I’m exhausted by the phony righteous indignation most online communities are poisoned with. Their power structures are all the same: a virtue-signaling hierarchy where he or she who casts the pithiest reprimand of whatever irks them on a given day rules the digital countryside and receives heaping coffers of the only real currency to be had: validation from like-minded folks they’ve spent years building an indestructible silo with.
But how did this happen? It happened because social media allowed for belief to become far more important in the public eye than behavior.
Ironically, it’s a quality of human nature that has lead to this dark and bloodthirsty wasteland: an assumption of intrinsic good by our fellow man, especially those we know personally. This is the belief portion of the equation. The other portion of the equation is behavior. And that’s where things get tricky.
If 90 or even 100 percent of your interactions with someone come via social media, they only need to make you believe they believe in virtuous things. Actual behavior, on the other hand, offers little to no value to the share-seeking mobs online.
Why are we duped so easily? Because it’s beneficial for the consumer in the short-run.
Most of us want to live a happy life and not wander the earth contemplating why it’s even worth putting our time and energy towards the further construction of a house of cards. Reading the works and looking at the lives of literary masterminds and chronic grumps Fyodor Dostoevsky, J. D. Salinger and Hunter S. Thompson is a good way to understand why such philosophical walkabouts are emotionally daunting—at best. Instead we choose to blindly believe that someone on Facebook truly does bear the injustices of the world on their back and will die fighting to see their end.
This certainly isn’t the first time people have professed good in an effort to gain the respect of their peers, but before social media, the standard non-celebrity couldn’t get away with being a fraudster for too long. There was too much in-person interaction and social groups were smaller. We use a little more wisdom when professing our virtues if we know our actual altruism can be scrutinized.
The virtue signalers of social media really do believe in all things they’re yelling about. What’s more, the catharsis and marrow-deep gratification that comes after those beliefs are validated by the masses are certainly real. What a wonderful feeling: you can sleep at night knowing everyone who thinks the same as you finds the wisdom pouring through your rapidly tapping thumbs to yet again be profound!
Does it matter though? Only if it’s coupled with behavior.
While the reason the listener trusts the speaker so easily is rooted in a quality of human nature, the reason why the speaker so openly spouts beliefs with little behavior change is rooted in the darker side of human nature. It’s just easier to speak of change and blame the powers that be than take personal responsibility.
Those who mount these attacks online are missing a core principle: self responsibility. Instead of focusing on the most good they can possibly do, they focus instead on what others around them aren’t doing. This isn’t a conscious choice. Taking the grave problems of the world on oneself is difficult and most problems that disturb us seem insurmountable—especially by one person.
But we underestimate (thanks in large part to social media) just how much influence we really have. Even though we’re reminded almost daily in some manner: we read a news story about a librarian who has used her personal time over 40 years to teach thousands of immigrants English; we drive by the same man picking up trash around his neighborhood each day on our commute. Imagine if that librarian, struck with empathy and seeing a need in her community, had instead decided to record herself ranting on Instagram about how the city council needed to find a way to help immigrants acclimate? Feeling validated by the 15 people who watched live and the other 10 that shared the video later, she reveled in her success in effecting change. What if that man had left a few voicemails with the county and railed to his wife’s rolling eyes about what a “pigsty” their neighborhood was turning into? Feeling satisfied, given that his beliefs were out in the open and “oh, he let that guy at the county really hear it,” he turns his attention back to a windfall of new memes he needs to distribute to friends on Instagram.
Their concerns were valid, but like wind without sails, nothing moved forward.
Belief without behavior is wind without sails: everyone onboard can feel it, but the ship never moves.
Jonathan Haukaas is a former editor-in-chief of The Reflector. Follow his writing at medium.com/@dispatchesfromreality