Our society is facing a lot of issues that we need to solve if we want to create a better future for our children. Why are we having such a hard time solving them? I believe it has to do with the fact that we do not dare to ask questions anymore.
We tend to think of others in terms of “us” versus “them”, “friend” or “foe”. Social scientists have known this for a very long time. We love to put people into boxes. So what’s new? Thanks to social media it’s easier than ever before to judge people before they speak a single world. We can now completely bypass content and get to judgement first. The way our brain likes it best.
We live in an age of virtue signalling. Before we even start a discussion, we put people into boxes: The “good” versus “the bad”.
What is virtue signalling? It’s all about showing the world how kind, decent, and virtuous you are. Think a politician who kisses a baby in public, an actor who volunteers in a soup kitchen (after informing the media to show up) or any hotel chain that “saves the environment” by asking you to use your towel twice.
But virtue signalling can even be done from the comfort of your own home. You don’t have to volunteer to help your elderly neigbour with her groceries. Good deeds can be done by attacking “morally inferior” people on social media. The harsher, the better. James Bartholomew first coined the term in a 2015 article called: “Easy virtue: Want to be virtuous? Saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness”.
To quote the first article of The Human Rights as declared by the UN: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This is the standard we should keep ourselves accountable at.
But what happens when we can’t even discuss strategies on how to mitigate societal issues since everybody is busy outdoing each other on the moral superiority scale?
Do any examples come to your mind? Where there is no true discussion since it’s all about political opinion and power rather than the science behind it? When we don’t discuss the things we can do to solve these issues together and prefer to attack anyone who seems to come from a different perspective? To quote Nobel prize winning scientist Daniel Kahneman: “Conclusion first”. We do not look at the data and make up our opinion. We make up our minds and then find evidence that supports it.
This kind of judgmental attitude kills any possibility to develop a solution. How can we find solutions if we are walking on eggshells? Noam Chomsky once famously said “The best way to keep people passive and obedient it to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.
We are consuming videos and pictures rather than looking at numbers and statistics. Our brain loves pictures and hates statistics. There is no easier way to elicit emotions and to steer people than with pictures. Our natural tendency for altruism is easily exploited by the media. When it bleeds, it leads.
We are looking at individual cases rather than looking at the numbers. The fate of one person moves us more than the fate of millions. There is an expression for this in behavioral sciences: “The identifiable victim effect”. Media and politicians have known this for ages.
Our world has been reduced to hashtags. Use the wrong hashtag, and you are the enemy.
Why are less and less people asking questions? Nobody wants to be excluded. Our brain processes social exclusion like physical pain. Back when we lived in small groups of 50-150 people we only survived since we were part of a community. Being excluded from this community was equal with a death sentence. Our world might have changed, but our brains have not. Virtue signalling is a powerful way to make sure that we belong.
So what can we do about it? Allow for discussions about facts and figures without judging people up front. It should always be ok to ask questions. Speak to the “enemy” and find out why they think the way they do. You might find that they are humans just like you and I. Before the crisis, diversity of thought was a big topic. Now we only want to accept one truth.
We can only win if we work together rather than against each other. We shouldn’t use societal issues to gain power or win over others. We should address them to solve the underlying problem in the most effective way. This process starts with questions.