Why It’s OK For Activists To Be ‘All Talk’

By Noah Berlatsky

The left is so full of posers that there is a full-on left crisis of posing. In fact, many left critics argue, the performance of virtue on the left has become so prevalent, and so divorced from actual political commitment, that it has undermined both past gains and the effort to solve concrete problems today.

Writer Freddie deBoer, perhaps the most prominent advocate of this view, summarized the argument again at the end of February in his usual pugnacious style. “In the place of material efforts to address material problems, anti-racism has instead become focused on symbolic displays by white progressives,” he argues, “who spend endless amounts of time acknowledging their white privilege but no time at all actually working to tear that privilege down.” He adds, “If you check your white privilege, great, but understand that in a very literal sense you are doing nothing. What I and many others argue is that focus must return to structural means to address racial inequality.”

At the root of this critique is a profound distrust not just of words, but of social presentation. The signature failing of the left, according to deBoer, is hypocrisy. Leftists are consumed with performing virtue for others, rather than in doing the hard work of social change.

DeBoer’s critique resonates. Everybody, after all, knows somebody (or several somebodies) whose professed commitment to justice and equality is belied by self-serving and destructive actions. Hugo Schwyzer, a gender studies professor at Pasadena City College and supposed male feminist writer, infamously slept with numerous students, wrote about how he attempted to murder an ex-girlfriend, and confessed to trying to sabotage the careers of women of color. Schwyzer was aware of male privilege, and spoke out about it, but his deeds — to put it very mildly — didn’t match his words.

There are always going to be bad actors in any community. But deBoer’s argument isn’t about individual failures; it’s about structures. In deBoer’s view, the left is riddled with Hugo Schwyzers, because left ideology has become particularly dependent on hypocrisy. For deBoer, speech and social performance are divorced from action, and the emphasis on the first inevitably undermines the second. Everyone agrees that some people can’t be trusted. But deBoer’s argument is that no one’s words can be trusted, because words, and the performance of virtue, distract from the concrete work of changing the world.

It’s a dramatic theory. But is there any evidence that it is true? DeBoer doesn’t provide any. And, in fact, to the extent that there is evidence about the relationship between public presentation and action, it all goes the other way.

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini points to extensive psychological research that shows that people’s actions are strongly affected by what they say in public. People have a powerful desire to be and appear consistent; once you’ve taken a stand, you want to live up to it.

Cialdini points to the experiments of Steven J. Sherman, who called residents of Bloomington, Indiana, and asked them if they would in theory be willing to volunteer to collect money for the American Cancer Society. Most people of course wanted to present themselves as charitable, and so they said, “yes.”

DeBoer’s theory would predict that “yes” would substitute for actual action; the self-serving display of virtue, performed with glib ease out of a desire to impress, should make virtuous actions unnecessary or unlikely.

But in fact, the opposite proved to be the case. When Sherman called people back a few days after his initial contact to ask them to actually volunteer, the virtue signaling had a huge positive effect. Those who had said earlier that they would volunteer if asked were 700% more likely to agree to volunteer than those who had not been contacted before. In other words, signaling virtue made people seven times more likely to take virtuous actions than they would have otherwise been.

Similarly, it may look like getting people to sign petitions denouncing police violence is worthless, since this rarely changes police practice. But in fact, signing petitions often leads the signers to take more concrete steps: donating money, going to meetings, and generally becoming more committed to change. Performing virtue leads people to behave more virtuously.

More, public declarations, or public statements of support for a cause, can themselves be an important part of activism, according to Rachael Perrotta. Perrotta is a Chicago activist who provides pro bono PR and social media support for activist groups; she helped to advise the successful coalition that pushed the University of Chicago hospital to provide trauma care for the south side.

Based on her own experience, Perrotta disagreed “wholeheartedly” with the idea that virtue signaling detracted from activism. “All these winning campaigns in Chicago,” she told me, “were won in part because social media uplifted their actions, and because people who sit around and do social media and don’t go out to events spread [the word], to the extent that it was really heard.”

Real world action is essential, Perrotta told me; you need protest and organizing. But “people who say it’s taking away from real activism to have people just saying their thoughts, I would say it actually adds to the campaign,” she told me.

“At the base of the campaign, you’ve got between five and 20 core organizers, you have 3–400 people who are willing to come out for events. And then you have all the signal boosters, all the people who are sharing what you post on social media, or commenting on it, and that’s your social media army. And today that’s what creates news coverage, news coverage informs policy, and boom, you win campaigns.”

Both researchers and organizers, then, reject the idea that virtue signaling interferes with organizing. On the contrary, verbal commitment to the cause is an aspect of material commitment to the cause, both because saying is likely to lead to doing, and because saying itself can be an important part of activist campaigns.

People who speak out on progressive causes should certainly be challenged to live up to their ideals. But the idea that speaking out is itself a failure to live up to one’s ideals — that’s a mistaken and dangerous argument. When people say they are committed to anti-racism, they aren’t (just) posing. Rather, they become more likely to take actions on behalf of anti-racist causes. They also are boosting the message that anti-racism matters — and such message boosting, properly utilized, can help to bring about change. Virtue signaling isn’t a corrupting evil; it’s a resource. If you could stop everyone on the left from talking publicly about injustice tomorrow, the movement would not be advanced. It would be silenced.


Lead image: flickr/Rusty Sheriff

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