I’ve just finished reading Grandstanding by my friends Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi. It’s a marvelous little book and is both well-written and well-argued. I did find myself a bit saddened by the book because I tend to think I ought to do all I can to attribute good motives to others, even if I end up having some falsely nice beliefs about them. But Brandon and Justin have convinced me that I need to rethink that. I need to downgrade my opinion of the moral worth of human behavior.
One reason I try to think well of others is because thinking poorly of others can often lead to broken relationships, and needlessly broken relationships. Brandon and Justin argue persuasively that we shouldn’t accuse people of grandstanding because it generally won’t do much good. But now I’m worried I’m bound to do less good because I now find myself generally thinking more poorly of others. I feel more suspicious, and less committed to bringing people together. How can we bring people together when much of their behavior is driven by base motives, motives that they often do not recognize, or would refuse to admit to were they to realize it?
One thing I have learned in my life, especially as of late, is that reconciliation is a two-way street. However open you are to reconciliation, and however much you desire it, and indeed however much you offer the chance to heal with those you are divided from, you may still be turned down. Things are worse in cases of grandstanding, since you’re dealing with people you don’t even really have a relationship with and will probably never meet. How on Earth can we hope to develop and sustain things like relationships of civic friendship and solidarity if our public actions are aimed at something other than agreement, persuasion, and/or the common good?
The most obvious thing to do is to stop your own grandstanding. You remove some cruelty, condescension, deception, and self-deception from the world. In some cases, that is all you can do.
You can also stop rewarding others for grandstanding, though without openly accusing them of doing so. That can play some small role as well.
But I also wonder if there isn’t an additional duty or at least good one can do by trying to create social media environments that do not reward grandstanding, such as private groups on Facebook dedicated to valued, common tasks, like close professional networks dedicated to improving one another’s work, or committing to meeting in person with people more often, where grandstanding is often easier to identify and discourage. Finding organizations with a common task that people have to contribute to with effort can lead people to invest their efforts in activities other than grandstanding.
But I admit, these are very small things we can do to improve public discourse and avoid the pain, hurt, and division so often found in these sites of social interaction. But if all you can do is a little, a little is all you can do. To micro-reconciliation!