issue under discussion. Grandstanders exploit this background assumption and employ outrage to signal that they are more affected by moral disorder in the world or empathize more fully with victims of wrongdoing. If lots of things in the world ruffle your feathers, then people will think you must have lots of moral convictions.37

* Grandstanders often talk as if their views are utterly obvious. Anyone competent at making moral judgments would surely come to the same conclusions.

* . “A crowd,” he wrote “is only impressed by excessive sentiments. . . . To exaggerate, to affirm, to resort to repetition, and never to attempt to prove anything by reasoning are methods of argument well known to speakers at public meetings.”

* All the piling on, ramping up, trumping up, displays of strong emotion, and dismissiveness gives you a feeling you can’t shake: many people are using moral talk to seem morally superior, increase their social standing within a group, and dominate and silence their supposed moral inferiors.

* Outrage and other moral emotions are important. What makes these emotions valuable is what they motivate us to do, not just how they make us feel about our moral goodness. But because we can use them to feel good about ourselves, there is a risk that we will not use our outrage well. We will express outrage when we are in the mood to do so, and not when it is appropriate. Outrage is a scarce resource. We should use outrage sparingly, or else it will not be able to do its job when we need it.

* Political scientist Elisabeth Noelle­ Neumann’s spiral of silence theory of public opinion provides another explanation for why many people avoid moral and political conversations. Most of us fear social isolation. We also know that people who disagree with us or dislike us can orchestrate our social isolation if they please. We’ve all seen people goad their followers into treating certain unlucky souls as social pariahs simply for making one false move on social media. To encourage the ostracism of those who express socially disapproved ideas is to exert what she calls “isolation pressure.”53 Noelle­ Neumann argues that because people fear becoming the target of such campaigns, we choose silence rather than risk exile. Consequently, those who still take their chances in public moral discourse are those with greater confidence that their views will be accepted by those with whom they want to maintain social ties. Such people probably do get acceptance from their inner circle. But they also get a smaller inner circle. Talking morality and politics costs you friends. One study shows that those with more friends are less likely to discuss politics and contested moral issues on social media.54 Everybody expects the Facebook inquisition.

* Some grandstanders… go through life looking for opportunities to pounce on others’ moral mistakes, real or imagined, to demonstrate to others what good people they are. We call this kind of demonstration showcasing. Showcasing involves using others by recruiting them into a public display designed to show off the moral qualities of the grandstander. Showcasers might do this by piling on in cases of public shaming…

* Grice’s Cooperative Principle and maxims of conversation:

Maxim of quality : As speaker we have to tell the truth or something that is provable by adequate evidence.
Maxim of quantity: We have to be as informative as required, we should not say more or less.
Maxim of relation: Our response has to be relevant to the topic of discussion.
Maxim of manner: We have to avoid ambiguity or obscurity; we should be direct and straightforward.

* the more a political issue becomes moralized, the less likely people are to compromise on that issue.

* Bogeymen grandstanding accomplishes two things. First, it communicates that the out­ group is too vicious to be trusted, since they welcome the bogeyman as one of their own. Second, it intimates that the grandstander and her audience are not only morally better than such people, but also united in opposition to them. Perhaps the grandstander will even protect his audience from the hated figure and the movement she represents. Neither of these messages bodes well for potential compromise with those on the other side who are not bogeymen.

* “people are more likely to believe vivid theories of society,” because “they trade on readily available ‘evidence’ that fits into our unreflective theoretical mindset.”41 They use the term “vivid” as psychologists do, to refer to information that is “(a) emotionally interesting, (b) concrete and imagery­ provoking, and (c) proximate in a sensory, temporal, or spatial way.”42 For instance, suppose people are considering two possible explanations for the fact that a legislature, full of well­ dressed and apparently well­ to­ do politicians, failed to pass some critical piece of legislation. On the one hand, these politicians might have failed because they are all “crooked.” On the other, they might have acted under a complex set of conflicting— but perfectly above­ board— incentives that made it irrational to pass any of the available options into law. The “crooked” explanation is vivid— it sparks indignation and calls to mind images of bags of money changing hands, which also explains why they can afford to dress so well. The complex incentives explanation is opaque. It is harder to describe, and it would require more details than anyone is in the mood to hear to be fully understood. Thus, vivid explanations tend to be more appealing.

* Consider Barrett Wilson, a self­ described former “self­ righteous social justice crusader” who “once had a well paid job in what might be described as the social justice industry.”52 In other words, he was an activist. He lost his job when he himself was targeted by his very own social justice mob. What interests us here is Wilson’s confession of the ever­ expanding target of the activist’s suspicious moral eye:

“Just a few years ago, many of my friends and peers who self­ identify as liberals or progressives were open fans of provocative standup comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and shows like South Park. Today, such material is seen as deeply “problematic,” or even labeled as hate speech. I went from minding my own business when people told risqué jokes to practically fainting when they used the wrong pronoun or expressed a right­ of­ center view. I went from making fun of the guy who took edgy jokes too seriously, to becoming that guy.”

* One of the best­ supported discoveries in psychology in the twentieth century was that situations play a major role in shaping our behavior.

* Changes in your situation can also help you improve your behavior in public discourse. You might think you can peruse Twitter for hours a day and not get angry enough to shoot off a self­ righteous, grandstanding tweet. You might think you can avoid posting an incendiary and exaggerated claim on Facebook, despite knowing that it will receive universal acclaim from your like­ minded friends. But for many of us, the temptation will be too strong to resist. It is often better to avoid these tempting situations altogether. Here are some suggestions:
• Limit the time you spend on social media. One of our best­ behaved academic friends allows himself 30 minutes a day. You might install an app on your phone such as App Detox, Off the Grid, or Antisocial that can block or limit your access to social media.
• When using social media, try muting or unfollowing those who are reckless and intemperate when discussing politics. Seeing this kind of behavior— especially from those on the “other side”— is a recipe for temptation to grandstand.
Experiment with a “three­ strikes” rule: if someone angers or annoys you three times, unfollow them.
• Consider avoiding extremely partisan news sources that get you worked up about the other side. Or try limiting yourself to, say, no more than one hour of Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity a week.

* Work out more. Consume less sugar. Read more good books. With few exceptions, we fail at these goals. Why? In the 1990s, psychologist Peter Gollwitzer put a finger on the problem: we have no plan.

* Imagine that your community practices open defecation. People just dump their feces into a river, the banks of which your community calls home. This has resulted in unhealthy drinking water, a high infant mortality rate, and delayed childhood development due to illness. It’s easier to use the river instead of disposing of your waste properly. Once you’ve become aware of how unhealthy open defecation is and how much harm it causes, though, you might decide to stop defecating in the river. However, the rest of your community does not follow suit. They keep using the river as a communal latrine. If you are the only one who stops dumping your feces in the river, you will still be affected by others’ waste, as of course will they. What you need to do is to get them to stop dumping, too.

* Most modern cultures have a social norm against open defecation. Members of those cultures believe that other members are not practicing open defecation. They also know that there is a general belief that members shouldn’t practice open defecation. However, some regions, particularly the rural areas of India, still have high rates of open defecation. The problem isn’t poverty: India has a higher open defecation rate than much poorer countries. Nor is the problem lack of infrastructure: for decades, India has built latrines in rural areas to combat open defecation. Rather, the problem is with social norms supported by the caste system. Emptying latrines— the only technology available for disposing of human waste— is regarded as Dalit (untouchable) work. Non­ Dalits won’t do it. Dalits also generally avoid it, fearing ostracism. So in the absence of a better solution, people resort to open defecation, and it is regarded as normal.

* Productive conversations are more likely to happen when we admit our mistakes.

* One way to make it unpleasant to grandstand is to make grandstanding embarrassing. You can do your part in accomplishing this goal by being withholding. On social media, you can withhold your praise, your Facebook likes, your Twitter retweets. No more “This is amazingly brave” comments for people who take costless stands defending their moral convictions that are obvious crowd­ pleasers directed at their like­ minded friends. Don’t support politicians just because they come across as one of the good guys in publicity stunts. When people engage in self­ righteous displays at work, ignore them. The basic idea is not to give people credit for their attention­ seeking.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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