Attacking others to make yourself look good is an all-too-common reality of public discourse

As anyone who followed the 2020 election season—or any recent election cycle—can attest, public discourse about politics and morality these days is dysfunctional. We might hope for a public square in which people carefully consider each other’s arguments and leave aside concerns for personal fame and glory, but that’s not what we’re getting. Instead, many treat public moral discourse as a forum for moral grandstanding: trying to show how good they are at the expense of others.

If you’ve watched enough television, you will have encountered the trope of the character facing an impending prison sentence who is advised to find the biggest, toughest-looking inmate on his first day inside and pick a fight with him. The idea is to send a message to the rest of the prison population that the new guy will not tolerate any abuse from even the most imposing prisoner, and so he should not be messed with.

Some grandstanders take this approach to public discourse. They go through life looking for opportunities to pounce on others’ moral mistakes, real or imagined, to demonstrate to others what good people they are. They see social media pile-ons as an opportunity to feel powerful and look morally enlightened as they put on a show for the benefit of their followers. What better way to show how deeply you care for the poor than by inciting a gaggle of anonymous Twitter users to demand that a university fire a lecturer for arguing against minimum wage laws?

We call this kind of behavior showcasing. Showcasers use others by conscripting them into a public display designed to show off the moral qualities of the grandstander. Just as a salesman might use a display model to show off the qualities of his product, showcasers use other people to show off their superior moral qualities.

Salespeople might showcase their product by beating it up, dropping it, putting it through a strenuous task or setting it on fire. Likewise, grandstanders showcase their moral mettle by subjecting others to their aggressive use of moral talk. They pile on in cases of public shaming, manufacture accusations of wrongdoing, further inflate accusations that have already been leveled and express over-the-top moral outrage. Showcasers seek status by using the alleged moral failures of others to show off their own moral superiority.

One of the things that’s so vicious about showcasing is that the target is often an innocent person. Mobs are not known for being careful when it comes to details. Minor questions such as whether the target of their rage has actually done anything wrong are uninteresting and beside the point. And when no one is bothering to look into the matter, showcasers can impress others by attacking the innocent just as well as the guilty.

Of course, sometimes showcasers hit their mark and pick on someone who really has done something wrong. In these cases, perhaps showcasing doesn’t seem so bad. Wrongdoers get the blame they deserve, and those who take time out of their day to bravely condemn them get credit for doing so. Isn’t that a good thing?

We don’t think so. For one thing, blame can be disproportionate even when someone is guilty. There comes a point when the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Thus, when we do punish the guilty, we should take care not to overdo it. But when grandstanders use people to showcase their moral goodness, their incentive is not to mete out the appropriate level of condemnation, taking into account mitigating circumstances or everything else the guilty party has already endured. Their incentive is to dole out the punishment that impresses their moral and political team. What’s the point of showcasing if you don’t go big and show you truly care? The result is death threats, doxxing and harassment for wearing the wrong kind of prom dress. So even if the target is guilty, showcasing is a poor way of addressing the transgression.

There is an even more fundamental problem with showcasing, though: it treats people as mere instruments in someone else’s quest for enhanced social status. Just because someone deserves to be blamed, that doesn’t mean others may blame him or her for just any reason so long as they don’t go too hard on the wrongdoer.

Imagine you’re in a bad mood, and you’re just looking for an opportunity to lash out at someone. You go about your day just on the verge of an outburst, when luckily you see someone do something wrong, and you unleash your anger on that person. Even if your reaction isn’t disproportionate, it’s disrespectful to use people this way. And just like it’s wrong to use other people’s mistakes as a convenient opportunity to vent your spleen, it’s also wrong to use them as an opportunity to look good.

Showcasers treat people as interchangeable punching bags in an attempt to craft their public image as moral paragons. But morality requires us to treat other people according to their worth as human beings, not as mere instruments. Showcasing fails to do so.

Authors: Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke.

Article originally published on November 4, 2020.