In her new Forbes column, IHS President Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright interviews philosophers Justin Tosi (Texas Tech University) and Brandon Warmke (Bowling Green State University) about why COVID-19 discourse has become so polarizing and unproductive. Tosi and Warmke are the authors of a new book, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk.
“Public discourse about COVID is dysfunctional for lots of reasons, and grandstanding is one of them,” Warmke told Dr. Chamlee-Wright.
What is grandstanding? Tosi and Warmke define it as “the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” Grandstanding has serious social consequences, including polarization, cynicism, and outrage exhaustion.
Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright writes:
Tosi and Warmke’s analysis helps us understand why, for example, the debate over face masks has become a circus. We could be having a productive national conversation—held in good faith and based on data—about where and when it most makes sense for us to wear masks to prevent spread of the virus most effectively. Such a conversation would recognize nuance pertaining to local circumstances and encourage thoughtfulness about tradeoffs. But once moral one-upmanship sets in, the race for the polarizing extremes ensues, with one side equating face mask requirements with fascism, the other equating non-compliance with murderous intent.– Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright
Social media has incentivized grandstanding: People compete to outdo each other in a “war of moral one-upmanship,” as Tosi and Warmke write in Grandstanding.
Dr. Chamlee-Wright explains, “When we use hyperbolic moral language to discuss pressing social problems, we begin believing everyone who disagrees with us is immoral. We dig our heels in, and we lose the ability to cooperate. We lose, in other words, a defining feature of a functional civil society.”