A couple days ago, writer David Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times about the Danger of a Single Story. By that, he was alluding to the notion developing in recent years about the negative consequences of allowing a single dominant narrative to shape the way we view the world and the things we do.
Moreover, he delved into the psychology of why certain individuals feel the need to publicly announce their allegiance to that narrative, what Brooks calls “identity markers”. In that sense, public outrage and SJW facebook memes are not so much about political ideas or oppression or equality, but rather ensuring one’s continued acceptance by “the tribe”.
The reality is that Mr. Brooks is in fact alluding to Virtue Signaling.
If you find you are continually frustrated when you point out the nonsensical double standards or contradictions expressed by certain political affiliations (e.g. progressives or SJWs), like this video about college students thinking it’s okay that a 5’9’’ white guy declares himself a 7-year 6’5’’ Chinese woman … then the problem is that you think you are having a political discussion, when really you are having a social psychology discussion.
It is not about facts and figures … it is about who is in who’s tribe.
Example 1: Chicago Blackhawks player Andrew Shaw was suspended for making “homophobic” remarks toward a referee after being sent to the penalty box during a heated playoff game. In short, he was upset and called the ref a “faggot” in the heat of the moment. The outrage was immense (including from the Tribune itself), and Shaw later apologized.
Example 2: Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis referred to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner as an “ISIS recruit”, inferring that he was a Muslim terrorist. Rauner is a Republican who is pushing for pension and other reforms to solve Illinois’ Bankruptcy crisis. The outrage in this case was minimal. There was no similar censuring from the Tribune as in Shaw’s case.
Here we have two very similar cases of people name-calling others, both at the minimum uncivil, and perhaps offensive to some. Both were uncalled for. Both were using other’s identities as a form of shaming language. Yet one case was seen as socially appropriate, and the other case a platform for moral outrage. Why?
Because one case (CTU Lewis’ comments) was seen as fitting the dominant Cultural Narrative: heterosexual white men are “bad”, guilty of historical sins, and should be labeled as such.
The real danger of such cultural narratives is that when one “single story” (to use David Brooks’ term from above) comes to dominate the discussion, then it warps our sense of right and wrong. Political decisions and policy choices that need to be based on facts and figures can no longer be done as such. Because we are no longer having a fact-based political discussion … rather we are engaging in acts of social display.
But the real danger is much more insidious … because as any group rises to power, the extremists within their ranks will engage in Totalitarian behavior to try to shape and control the cultural narrative. Social displays and virtue signaling gradually displace and undermine the positions and ideals which brought you to power in the first place. The principles of your movement become fractured by caricatures and contradictions and increasingly extreme positions. In the end, the undoing of any political movement that achieves power is often its own Totalitarian behavior. Like a snake eating its own tail.
It is the enemy within.
Given the tendency towards such totalitarian behavior and virtue signaling within political movements and “tribal” affiliations in the modern world, it does raise the question if this process is some sort of natural cycle in the evolution of human groups, nowadays manifested as ideas and political movements. A way for nature to continually shuffle the deck … perhaps the fluidity of human “tribes” both in modern times and prehistory served some evolutionary purpose for promoting greater genetic variance and avoiding the stagnation that might otherwise arise.