I’ve Protested for Racial Justice. Do I Have to Post on Social Media?

I am a white college student trying to be a better racial-justice advocate in the wake of George Floyd’s death. While I have not been very politically active in the past (which I regret), recently I have attended a protest, donated a lot of my savings to bail funds and related nonprofits, called my representatives about these issues and tried to educate myself about black history and black voices. However, I have not posted on my personal social media regarding Black Lives Matter. I don’t think I have a unique perspective to add to this conversation, and I don’t like the scrutiny that comes with a social media post. I also worry that if I do post about Black Lives Matter, it would be motivated mainly by virtue signaling.

I believe my time would be more effectively spent supporting the B.L.M. movement in other ways. But I’ve also heard the argument that everyone has an obligation to post and that staying silent on these platforms is morally wrong. What do you think: Does being an ally require engaging with social media? Name Withheld

Citizens in a democracy share a collective responsibility for guiding the ship of state. That’s why progress toward racial justice in our country is something that we should all do our fair share to advance. Like so many Americans, you’ve been moved by the wrenching spectacle of a man’s life slowly snuffed out by an officer of the state, and troubled that black people continue to suffer from police violence far out of proportion to their numbers. Unlike most, you’ve set out to make a difference. If everyone else had done as much as you’ve done, we’d certainly be way ahead. So I see no cause to complain about how much you’re doing. Something is part of everyone’s fair share only if everyone’s doing it is necessary to achieve justice. People are not morally obliged to have a social media account in the first place; when they do, they should be free to post as little or as much as they like, to treat it as a narrowly personal zone or as a forum for conveying their broader concerns.

The issue you raise about “virtue signaling,” however, merits closer attention. Some philosophers have argued that public discourse is debased when people seek to raise their status within an in-group by displaying their moral qualities. “Grandstanding,” the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke argue in a new book of that title, involves forms of moral argument that are motivated by the vanity of self-presentation, by a desire to show that one is on the side of the angels. People engaged in moral grandstanding, they believe, will tend to “pile on,” repeating a widely shared criticism; “trump up,” depicting an innocent act as a major offense; and “ramp up,” making ever stronger and more polarizing claims in order to outdo the moral claims of others. There’s a Kantian aspect to their perspective: For Kant, it was of great importance that we not only do the right thing but do it for the right reason. The notion of virtue signaling, which was coined as a term of reproach, has precisely this Kantian valence. (This may come as a surprise to many who wield the term.)

But virtue signaling isn’t necessarily a vice. Let’s grant that it can have unfortunate aspects. Doesn’t it have substantial positive ones too? When it comes to uncontested moral values, we can prize the unadvertised, anonymous good deed. (You rescue the drowning child, say, and keep quiet about your heroism.) Yet the moral revolutions I’ve researched involve what political scientists have called “norm cascades,” and the social dimension of position-taking plays a critical role here. In the late 18th century, the English manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood started producing ceramic medallions with the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” above a black figure in chains. They became an immensely popular icon among abolitionists — a form of virtue signaling that helped fortify and spread a vital moral idea. In the words of another philosopher, Neil Levy: “Signaling is a central function of public moral discourse, with an important role to play in enabling cooperation.” That’s why bumper stickers and slogans posted on walls, whether digital or physical, can be meaningful.

The malign effects of grandstanding are real, but typically happen when an important instrument for moral progress is put in service of bad goals rather than good ones. “Piling on” can mean that people have collectively decided to renounce a previously tolerated evil: It mattered that a great many law-enforcement officials and even some police-union representatives piled on against the callous killing of George Floyd. The charge of “trumping up” can arise from a genuine reassessment of once-taken-for-granted conduct — it’s the charge that the old-school sexually harassing boss makes when habits he considered harmless (“What’s wrong with telling a woman how sexy she looks?”) are properly seen in a new light. “Ramping up” can take us from the notion that homosexual conduct should be decriminalized to the notion that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.

In moments of moral change, people shift from merely recognizing a wrong to wanting to do something about it. And what drives that shift is, in part, a sense that those who don’t contribute to change aren’t just not doing something good; they’re forfeiting their entitlement to the respect of those around them. Not participating becomes dishonorable. In many of the moral revolutions I’ve written about — against slavery, dueling and foot-binding, for example — winning the moral argument is only the first step. To move a majority of people to live and act in new ways, you have to get them to feel that doing the right thing is now required for social respect. This is one area where social media can help. And if you believe that you can make a contribution here, you should be undeterred by the fear that you would be — or would be thought to be — virtue signaling. In order for new and better norms to arise, there has to be talk. But, as you recognize, there has to be more than talk. People have to take action. You’re to be commended for having done so already.

I am the co-author, along with three other scientists, of a paper we plan to submit to a prominent physics journal. Before I knew which journal we would choose, I invited a professor who is also a member of the editorial board of the journal in question to be a keynote speaker for a conference I helped organize. The professor accepted, and we’ve been in touch during the past few months about the conference.

I am concerned about a potential conflict of interest here. The professor will likely end up being the editor for the paper, which entails deciding whether to accept it for review. The eventual publication of the manuscript is based on the opinions of two reviewers and the editor. While I am certain that the conference invitation will not bias the professor, I do not want even an appearance of bias, nor do I want the professor to think I expect special treatment. One option is to ask that the professor be excluded as the editor for this submission. I have discussed this issue with the senior co-author of the paper, and he does not think we should exclude the professor, who, in his view, is the most competent person to handle the manuscript. Still, there are other editors who are qualified. Should I insist on excluding this professor as an editor? Name Withheld

Wait — have you done this professor a favor, or has the professor done you a favor? No matter. Being assessed by a person with whom you’ve had friendly dealings risks not just the appearance of bias but the reality of it. Even when we’re doing our level best to be scrupulously fair, we can be biased (sometimes negatively, out of an excess of caution). Still, in a small subfield it can be hard to avoid such ties. And your professor has two presumably independent reviewers to rely on. We can’t rule out such bias entirely. The best we can do is have systems that curtail it.

The journal’s processes will work well if your paper is clearly excellent — unconscious bias on anyone’s part won’t determine the outcome — or clearly subpar, because the editors won’t publish something that would damage their reputations. Only if the paper is in the middle zone is the pull of propinquity going to matter. So you can probably let things be; any unfairness will be pretty marginal. The universe can handle one article that’s in a somewhat better journal than it deserves.


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