Is virtue signalling a vice?

From Aeon:

As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their high moral standing.

Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere ‘virtue signalling’. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changing your profile picture or saying you don’t like a politician’s stance on immigration. Bartholomew complains that ‘saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness’.

Virtue signalling can be easy – but why does that make it seem bad?

To answer this question, and understand virtue signalling in general, we need to take a couple of steps backs. In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents. My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signalling. It might be more illuminating to look at what science says on the subject. Why do we have the strong emotions we have about virtue signalling, and is it actually good or bad?

Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signalling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signalling theory can be counterintuitive, and have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signalling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons you think.

Why do we scold virtue signallers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they are at making the world better?

A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions. Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless? Why do employers care that you put yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get an Ivy League degree in sociology with no obvious relevance to the job?

In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point. Their argument (which won Spence a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001) is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully looking at how it works. Communication is difficult because individuals have incentives to lie. Employers are looking for certain qualities (intelligence, conscientiousness, ambition) in their employees. They could ask the people they interview if they are intelligent and conscientious, but why wouldn’t the job candidates simply lie?

Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness and ambition will find college more difficult, and either drop out or spend much more time completing their studies. People who anticipate that getting a degree would be too costly for them will opt out.

So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable signal, it is in your interest to get a degree, and in the employer’s interest to hire you on its basis.

People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status

A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the ornament. Therefore, only the peacocks in good enough condition can afford to grow an elaborate tail. As such, natural selection favours peahens who prefer peacocks with a long tail, because these peahens mate with healthy males, and get healthy offspring as a result.

Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-term relationship, he would have little incentive to invest such effort. His gifts function not because roses are particularly useful items, but because they are a costly signal of his commitment.

Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But what prevents someone from pretending to be a good person, reaping all the social benefits, and not following through?

Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral hypocrisy. We carefully scrutinise potential romantic partners, friends or team members for signs that they’re not only in it for the money. And since – per the logic of costly signalling – the costs that people are willing to pay are a reliable signal of their commitment, we pay extra attention to these costs when we evaluate other people. Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the costs they are willing to pay to benefit their group – but not on the basis of the amount of benefits they actually provide.

This is probably why we find virtue signallers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefits? When they are not paying any meaningful costs, virtue signallers activate the alarm bells that millions of years of evolution put in our heads to protect us from fair-weather friends and other moral hypocrites.

So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake, but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we are not very good (or especially concerned) at evaluating the large-scale social effects of things. As such, it is easy for a polemist to throw discredit on someone who virtue-signals by pointing out that there is no guarantee that the person actually shares your moral values. But is this the right yardstick by which to evaluate these signals?

In defence of virtue signallers, research on signalling theory shows that even cheap talk can be useful.

Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the sidewalk to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete stranger, there is no particular reason she would try to deceive you. In such circumstances, people will send signals (eg, stop before making a sudden exaggerated movement toward one side) to successfully coordinate. Mathematical models show that these costless signals can be crucial in helping people solve otherwise thorny coordination problems.

Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid that others will think you are weird, that the people benefiting from the system will punish you, and that you stand no chance to make a difference anyway.

The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion. But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voice to denounce what they see as a moral problem, the more the initially silent people realise they are not alone and speak up in turn.

When everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence

Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm ­making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows (and so on). Psychology experiments have demonstrated that common knowledge is a powerful determinant of social behaviour: people are much more likely to coordinate on a joint action when everyone knows that everyone knows that working together will generate good outcomes.

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG’s Rabbit Hole Warning: There are lots and lots of intriguing links in the OP that can burn up several hours of your time, seemingly in a heartbeat.

Against Any Intrusion

From The Paris Review:

February 14, 2019
Santa Monica, California

Dearest Gwen,

I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive and that no usual communication is possible between us but, as my mother used to say, “Time is a strange substance,” and who knows really, with our time-bound comprehension of the world, whether there might be some channel by which we can speak to each other, if we only knew how: like tuning a radio so that the crackling sound of the airwaves is slipstreamed into words. Maybe the sound of surf, or of rushing water, is actually the echoes of voices that have been similarly distorted through time. I don’t suppose this is true, and you don’t either. But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.

We are both painters. We can connect to each other through images, in our own unvoiced language. But I will try and reach you with words. Through talking to you I may come alive and begin to speak, like the statue in Pygmalion. I have painted myself in silent seated poses, still as a statue, and so have you. Perhaps, through you, I can begin to trace the reason for my transformation into painted stone.

It has been a time of upheaval for me and I have been trying to gather my thoughts. So many things have ended, or are ending. New beginnings, too. I have been thinking a lot about the past, about our past, and it has never struck me so forcibly as now, when I am nearly sixty years old, just how much our lives have been stamped with a similar pattern.

. . . .

We both work best from women. Your mother died when you were only eight whereas mine died when I was fifty-five, yet mothers are of central significance to both of us. We are both close to our sisters, one in particular: you to Winifred, whom you often painted, I to Kate, my younger sister, who is my most regular sitter. The two men I have been most intensely involved with, Lucian Freud and my husband, Steven Kupfer—in both cases their girlfriend before me had been called Kate; I had suffered terrible jealousy at Kate’s birth and felt supplanted by her in my mother’s affection, but then grew to love her particularly. Jealousy heightens love; the special intensity with which we observe the object of our mother’s (or lover’s) devotion narrows the beam of our focus. Who was it who said that love was the highest form of attention?

One of the main reasons I want to speak to you now is because I’ve become increasingly aware of how both of us are regarded in relation to men. You are always associated, in the public’s eyes, with your brother Augustus and with your lover, Auguste Rodin. I am always seen in light of my involvement with Lucian Freud. We are neither of us considered as artists standing alone. I hate the term in her own right—as in “artist in her own right”—because it suggests that we are still bound to our overshadowed lives, like freed slaves. I hate the word muse, too, for the same limiting reason. We are both referred to as muses, and you have repeatedly been described as “a painter in her own right,” as I have. Why are some women artists seen for what they are uniquely? What is it about us that keeps us tethered? Both of our talents are entirely separate from those of the men we have been attached to—we are neither of us derivative in any way. Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Should fiction writers ever lift stories from other people’s lives?

From The Guardian:

Name: The muse.

Age: Ancient.

Appearance: Let’s start with “complicated”.

Before we start, can I tell you something strange that happened to me recently? No, you can’t! Please don’t.

Why? Because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, will rip it off and pass it off as their own.

But it’s a good story. Stop it! Didn’t you read Who Is the Bad Art Friend? yesterday?

Bad What Friend? It’s the title of a punishingly long article in the New York Times that has set the world alight. It’s hard to sum up succinctly, but the story of Who Is the Bad Art Friend? is basically this: a woman donated her kidney to a stranger, and then a second woman wrote a story about donating a kidney to a stranger.

Right. And it all kicked off. Nobody comes out of it particularly well, but it begs the question: are writers allowed to mine the lives of others?

Yes. But isn’t there something vampiric about leeching off someone else’s experience?

James Gandolfini routinely called the writing staff of The Sopranos “vampires” for exactly that reason, and that was the best television series ever made. But isn’t there a line where things become creepy?

No. I mean, what about Cat Person?

Oh here we go, Cat Person again. At the time it was published, Kristen Roupenian’s short story was heralded as lightning in a bottle; the perfect summation of the female experience. But then this year we learned that Roupenian had wholesale lifted the experience from a woman named Alexis Nowicki, who subsequently wrote a first-person essay about it.

Who would be a muse, eh? Loads of people, that’s the thing. Dante wrote about his childhood crush Beatrice di Folco Portinari in The Divine Comedy. Jane Austen used an old flame as inspiration for Mr Darcy. Charles Dickens based numerous characters on his lover Ellen Ternan. It was all fine and nobody minded.

So what changed? Two words: the internet. Online, everybody gets to create a bubble where they are the star of their own finely honed story. So when someone else mines their life for a different story, it feels more like a violation. Also, who’s to say that Ternan enjoyed being written about? She couldn’t complain on Facebook.

Does this story have a moral? Yes: it’s that writers are terrible people and you should cut them all from your life immediately.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Our Relationship is Doomed in Every Universe

By Lucy Ives from Electric Lit:

Some people employ a theory of parallel universes to explain time travel. Maybe I am one of them.

If you ask me, a science simpleton, what I mean by “parallel universe,” my answer may vary depending on the day, but usually I mean something like, a hypothetical plane of reality, coexisting with, yet distinct from, our own. The main difficulty here is that I do not know what I mean when I call something “hypothetical.” Maybe I mean that that hypothetical plane of existence (a.k.a. parallel universe) is elsewhere and unseen, yet actual. Maybe I mean that that plane is something I want to think about right now and sort of cherish, not a combo of time and space where I plan to attempt to exist but rather a pattern I have not yet perceived. It’s not, actually, actual. It’s a thought I’m mentally cuddling.

I’m not sure that I believe in time travel, strictly speaking: certainly, not into the past. I don’t think “I” can go back to the Middle Ages and wander the reeking, pissed-upon hallways of a poorly illuminated castle. I wouldn’t want to do this, anyhow. People seem to forget how common murder used to be.

What I do believe in are coincidence and symmetry, even as I believe in movement (travel!) into the future. Events have a tendency to repeat, and often we can’t tell that they are repetitions, even when they are.

Take for example: me. It is morning and I have gone for a run. I haven’t gone back in time. I mean, I am running in a circle, so I will return to the original point in space from which I departed eventually, but meanwhile time will flow forward, onward, on, rippling along with the space I’ll cover, and soon I’ll be back at my hotel, and then I’ll be showered, staring confusedly at my naked self in a steamed-up mirror, and, then, eventually dressed and ready to depart. And there will be nothing unusual about my day. I won’t get “back” to anywhere.

I’ll only keep on going. I’ll move ahead, out of the present, even as the mirror displays to me an image of myself as I was a fraction of a second before the instant when I looked.

This is my general experience. I am this organism that is knit in space and time.

The one thing I have not told you yet, and that I have to suppose you therefore do not know, is that the place where I am in this instance is a small city in America where, many years ago, I used to live. Thus, I’m currently engaged in more than one type of spiral.

Let’s call this city “Iowatown” (not its real name).

Now imagine me running.

I am not a thin person, but I am strong and have biggish calves that carry me quickly. I’m bounding through all the new construction, listening to a song about female aggression. The singer is going to date your boyfriend. The singer can’t help it. Your boyfriend is extremely persistent and the singer is casual about her entanglements. You, addressee of this song, don’t stand a chance. I listen, running and panting, directing myself along my one-point-five-mile loop, and I identify with the singer, not with the person to whom the song is allegedly addressed. I believe myself to have the correct disposition toward these lyrics.

I’m far enough into town now, into the residential part of “Iowatown,” and I do regret my inability to drop the quotes, that I seem not merely to be moving in a standard fashion into space. This is the tricky part of my experience that I was attempting to intimate. I feel, in that cliché, like I am going back in time.

But I’m not, I think to myself, I’m notI’m not, although here I am, planted in front of the old house, a warren of slapdash rentals, where we used to spend all our time together, and where your downstairs neighbor was a grinning monomaniac who claimed he’d been a professional boxer in his youth.

. . . .

The house is still white, bluish. It still has that porch in front with the pattern of circles punched in the wood below the railing. There is still the elaborate fire escape, the one that touched your bathroom window. Someone else must live up there now. Someone may, even at this moment, be standing on that same police-blue wall-to-wall carpeting, gazing out the window at a pausing jogger.

Meanwhile, the prehistoric sun beats down upon the little sidewalk where I stand in my running attire. The sun warms me, although I feel extremely far from my skin. I may have begun running inside a narrative, but now that I am here, here before the residence where you used to live and where we lived together, I see that this is not merely my destination. It is a net or a kind of a mirage, and it has caught me.

And when we met, if you will recall, we were both walking on the street not far from here. I felt, that day, that I was being watched, as if from some point in the sky, a pinprick. You, meanwhile, didn’t look, not at first. You were engrossed in a copy of Kurt Cobain’s diary, which you had borrowed from the university’s library, and which I thought was an ingenious thing for a graduate student to be reading, although I did not tell you so at the time and, then, never told you later. Something started in that moment that was different from all other things that had begun in my life thus far. That tiny piercing in the heavens stayed there, unblinking. You lifted your hand from the page you were reading; eyes previously cast down went up. You seemed to hear a voice: you were being notified. You recognized me from somewhere, from some hallway or classroom. You beckoned. There was no pause in this, no flinch. You were not shy. You seemed to have practiced for this encounter for months. And when, in the subsequent one point five decades, I thought of it and you, I sometimes wondered if everything had indeed been rehearsed, if not predetermined.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Two Green Comedians Walk into a Café…

By Moreen Littrell from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

“It just wasn’t funny,” said Sheila, a fellow stand-up comic, when I asked her what she thought of the set I’d performed two days earlier in the Main Room at The World Famous Comedy Store.

It was Friday afternoon and we were sitting on the red velvet couch at Insomnia Café on Melrose, just two green comedians preparing to riff. I had just taken a drag of latte foam when she uttered those Christopher Hitchens-esque words. I hadn’t even secured an outlet yet or hoisted my lowriders. I thought she was kidding, just deadpanning too long.

But she said “no” she was serious, and that there was no time limit on deadpanning anyway. Wednesday’s set was only my third ever. It was the same set I debuted with two months earlier, and while I wouldn’t say I killed it, I didn’t not kill it. As the smoke from the former model’s sorry-not-sorry “truth” bomb wafted, the windows to her soul were still goring into mine.

I lowered my catatonic gaze to my wad of index cards. I had been so excited to try out my new material on her and riff like Wanda and Ellen. Scrawled with a black Sharpie to emulate Kidnapped (a free font), were my top contenders for my next set: Gyno Legal Fund, Pizza Puke, and Facebook Whore. But, if Sheila didn’t think Wednesday’s set was funny (Bedframe, Distress Calls, Prescriptive Facemask), she certainly wasn’t going to think Facebook Whore was. My croissant went down hard. For the next hour, Sheila found nothing of mine funny.

“Really? Not even Twitter Ho?” 

“No – ”  

“MySpace Tramp?” 

“No –” 

“iVillage Slut?” 

“No –”  

And I found nothing of hers funny. 

“Kale has been overused. Try iceberg.” 

“No – ”  

“Then butterhead –” 

“No – ”  

“Then hydroponic butterhead.” 

“No – ”  

She didn’t want lettuces. Apparently, kale is not a lettuce but a cabbage and she thought cabbage was funnier (even though everyone pretty much thinks it’s a lettuce). Whatever. Where was the ‘Yes,  and…?’ We were at a stalemate. 

I cried all weekend. I thought of giving up stand-up. It was supposed to have been my salvation, my ride-or-die, pot of gold, North Star, soft spot to land, my candle in the wind. But every time I  considered watching the tape of my performance (that I’d collected on Saturday in what felt like a “drive of shame”), I saw Sheila’s dewy face. Was she born with it? 

. . . .

On Monday, I had a meeting with one of the top comedy management/production companies in the industry – the ones responsible for Dane Cook. I only got the meeting because I had invited seven top comedy agents to my stand-up debut. I knew they wouldn’t come but I thought that I’d get the jump on getting on their radar. One of them — the drunk one eating pizza at a sports bar — responded. He welcomed me to send him a tape of my debut, which I did. He then forwarded it to their A&R who then asked to meet with me.

I anticipated it was just going to be a  general meeting where they would just say, “Sheila says you’re not ready, but when Sheila says  you are, here’s what we do.” So as I sat there in a conference room as ‘talent,’ thinking that the meeting for a nobody was going longer than expected, the A&R executive pushed over a contract offering to produce my debut comedy album. He told me, “I think you are funny and I think  America will think you are funny.”  

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Staging the Scene

From Writer Unboxed:

I have always been a visual writer. When formulating a scene, I have to envision each moment in exacting detail. As such, a good deal of my editing process involves scaling back, sharpening key images and finding short cuts to capture the feel of a moment with fewer words. Even so, I strive not to strip away all of my cinematic leanings. For me the set pieces of a scene are often as vital as crafting dialog, advancing plot points, or even developing character. For this reason, I am drawn to novelists who paint engaging worlds, those with a talent for evoking not only a sweeping backdrop for their stories but also details to bring their imagined settings to life. I revel in imagining the furnishings of an imposing home at the center of a family drama, or visualizing the mountain forest above a protagonist’s homestead, or learning of the businesses that line the main street of a fictional community. Unsurprisingly, given my interest in such matters, I am similarly drawn to stories on film which do the same.

My latest obsession in the latter realm is the surprise Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, which has taken the world by storm. In a production environment increasingly reliant on overly complex, multi-dimensional storylines, producer Allan Scott and writer / director Scott Frank have released a straight-forward narrative, trusting that a single compelling through-line of a tale is all that is needed to hold the attention of a modern audience.

They were right! Beth Harmon, the young chess prodigy protagonist, captivates from the start. Her meteoric rise to the top echelon of the chess world while struggling with the demons of a traumatic childhood provides more than enough dramatic tension to propel the seven-episode arc to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But while many ingredients contribute to the show’s success, including top-notch acting from a talented cast, what stands out for me is the clear devotion given to ensure that each scene was stage-crafted to perfection, with every component – from lighting to color tone to camera movement – designed to reinforce the mood of the moment and underscore the emotional forces at work.

. . . .

I would argue that writers should absolutely evaluate their stories from a cinematic perspective. For while motion pictures are clearly a different format, the best written works are undeniably visual in nature. Indeed, the magic of writing is the intricate dance by which an author provides just enough imagery to allow a reader to flesh out an entire world, and then to place themselves in the midst of the described action. It is this alchemy which triggers an emotional response, thereby expanding the consciousness of the reader.

Thus, the question in my opinion is not whether a writer should strive to inject more stagecraft into their scenes, but how to do so. How does one elevate visual imagery within scenes in a meaningful way? And what techniques can one employ to give a story a more cinematic feel? 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed