"Shame on you!"

Moral grandstanding is more than tiresome. It's pushing people to extremes.

A young woman tweeted an image of her character in the videogame Animal Crossing, a smiley cartoon girl with big glasses and Princess Leia-style hair, captioned “Cute space buns.” The blowback came in a hurry.

First, angry messages said the hairstyle did not constitute “space buns” but “afro puffs,” and that the gamer was racist for applying these to her character. “If you’re not BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color], it’s not meant for ya. dumb bitches,” one said. Then came the blowback to the blowback: “You’re super privileged AF if your life is SO EASY that you can complain about crap like this,” one tweet said. “I wish my problems were as small as yours. Do better and strive to become less fragile.”

Each side was claiming the high ground, speaking as if asserting an important moral lesson. But nothing of the kind was happening.

Moral debate is a vital tool in society: We use it to identify people who harm others; to praise those worthy of trust; to spur positive social change. But some people—especially on social media—use moral talk for another purpose: social status. This is called “moral grandstanding,” and it’s pushing us apart in dangerous ways.

According to recent studies, grandstanding is relatively common and is equally distributed across the partisan divide. This basic drive for status is compounded by other aspects of human psychology. We generally think we are morally better than the average person; we want others to think highly of us morally; and how we think of ourselves is affected by how we think we compare to others.

However, it can be difficult to know whether someone is grandstanding. Grandstanders may be sincere and may be making accurate moral claims, even if they are also trying to get attention. This is why simply accusing someone of grandstanding is not a valid way to dismiss what they are saying. But here is how to identify it. The twin defining elements of moral grandstanding are:

  1. A moral claim, expressed in public speech or writing. A grandstander might say something like: “To those of us who care about justice, it’s obvious that the police need to be abolished. How is this even a debate in 2020?”

  2. A desire to impress others. For example: “I can’t believe all these sheep, wearing masks in public, simply obeying the liberal media. Be a man!” The grandstander aims not just to state an opinion, but to show off his courage, flouting the medical consensus.

Sometimes people grandstand by piling-on, as when they register agreement with a large group, so they can be seen as being on the “right side of history,” or doing their bit to shame an alleged wrongdoer. Other grandstanders turn conversations into an arms race, in which people ramp up moral claims. So, imagine that one person on Twitter says the police need to be reformed, and an attention-seeking grandstander replies: “Reform the police? Are you kidding me? Clearly you don’t care about justice if you can’t see that all police must be abolished.”

Grandstanders, in an effort to display their sensitivity, also trump up spurious moral charges. Someone could say, for instance, “Hey everybody, just FYI, the last six contestants on the Wheel of Fortune were all black. If you needed a more obvious example of white genocide, look no further. I’ll no longer be watching.”

Some grandstanding takes the form of excessive displays of emotion. So, imagine someone saying: “I am absolutely shaking with rage that Joe Biden would invite a card-carrying socialist on stage with him. As a freedom-loving American, I’ve seriously never been so angry and fearful for our nation.”

Grandstanders are also dismissive, treating their opponents as too corrupt to see what is obvious to the morally enlightened. “Look, I’m not having this conversation if I have to explain to you that burning the flag is an unforgivable insult to all veterans and God-fearing patriots,” a grandstander might say. “Shut up and do your homework before you try to talk to me again.”

But why shouldn’t we want other people to know how good we are? Setting aside the fact that we probably aren’t as good as we think, grandstanding diminishes our ability to have productive moral conversations. Morality should be about helping others. But grandstanders use it to enhance their status.

With the psychologist Joshua Grubbs, we recently conducted studies that suggest grandstanding accounts for some of the polarization in society. People are increasingly endorsing more extreme political views, and have more negative reactions to those on the other side of arguments. Grandstanders know that they can gain status in their ideological in-groups by presenting themselves as having the most morally pure beliefs. In discussions with people who want to present themselves as the most pure, they subtly shift their views to become more extreme.

Nobody sets out to become an extremist, but grandstanding puts people on a natural course to that destination. In order to distinguish yourself, you have to be more remarkable than others who are also trying to be remarkable. Grandstanding pushes us into increasingly divided camps, leading us to say and believe things not because they’re true, but because we think they will impress our friends or embarrass our enemies.

You might think that the answer is to start calling people out when we suspect them of grandstanding. But we doubt that strategy will be productive. We can’t read people’s minds, and therefore can’t prove that they are grandstanding. Instead, we suggest two responses. If you think someone is grandstanding, ignore them. If they stop getting the attention they crave, they might give up. More importantly, avoid grandstanding yourself; no one is immune to the temptation.

Moral talk can still make the world a better place. But inflating everything into a moral tirade is a surefire way to make the world worse.

Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke are the authors of Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. Tosi is assistant professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. Warmke is assistant professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University.