We want to be seen as taking the moral high ground not just to make a point, or move a debate forward, but to look a certain way — incensed, or compassionate, or committed to a cause. Another word for this type of discourse is grandstanding. Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke join the show to talk about how grandstanding affects our day to day political discourse.
As politics gets more and more polarized, people on both sides of the spectrum move further and further apart when they let grandstanding get in the way of engaging one another.
00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Powell: Our guests today are Justin Tosi, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, and Brandon Warmke, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. Their new book is Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. Welcome to the show, gentlemen.
00:25 Brandon Warmke: Thanks, guys, happy to be here.
00:27 Justin Tosi: Yeah, thanks for having us.
00:29 Aaron Powell: What is grandstanding?
00:30 Brandon Warmke: Well, if you wanted kind of the simplest bumper sticker description of grandstanding, grandstanding is the use of public discourse for self‐promotion. Grandstanders engage in discussions about politics and morality to try to impress people with how good they are, to seek social status. And so a bit more detailed, we give this account in the book that’s a very simple account of grandstanding, it just has two parts. Grandstanders say something in public discourse, they make a claim about morality or politics or about themselves. And that’s motivated, what they’re saying, we call that what they say, the grandstanding expression, and that’s motivated by a strong desire for moral recognition, we call this the recognition desire.
01:20 Brandon Warmke: And that desire could be all kinds of different things, you might have a general desire to just have people think well of you, you might have a specific desire for people to think that you care deeply about the poor or about family values, but whatever that desire is it’s motivating primarily what you say, so lots of our motivations are complex, but what grandstanders are really out for, what they really care about, is people coming away thinking that they’re something morally special .
01:50 Trevor Burrus: It seems weird to me because on some level it’s obvious and I’ve thought about this before that… So it’s like there’s two choices or there’s two possibilities here where you can be moral or whatever moral theory you have, you can be moral and you can seem moral. And those don’t actually have to be the same thing. It might be true that what is the actual moral truth doesn’t look moral to anyone else and so you look like a bad guy but you are being objectively a good guy or of course the inverse could be true, but it seems not that surprising that people would want those things to line up, that they both seem to be moral and that they are doing moral, so is that bad to grandstand and try and portray that?
02:33 Justin Tosi: Well, so the thing about trying to come across as being a morally good person is that your behavior or what you say will shift in ways that you might not expect. So you might think going into a conversation… Yeah, look, I just have this warehouse of things that I believe in my head and they’re talking about X so I’ll just go to the shelf with X on it and pull out my belief about X. But that’s not quite how it works, actually, and in fact if you’re out to show people that you’re good and maybe to stand out in your group, what you’ll do is to subtly shift the substance of your viewer, at least your expression of it, in order to seem especially good or to make it really clear that you’re good. So what you’ll often see people doing is they will gradually adopt more and more extreme positions in a conversation, so they might engage in what we call ramping up, so they’ll adopt a view or express a view that’s a little bit more extreme maybe than the last person who spoke. And this is how we end up going in a matter of 48 hours from “I think we should defund the police” to “abolish the police entirely” because people are trying to stand out as seeming especially against police brutality, for instance.
04:15 Aaron Powell: In moral theory when we’re assessing a moral agent, we can on the one hand assess their actions, that what’s morally right or wrong is based on what they actually do in the world and the consequences or whatever other criteria we have, and on the other side we might assess their motivations. And it seems like the grandstanding, this theory, sits somewhere in the middle or straddles them because on the one hand a lot of the negative things that you describe about it, the reasons that it’s like, “we shouldn’t be doing it, it’s bad, the consequences of it are consequences, there are things that happen in the world and we shouldn’t be doing that and it’s making the world worse and discourse worse” and so on, but on the other hand, your definition of grandstanding depends deeply on a subjective requirement that I have to intend to grandstand, I am trying to use moral talk to promote myself instead of trying to use it for other more laudable things. Is that a tension? And how does that subjective side of it mean that we should go about assessing grandstanding or recognizing it in the world, if to really know it depends on knowledge that exists only in the head of the actor?
05:38 Brandon Warmke: Yeah, I’ll just say a few things about the moral arguments. So over the course of three chapters in the book we give a “all hands on deck” set of moral arguments against grandstanding, where the conclusion to all of these arguments is that grandstanding is bad and should be avoided. So we have a chapter in which we argue that we think on balance grandstanding has some pretty serious social consequences, it promotes polarization, cynicism about moral discourse, it causes outrage exhaustion. And then we have a chapter in which we argue setting aside the consequences, we think that grandstanding is just disrespectful. It free rides on other people’s conscientious use of public discourse, it can be very deceitful and also it’s manipulative and coercive, constricting people into your morality play to shame them and punish them, that’s just not what morality is for.
06:33 Brandon Warmke: And then we have a chapter in which we argue for various reasons that a virtuous person wouldn’t grandstand, that on traditional Aristotelian accounts, on virtue consequentialist accounts, and then we have a fun kind of section on Nietzsche, where we argue that Nietzsche would even argue for virtue‐based reasons that people shouldn’t grandstand. So what should we make of all that? Well, compare grandstanding to lying, so lying is another activity, or bullshitting or demagoguery or bragging, lots of these phenomena, discursive phenomena are essentially defined by, at least in part, by what’s in our head. So you don’t lie just because you say something false. You lie because you intend or decide to mislead someone.
07:23 Brandon Warmke: And so grandstanding also has this, as you know, Aaron, this sort of mental aspect that’s often not transparent to us, but no one would argue that lying is not wrong. And in fact, worse than simply accidentally perhaps misleading someone. And so there’s something sort of really bad about intentionally lying, that… And lying has worse consequences than just saying something false, right? So you might lose trust. It’s a sort of disrespectful in a way that simply getting the facts wrong isn’t. So there’s all these things that are bad about lying, that are bad in virtue, not just of the consequences, but also bad about what someone’s doing, what someone is trying to mislead or deceive. And so grandstanding in a way is very similar in this respect. Grandstanding is a… It’s certainly a behavior, it’s something we outwardly do, but it also has this interior mental element.
08:24 Brandon Warmke: And we think that that explains further ways in which it’s wrong. So throughout the book, if it’s helpful to think about grandstanding along the lines of bullshitting or demagoguery or humblebragging, lying, these are all phenomena that have to essentially refer to mental states. The point you make about knowing whether someone is grandstanding or not is a really nice one. We… This is a… I think for us, and I think for a lot of people, when they first hear about grandstanding, it’s a frustrating thing because a lot of people wanna say they read the book or they hear about the work and they think, okay, give me the test. How do I know that I see grandstanding? And we go through in the book lots of ways that grandstanding appears, what it looks like, maybe some clues for how to determine it, but there’s no fool‐proof test, just like there’s no fool‐proof test for determining whether someone is lying or not. In controlled studies, humans are not much better than the flip of a coin at determining whether someone is lying to them.
09:25 Brandon Warmke: And so for lots of reasons, we go into, it’s probably not a good idea to just go around trying to identify grandstanding, even though it’s bad behavior. We think that it’s also just gonna have bad consequences to go around trying to call people out. So we have some other solutions for how to solve grandstanding that we could talk about later, but you’re absolutely right, the grandstanding is just not transparent, it’s just not obvious that someone’s doing it. I know there are some pretty obvious cases, we discuss the case of Harvey Weinstein in the book after he got caught, talking about how much he cares about women and so on. And that seems pretty transparent grandstanding. But in the main, it’s a very difficult thing to discern. In a way, that’s why grandstanding is such a quiet poison. Because grandstanders are camouflaging themselves in this moral language, this moral talk. They’re treating discourse as a way to get what they really want, which is status and impressing other people, but they cloak it in this high‐minded moral language that really does hide their true intentions, even if it is successful at getting people to really think they’re morally among the angels.
10:36 Trevor Burrus: It seems that grandstanding is interestingly indexical. When you’re discussing ramping up, I was thinking about my life as a professional libertarian, and the fact that in different times in my life, I’ve been in situations where there were a bunch of libertarians in the room who broadly agreed on things, but sometimes you can get into a situation where they’re each trying to be more libertarian than the next one. I’ve always said that.
11:01 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, there’s a famous story of Mises and Friedman and Hayek being at the Mont Pelerin Society, and I can’t remember who it was, but at some point, I think Mises was the one who called them a bunch of socialists and walked out of the room because they thought roads or something were a good idea. And I’ve watched libertarians become anarchists over the course of a conversation. Just like you mentioned about police, it’s like defund police. Abolish police. We don’t need anything. And I’ve always said it’s like libertarianism is the vegetarianism of politics where there’s no feasible upper limit on human superiority complexes. So vegetarians, then you have people who are vegans who hate on the vegetarians, and there are people who are going raw who hate on the vegans, and you can keep going down that vine.
11:44 Trevor Burrus: But it does matter who you’re around, in some sense, who you are grandstanding to, and do like‐minded people gathering together and perhaps only seeing each other’s feeds on social media and stuff, is this exacerbating the problem to some extent, ’cause they’re all grandstanding to each other about who’s the best version of this moral person that they agree on would be a generally moral person?
12:07 Justin Tosi: Yeah, that’s great. I think one of the biggest losses of everyone being in lockdown because of this pandemic is that there was no Libertarian Party convention for this election cycle. Some of those clips from the last one are pretty great.
12:24 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we don’t… Unfortunately, yes, that’s the image of the party. I agree it’s entertaining, it’s a little bit disheartening, though, but of course, Cato has nothing to do with the Libertarian Party.
12:33 Justin Tosi: No, no, of course. Right, but the point you make is a great one. Of course, it depends on who you’re around. And this is one of the reasons that it’s so difficult to detect grandstanding because it’s just so contextual, right? So the things that people say in front of a group of libertarians, it means something very different if they said them with a very different audience. So this is still more support for the idea that it’s not a good… There’s just not gonna be a fool‐proof test for detecting grandstanding. But let me focus also on something else that you said, Trevor, about people who are kind of like‐minded, getting together and it seems like they get in these moral arms races, they ramp up, like we were saying earlier, and they end up with these really crazy views.
13:27 Justin Tosi: So this is the driving force behind one of maybe the most concerning problem with grandstanding that Brandon and I talk about in the book, and that is that it induces, we think, a lot of political polarization. So the way this works is you get people talking together about some issue and maybe all of your libertarian friends and you might think, well, you know, I am a really extreme believer in personal liberty, none of these people is more extreme than I am about this issue or whatever issue we’re talking about.
14:13 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s Murray Rothbard we’re just talking about right now, I guess.
14:16 Justin Tosi: Yeah. So, then people start talking, you’re like, oh, alright, well, man, these people actually are pretty out there, but still, I’m like, I’m as pure as it gets, so if they’re saying things that are crazy to the fifth degree, I have to go to the sixth degree, why not. This is why we think people end up, in a lot of cases, adopting really extreme views, and especially when they get to talking with members of their in‐group because it’s easier for them to subtly shift their view about some issue than it is for them to see themselves as maybe less morally pure than they thought about themselves going in.
15:08 Brandon Warmke: Yeah, so one of the things we do in the book is we explain the psychological mechanisms that are at play here, so as it turns out, decades of research show that many people think that they are morally better than average. As they conceive of morality, they think that they’re morally better than the average person. Psychologists call this moral self‐enhancement, it’s a very strong and robust effect. But we also care about what other people think of us, and we engage in what psychologists call impression management, so often, we want people to think of us the way that we think of us, so if I think of myself, for example, as caring deeply for the poor, or caring deeply about the non‐aggression principle or something, then I want people to know it.
15:53 Brandon Warmke: I want people to believe those things about me, and one thing we know, we have some good evidence in what Cass Sunstein calls the law of group polarization, so if you get a group of like‐minded people together and you have them deliberate, there’s this thing called social comparison that happens, and because we think of ourselves largely in relation to how we perceive ourselves in relation to others, it is like I’m not funny, I’m not funny in lots of areas of my life, but when I go home to my family, I’m like the funniest person there, so I think of myself as really funny. So you might hang out with your friends, and you think you really care about liberty, and then you go to… You go to an event with a bunch of libertarians and you’re like, “Holy hell, these people really care about it,” and so you get these like‐minded people together and there is a kind of social comparison, so Aaron says, “I really think that we should have this policy,” and he looks like he really cares about liberty.
16:46 Brandon Warmke: So I can either let him have pride of place or I can try to one up him and because in order to preserve this view of myself, to myself and to others, I have a choice to make, and often what people do is they get into these iterative discussions about some issue and they come out more extreme than they were. And the problem is, of course, these things are happening in all different kinds of communities, they are happening on the right and the left, and so we have some empirical evidence for this too, is that grandstanding is actually causing political polarization, it’s actually causing people to push further apart. And so the kind of dynamic… The kind of dynamic, Trevor, that you have in mind is we think one of the most fundamental causes of polarization, at least as it occurs in conversations.
17:38 Aaron Powell: I want to follow‐up briefly on the empirical question, at the risk of taking us slightly off‐topic. So in the book, you draw a lot, as you said, on empirical research, on specifically psychological studies, and you mentioned that you guys have started working on your own stuff in that area with another professor, and as I was reading it, I was wondering about the replication crisis and how when you’re doing empirically grounded, psychologically grounded philosophy, you think about or deal with that. And so for our listeners, this is just the idea that, especially in experimental psychology, there has been a growing recognition of a problem that a lot of these studies don’t replicate, so if someone else runs the same study again, they either don’t find as large of effects or they don’t find any effects. And so it calls into question some of the results, and so how do you approach that when you’re building philosophical theories on top of psychological research?
18:41 Brandon Warmke: Yeah, that’s really important. When Justin and I went into the book, we wanted it to be an empirically supported and grounded book, but we were also very much aware of the replication crisis as you described. Now, what we did was a few things, One, we tried to draw only from really well‐established research paradigms and programs in personality and social psychology. We ran the book by four or five professional psychologists, empirical psychologists, and we ran them by people who really care about replication, and so we tried to vet the book by the best standards of personality and social psychology.
19:28 Brandon Warmke: The other thing we did was we didn’t rely on any studies that we thought were bad. So we read… We actually read the studies and sometimes I’d wanna put something in and Justin would say, “No, that’s not a great study,” or Josh Grubbs, our psychologist that we work with, would say, “Yeah, maybe steer clear away from that.” We don’t… I don’t think we cite any studies that discuss priming. So a lot of the studies that haven’t been replicated are priming studies. You give someone a stimulus and then you see how they respond in sort of surprising, in sort of weird ways. We don’t engage in any of that. All of our studies are pretty straightforward. All the data that we’ve collected ourselves is high‐quality data, YouGov data, demographically matched to the US. And huge numbers, too. We’ve done, I think ourselves… Our studies have included 6000 participants.
20:20 Brandon Warmke: So, now look, all that being said, 100 years from now, five years from now, maybe some of this stuff is gonna be shown to be problematic in various ways. But this is just part of the enterprise of trying to… Especially for philosophers. I think philosophers have all these theories and often no data, and psychologists have all of this data, and I think one problem that psychologists have had with the replication crisis, they have all this data, and they don’t have any good theories. They don’t have a way to sort of coherently understand what’s going on. And so this is sort of self‐serving, but I think Justin and I think of ourselves as sort of bringing these two crowds together, and provide a theory that makes sense of all this data. And yeah, it’s at the behest of the winds of time and what science ends up discovering. But I think Justin and I are both pretty confident right now that all of the research programs that we draw on are decades old. And as far as we can tell now, they’re… They’ve held up under pretty rich scrutiny.
21:27 Justin Tosi: Yeah, that’s right. So we have been just… I think it’s fair to say absurdly careful. Now, that will come back to bite me, I’m sure, when someone finds…
21:37 Brandon Warmke: I wish you wouldn’t have said that.
21:38 Justin Tosi: Shouldn’t have said that. Oh, well.
21:40 Trevor Burrus: Yep.
21:41 Justin Tosi: But. Well… So one further thing… Look, we have no interest here in trying to sneak anything through. One other thing that we’ve done is, as far as I know, we are following all of the new practices for the Open Science Framework. And our colleague, Brandon’s colleague, Josh Grubbs, when he… Before he runs any of these studies, he uploads our hypotheses and plan analysis and all of the other things that people are doing now to the Open Science Framework website. So I don’t… It’s probably too much bravado to say we’re calling our shots. But we’re being really careful.
22:21 Trevor Burrus: Now, it seems to a lot of people, I’m sure, that this is a good book for the times, given our grand stander in chief, maybe, to some extent. But also a bunch of people… And during the crisis now and the protests we’re seeing, we’re seeing this a lot. Do you guys think that this is different now? Or is it… Are you just diagnosing something that maybe comes in the sine waves in American history or world history, and maybe we’re at the top of one, or something… Has something changed?
22:50 Brandon Warmke: It’s so hard to know, Trevor, when you’re in the middle of it, where you’re at. Justin and I started writing about grandstanding in 2014. We went to grad school together at the University of Arizona and I just remember vividly one night we were standing in a parking lot of a Mexican restaurant, we… Here come the nachos. [chuckle] This was an ongoing joke in a very early podcast. Justin said I talk about nachos too much. So we were talking…
23:19 Trevor Burrus: Oh, no. It’s fine. This is totally acceptable.
23:21 Brandon Warmke: It’s not possible. Exactly, thank you. So we had this… We just had this sort of epiphany. We’re like, being on social media, it just seemed to like a lot of people were… The moral conversations they were having seemed to be very centered around themselves, a lot of “I” talk, a lot of “me” talk, a lot of “look at me”, kind of showy, preening. And it struck us as something kind of new was going on. Now, looking back on that conversation, 2014, when we started writing the original paper… From now it’s like quaint, things have really changed, and I don’t think they’ve changed, all things considered, for the better. I think one thing that’s happened is that more and more people are online. I think the social, psychological, personality ingredients of grandstanding are of… Sort of… As fundamentally human as something could be.
24:14 Brandon Warmke: The drives for status, the drive to have other people think well of you, in lots of contexts of life those are perfectly or mostly innocent desires to have or even maybe desires to satisfy. But I think that in… The fact that these very basic temptations and human drives have been unleashed in a way that I think in no time in human history could people have imagined. A hundred years ago to have a crowd of a hundred people listen to what you’d say, you’d have to own a newspaper or have a radio station or be a preacher or a politician or stand on the street corner. Now, literally anyone with a phone and a Twitter account can talk to a hundred people. And I think it’s much easier to satisfy these desires, and I think it’s much harder to avoid seeing other people grandstanding.
25:06 Brandon Warmke: Now, we don’t have a grand theory about the present moment like, “why are things so crazy right now?” I think it’s a very complex situation having to do with… Maybe it’s Trump, maybe it’s COVID quarantine, maybe it’s a lot of bottled‐up resentment. We don’t really have a theory about that. But I think one thing you are seeing now is people using extremely easy access to a soapbox to satisfy very basic human desires and not restraining ourselves, when doing so would actually promote healthier norms for public discourse.
25:42 Justin Tosi: Just to add one thing about this. A lot of people, I think… Well, I know a lot of people think this because since the very first thing Brandon and I did about this, people have been trying to conscript us into the culture wars and to make this, either make this into…
26:00 Trevor Burrus: About the other side?
26:02 Justin Tosi: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
26:02 Trevor Burrus: You wrote this about them, right? It’s not about us, it’s about them.
26:06 Justin Tosi: Well, that, or it’s an attack on us, they would say. So a lot of people try to turn this into like an anti‐left product and it’s just not. And I don’t even need to sort of claim just about our motives. If you think for five minutes or less about the history of how people have abused moral talk, it isn’t like the left has just recently started doing this. Think back to the Iraq war, how many people were shut out of the public sphere because they were supposedly soft on terror? Or think about the moral majority in the ‘80s, no end of preening in that movement. Or think even back to the McCarthy days of anti‐communism, no shortage of moral grandstanding there either. The other thing about this is one of the things we’ve been so glad, not at all surprised, but so glad to have revealed by our empirical work is that this is just not a partisan phenomenon. If you look at a graph of who is showing grandstanding tendencies, who admits to showing the profile of a grandstander, according to our grandstanding scale that we developed with Josh Grubbs, it’s like a U‐shaped curve.
27:33 Justin Tosi: It doesn’t tell you anything to know that someone’s liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t tell you whether they’re more or less likely to be a grandstander, because it’s a problem on both sides. What it does show, however, is that people who have more extreme views are more likely to engage in grandstanding, we think probably because those are the people who are most keen to show that they share the values of their group, and maybe even stand out within their group as being the most committed to its values.
28:08 Aaron Powell: As I was reading the book, and you have the section where you talk about the five types of grandstanding, I was struck that most of them, so probably piling on, ramping up, trumping up and displays of strong emotion at least fit into hyperbole. And that it seems like our culture has cultural discourse shifts and like the way that people speak shift. And we can go from periods of ironic understatement to periods of lots of hyperbole, which seems to be what we’re in now. And it’s not just in moral, but it’s in headline writing is like “five things every ‘90s kid will remember, and number six will drive you insane,” or reaction videos on YouTube where someone watches a movie trailer and just loses it. And so hyperbole seems to be like the coin of the realm at this point in not necessarily a moral way, but just in like that’s how we express ourself. And so is there potentially a relationship to that, that grandstanding is maybe, or for a lot of people, not this kind of malicious or deceitful thing, but simply bringing the language of hyperbole into moral talk, like overstating for dramatic effect?
29:28 Brandon Warmke: Yeah. So let’s think about what hyperbole does, how does hyperbole function or exaggeration? One of the things that we would argue is that hyperbole and exaggeration, which you’re absolutely right, that a lot of grandstanding is hyperbole and exaggeration. One reason grandstanders use it is because it’s a way to get attention. “This is the most egregious violation of protocol ever, we’ve never had a president do this,” or, “You won’t believe what the other side did.” This is the way to get attention. And so if what you’re… If one thing that you’re after is status, attention, people looking at you, people thinking that you are of high prestige sort of moral exemplar, then one way to get that attention, to stand out is simply to be more extreme, to be more hyperbolic than everyone else.
30:26 Brandon Warmke: And so there may be… I guess I can imagine someone who engages in a hyperbole or exaggeration merely as a kind of instrument to draw attention to what they’re saying, so that the thought would be something like not all cases of exaggeration or hyperbole are grandstanding, but the thought would be something like hyperbole and exaggeration are tools in the grandstander’s trade. It’s a way to stand out. It’s a way to make yourself look, say, for example, more incensed than everyone else about this. I remember Obama… We give a couple examples in the book. One of, Obama wore a tan suit once to a press conference when he discussed the Islamic state and he just got pummelled by the right and then he also…
31:12 Trevor Burrus: [chuckle] That was one of the stupidest moments in politics. That’s saying a lot.
31:16 Justin Tosi: Yeah. And then he also, I think he was exiting Marine One once and he had a coffee, a Starbucks cup in his hand.
31:24 Trevor Burrus: He saluted with coffee in his hand, yeah.
31:26 Justin Tosi: Yeah, he saluted a Marine with coffee in his hand, which turns out that is a minor breach of protocol, but Karl Rove lost his mind, Breitbart was all over it, right? So here’s one thing that could be going on here. So this is clearly exaggeration and hyperbole, but what’s Karl Rove doing? Well, one thing he could be doing is saying, “Look, no one cares more about presidential decorum than this guy. I care more… I am so incensed by this.” And we know from empirical research that outrage is a reliable signal of moral conviction. It seems pretty obvious, but the more outraged you get, the more outraged you get, the more convicted you are about this moral issue. And so if Karl Rove is like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe Obama did this thing,” then one thing he could be doing is trying to draw attention to himself as someone who has a very sensitive moral compass.
32:21 Justin Tosi: Of course, there are lots of other things he could be doing. It could just be a cynical ploy to attack the president. Maybe that’s more likely, I don’t know, but it’s certainly true that one thing grandstanders do is exaggerate, use hyperbole, excessive emotions to try to draw attention to themselves. You gotta stand out somehow.
32:42 Brandon Warmke: Yeah, I really like this thought. I just want to note, some people have looked at our stuff and they think, well, all grandstanding is hyperbole, right? So maybe it’s even just part of the concept that you must be exaggerating some moral reaction or something like that in order to be grandstanding. I don’t think that you were suggesting this, Aaron, but just to nip this confusion in the bud, we think that’s not right. And if you think about this, so take an example in that we talk about in the book of Harvey Weinstein writing this letter about how he respects women, he doesn’t really say anything hyperbolic in the letter. He just says, yeah, I’m gonna go after Donald Trump now. I’m gonna go after the NRA, I’m starting this foundation for women and so on and so forth. And all of this is, I think, pretty transparently, and I think most people who’ve read this letter had the negative reaction that this is very transparent. It’s just a transparent ploy to get people to think better, but there’s no hyperbole in it. And yet, it’s still grandstanding, because he’s using his suppose moral commitments in order to look good, in order to raise his status or to repair his public image.
34:12 Trevor Burrus: I liked Aaron’s idea that hyperbole is the coin of the realm, but I agree, it’s not just hyperbole. And a lot of this had me thinking about fandom, so we do have a kind of a new world of fandom and conventions and being a fan of certain genres or certain property, Star Wars, Pokemon or whatever. And I think you see something like grandstanding when it’s not moral talk, when you’re trying to prove that you’re the biggest fan of something. And it also reminded me of a few years ago, I read a book called Confederates in the Attic, which part of that book gets into the Civil War reenactor subculture, which is basically cosplaying for Civil War reenactors kind of, but they are deeply interested in one‐upping each other on who is the most extreme Civil War reenactor.
35:00 Trevor Burrus: You have to wear wool clothing in July, in August, ’cause that’s what the actual soldiers wore. If you break a foot, you should march on it, ’cause that’s what you would have had to do in the war. Those are the hard core people. So maybe all we’re really seeing here is just the expected outcome where we’ve seen in other things that are not political or moral, but the expected outcome of grouping together better that we’re able to do now, which is related to the previous question, but I think it’s bigger than just politics.
35:31 Brandon Warmke: Yeah, you can bet, if in some social circle or community there’s a desirable trait, you can pretty much make a sure bet that people will try to outdo each other to exemplify or express that trait. So you can think of there’s a kind of intellectual grandstanding, bragging about, you’ve probably been at dinner with a know‐it‐all, and it’s just really exhausting and annoying. People who at dinner, brag about how much money they make. People who grew up in religious backgrounds, there’s a lot of spiritual, religious grandstanding. And so you’re at… And I think this is… You’re right. This is just grist for our mill if there are these basic fundamental human desires, and it turns out that morality is no different. One of our frustrations is that people seem to think that they have a very… Well, we would say, a very naive view about morality, about moral talk. That people are real selfish in lots of other areas, so this is grist for the libertarian’s mill, so people say people are too selfish to give to charity and do things on their own, they need the government to come in and like do these things.
36:44 Brandon Warmke: So people are really selfish, but then they have this view that like when we’re discussing morality, all that goes away. All of our desires to promote ourselves and protect ourselves, all those things go away, and it’s some sort of magic moral realm where people are just talking about their sincere, morally held beliefs out of morally pure motives. And we just think that’s just naïve. That’s just not a realistic way to understand what people are doing. Ideally, that would be the case, but it’s pretty clear that what’s going on… No one really thinks that someone deserves a death threat for a minor internet faux pas. That’s not… You can’t really think that that’s… These people are really trying to figure out the moral truth here. That just can’t be what’s going on. So yeah, if humans are sort of a mixed bag, morally speaking, maybe best case scenario, we’re all sort of a mixed bag, we should absolutely expect in contexts where we’re discussing morality in politics, for people to engage in it for motives that are not all that laudable.
37:57 Justin Tosi: Yeah, I like this thought a lot and this comparison a lot, Trevor. We read a bunch of social psychology for this book, and one of the things that emerges so clearly, people are just so desperate to belong. One of the worst things that can happen to you is to just have no social group, I say very alone in West Texas, so why do people all have to have all of the funko‐pop toys to prove they are the biggest dork, right?
38:35 Brandon Warmke: Oh, I feel so attacked right now.
38:38 Justin Tosi: Yeah, don’t go to Brandon’s house.
38:41 Trevor Burrus: Fan culture is pretty poisonous, yeah.
38:44 Justin Tosi: So there’s this great… I think this might be my favorite thing that we found for the book, is this thing called the black sheep effect. So what the literature says basically is the worst thing that you can be is an unreliable member of your group, so if you’re a Civil War reenactor who’s not really into… Like, I saw that guy wearing a normal belt once.
39:07 Brandon Warmke: He’s wearing Nikes on the battlefield.
39:09 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, no, he’d be kicked out immediately, yeah, yeah.
39:13 Justin Tosi: Yeah. So people, of course, think the best of the very strongly committed members of their group, they can see something that’s at least principled about the outgroup or strongly in the outgroup, and then the people who are kind of in the outgroup that they work with you sometimes it’s like, okay, well, at least they’re useful, but then the people who are not really all the way in your group, like “What a jerk. Like… ”
39:44 Brandon Warmke: They’re traitors.
39:45 Justin Tosi: “What side is he on? Right, what does he think he’s doing?” Like he only has one funko pop. Think of like John McCain is a good figure for seeing this. He probably had higher status at most points in his career in the Democratic Party than in the Republican party, because he was kind of the black sheep of the Republican Party. So I think people know this, they know they don’t want to be seen as sort of like someone people can’t count on, and so they kinda overdo it with morality, so just like they do with fandom or being a member of a political party.
40:26 Aaron Powell: You guys dedicate an entire chapter to grandstanding in politics, and while we may point out that there’s grandstanding in non‐politic, in the non‐clinical spheres, whether that’s fandom or Civil War reenactment or whatever else, it does seem, I bet that if you ask people where they see the most grandstanding or name the biggest grandstanders, it’s going to be either in politics or grandstanding about politics. And I wondered about that relationship and kind of the line of causation or the direction of causation that do we have a tendency to grandstand more about political issues, or is it that the issues that we tend to grandstand a lot about become politicized?
41:20 Justin Tosi: So Tyler Cowen, maybe this is what you’re thinking of, Tyler Cowen, who many of your listeners are probably familiar with.
41:28 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, he’s been on the show.
41:30 Justin Tosi: Oh, yeah, he’s terrific. I’ve learned so much from him. He had this nice post about child abuse, so why isn’t child abuse more of a political issue. Well, so one thing is like kids don’t vote, but maybe…
41:45 Aaron Powell: Isn’t that, that’s all that QAnon is about, though, so.
41:47 Justin Tosi: Is it? There’s a lot going on with QAnon.
41:48 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, there’s a lot going on. But that is, yes, okay, but we take, we take your point, yes.
41:56 Justin Tosi: So people don’t really… It’s not like a live political issue and people don’t really grandstand about it that much. I’m sure if you go to… I’m sure there are Facebook like child abuse communities and people will try to outdo each other there, but most politicians don’t really talk about it, so I guess this points to your direction of causation question. I guess I tend to think we probably… We go where the status is, right, and there’s not much status to be gained from bashing child molesters. There’s probably more status to be gained, more reputation to be made for going after people who are on the wrong side of some hot button political issue. Now, I guess you could invent a wedge issue and everything has to be new eventually, but it’s probably more work to find something new to grandstand about in politics, at least, than it is to just pick an existing issue and get a good line in there.
43:07 Brandon Warmke: I suspect that… I suspect that people grandstand much more frequently about wedge issues when there’s another side of considerable size who disagrees with you about it, and so the idea there is there is an outgroup, there’s a clear definable outgroup that you can show that you’re better than. And there’s also a power struggle, there’s a kind of struggle within a group for power over that group, and so my suspicion, and this would have to be, this is obviously an empirical question, is that the more something is a wedge issue, the more something is something that could be a talking point, say, between political parties, you’re gonna find more grandstanding. And that just has to do with the incentives, just has to do with the mechanisms that explain why people engage in status‐seeking behavior.
44:05 Brandon Warmke: I do think another issue, this goes to Robert Talisse’s work on overdoing democracy, I do think that politics has just taken over more areas of our life. Thirty‐four years ago, there was just lots of areas of life that I think were not as politicized as they are now. What kind of food you eat, what kind of car you drive, how big of a house you have, where you…
44:31 Trevor Burrus: Plastic straws…
44:32 Brandon Warmke: Plastic straws, what neighborhood you live in, what did the neighborhood that you lived in used to look like 50 years ago. There’s just lots of moralized… I think it’s pretty clear that lots of things have been moralized and politicized that weren’t previously. And so there’s a kind of creeping politicization of these things that… So we have to protect them. We have to… Once you make how big your yard is or what neighborhood you live in a political issue, well, you have to be prepared to defend it. So I think it’s a really complicated… There’s gotta be some really complicated story here, I don’t have a clear answer to Aaron’s really nice question, but I think… I think those two things that you grandstand more about wedge issues, and that there has been a clear, increasing politicizing of lots of areas of life.
45:28 Trevor Burrus: So I think that a lot of people listening this or reading your book would say, “Yeah, man, those people grandstand all the time.” And it’s very hard to tell someone that they’re grandstanding and have them listen to you. It’s kind of like telling someone that they’re brainwashed. No one ever says, “I am brainwashed,” right? It’s only an epithet. And so, in this like… You know, one of the lessons should be look in the mirror first, think about those times that you might have been grandstanding, and which I can remember personally many times… I think I’ve gotten better as I’ve…
45:58 Aaron Powell: I have personally never done it.
46:00 Trevor Burrus: Especially not on Twitter.
46:02 Brandon Warmke: And I’m disgusted. And I’m personally disgusted and offended that I’m on the line with some people who have. I just wanna note that.
46:08 Trevor Burrus: I am more disgusted and offended. Are you kidding me?
46:10 Brandon Warmke: Oh, okay. Well…
46:12 Justin Tosi: Well, you know, I wanna take another line on this… And I think if Aaron cared more about morality, he would have erred more on the side of grandstanding.
46:18 Brandon Warmke: Yeah, absolutely.
46:20 Trevor Burrus: You don’t care enough about morality here, and we’ll just… So, diagnose yourself. But it seems of limited utility to diagnose others with this problem. Kind of goes back to Aaron’s first question.
46:35 Brandon Warmke: Yeah. So we have… So the last chapter in the book is what to do about grandstanding. And this is in many ways the hardest chapter to write. I think Justin and I by disposition are not all that inclined to tell people exactly how to live their lives or what to do. And I also think giving people advice about grandstanding is fraught with all kinds of partisan traps. I mean, people take our advice is like, “Well, you’re picking on the left, you’re picking on the right.” So here’s what we do say in that last chapter, very briefly, we argue is that you’re absolutely right that calling people out for grandstanding is probably not a good idea.
47:12 Brandon Warmke: I think for most people, their first response when they hear about grandstanding is like, “Alright, tell me who’s doing it, and I’m gonna call them out.” And we think that for several reasons, this is just not the right way to do… It is not the right way to address grandstanding. One, it’s really hard to tell when someone’s doing it, and so two, it’s unfair to make a public accusation when you’re just not sure, and then three, it’s just practically… It’s not workable practically. I mean, I accuse you of grandstanding and then you accuse me of grandstanding, and then we get in an argument about what’s in my heart, what’s in your heart, and the first time… That’s just not a way to have a productive conversation.
47:54 Brandon Warmke: So what do we do? Well, we draw on some work here from Cristina Bicchieri, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, and the idea is that we need to change norms. So we have this bad norm that’s taken hold in some online circles, political circles, where grandstanding is common and it’s rewarded. And we wanna get to a new norm where grandstanding is uncommon, it’s embarrassing to engage in, and people aren’t inclined to do it, they’re able to restrain themselves in public discourse. So how do we change those norms? It’s really a three‐step process. One step is to become… Convince ourselves that grandstanding is wrong, and then set a good example in public discourse. So instead of engaging in public discourse and making it about me, make it about the evidence, make it about the data, make it about things that don’t have to do with raising my status.
48:52 Brandon Warmke: So one thing is, to set a good example, admit when you’re wrong. Be harder on ourselves then we are on others. I think most of us, we tend to be very gentle with ourselves and forgiving of ourselves, and we’re very hard on others, and I think morality demands a kind of division of labor where we’re easy on others, or at least… Or harder on ourselves than we are than others. And then also just redirect our desire for recognition in other ways. I think this is a very basic human desire. The desire for status, to impress other people, the problems when we engage in moral discourse to satisfy those desires, we end up with cheap talk, and we cause polarization and lots of interpersonal conflict. One thing we say in the book is just to redirect that desire.
49:37 Brandon Warmke: So if you really want clout for doing something morally good, well, maybe go out to a soup kitchen or something and do something actually good for people and then take a photo of it and post it on Twitter. I mean, you might be getting some recognition for that, but at least in the process you will be doing something good. And then the last thing we argue in that chapter is that we do need to try to figure out some social mechanism for distance and advice on grandstanding, and what we settled on is to try to make grandstanding embarrassing.
50:07 Brandon Warmke: So when there’s something that you think might be grandstanding, or is likely grandstanding, just ignore it. Don’t reward people for their selfless stands that everyone praises them for being so brave. Imagine writing a long Facebook post about how this little thing offends your moral sensibilities and then no one replies, no one likes it. That’s, for most of us, embarrassing. And so it’s a more subtle way of changing norms without going around and scolding people for grandstanding.
50:42 Justin Tosi: We should stress one other thing about this, and that is, we don’t want anyone to take this book as sending the message that you just shouldn’t engage in moral talk. The point of this book is that moral talk is really important. It’s a resource we need to protect, but it’s also a resource we need to use. So we have this test that we applied a couple of points in the book, and I think people can use this day‐to‐day, and that is when you’re about to contribute something to public moral discourse, ask yourself, if it turned out that no one was actually impressed with me because of the thing I’m about to say, so that I got nothing out of saying this, would I be disappointed? And if the answer is yes, then we think you should probably be worried. You should worry that you’re engaging in grandstanding. But if you think on reflection that, no, this is just worth saying, period, and even if nobody notices, nobody cares about me at all, I should say it. Then you should say it, because you’re not grandstanding.
52:00 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.