Thursday, November 13, 2008

I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.

Here's a really good post from Will Davies about the problem of 'moral bragging'. If we didn't have a cultural cringe when people brag about how they've done something good, would it make us behave differently - and better?

Will suggests it may. As he says:
"Don't knock spin: people who choose to project a positive image of some form are typically obliged to at least partially live up to it (this is the same reason why Corporate Social Responsibility should not be dismissed too lightly)."
And that's the thing, isn't it? Personally, I don't believe - deep down - that people respond positively to a grouping (say, for example, a political party) telling the public that they are the good people and the other lot are mad, bad and wrong. Or even the milder version of it. I don't believe it works because something tells me it would backfire. I suspect most people I know would agree with me here.

BUT politicians do keep doing it. This is either because they don't know something that is obvious to myself and my mates, or it's because they know something that myself and my mates don't know. I'm kind of inclined to believe that the latter is true - though obviously, it's a fairly ropey rational process that leads to this conclusion. As Will says:
"Bizarrely enough, the spin politicians apply to their own lives is the direct inverse of the spin we apply to our own lives; while they play up their moral heroism and play down their aesthetic taste, we do quite the opposite."
And why don't we brag about our altruism for self-interested reasons? It's a bit like that thing Mrs T said about power: If you feel the need to tell someone you have it, you haven't got it. We know the one thing that would convince everyone that we are charlatans would be if we were to trumpet our little kindnesses and sacrifices.

Going back to that first quote though, there's something else:
  1. Politician highlights their own virtues
  2. Will is happy about this because politician is obliged to go some way towards living up to this heightened expectation. Politician rewarded with short-term 'bounce'
  3. Politician eventually falls slightly short (whilst actually being quite a paragon by most people's standards)
  4. Mass response: cynicism, idealism, disillusionment, nihilism etc etc
Would the same thing happen to ordinary people who started bragging about their nicenesses? Would a social reputation for 'dispenser of kindness' be effectively abolished in the same way as alchemy was? Because alchemists weren't abolished for the same reason that torch-bearers were. They didn't become obsolete. Their customers began to believe that it had never been service worth paying for in the first place.

So - on the one hand, I'd be inclined to tell Will to keep his virtues to himself. As one Yeshua Ben Joseph allegedly said:
"...when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you."

Matthew 6.
On the other hand, having being brought up as a Catholic, one of the few other things that stuck, perhaps, is a contempt for despair. The greatest sin of all. This may be the reason that Spiked Online (among other libertarian organs) gets so far up my nose. It's the utter impatience with the very idea of a positive human agency - that no situation is so bad that it won't be made worse by someone trying to improve it. Do-gooders, and nanny-staters, and so on.

Is this idiocy the result of kindness never being able to speak its name? Never being able to underline it's own importance?

Maybe. But, in conclusion, I have no answer to Will's question really. It's a good one though, isn't it?


Will Davies said...

Yes, it's a generally discomforting issue. I very nearly took that post down after publishing it, because the whole concept of 'moral bragging' just feels sickening.

But my point is about spin, rather than about morality per se. Many of us are increasingly spinning our own personae, via the internet (actually I don't feel I'm all that guilty of this, but didn't want to 'throw the first stone'... I have a number of friends who I feel are culpable, but didn't want to appear too critical). And if we're in the business of constructing a mask, why are we so boastful in relation to 'I like' cultural questions, and so conservative with 'I do' ethical questions? Looking forward a few generations, a society of self-spinning may have to abandon the Christian silence on ethics, if it is to retain ethics at all...

Paulie said...

Yes - I've thought about this a bit more since I posted it as well. On the 'Facebook status updates' there is something else in play though. I do lots of boring things and like lots of mainstream stuff that everyone else likes.

But though I walk around the house annoying my kids by singing 'The Way To Amarillo', I don't say 'Paul wants to know the way to Amarillo' on my Facebook update. And not because it would make me look less perfect - like the farting ballscratching unshaven slob that I am most of the time - but because it's not worth saying.

However, because I'm trying to teach myself Jazz guitar, I use the status update to see if anyone I know can offer me some advice on chord-substitution and the like (they couldn't, as it happens).

That makes me (one?) look like I'm are showing off. But really, it's more about only discussing the outlying bits of our lives.

However, there is something very irratating about status updates that say "picture me! Sitting at Kenwood with a glass of Chardonnay listening to Puccini."

It makes me want to go to Kenwood with a great big fucking flamethrower to dispense a bit of justice.

I silently judge people who use pictures of themselves doing something noteworthy as well - speaking at a conference, or even just not looking at the camera. Or 'here's a picture that my freinds took of me enjoying myself doing something really cool.' Smiling, not looking at the camera and wearing shades is usually quite bad enough.

But I don't silently judge people who use pictures of themselves doing something daft or using a pic from a fancydress party or something. That's alright....