Monday, July 11, 2016

Signs of Virtue

I hoped to keep writing about imperial systems of control because there are so many factors to explore in the subject that I could happily keep writing for years. However, current events are drawing my attention in another direction. Since the issue I have in mind is tangentially related to a concept called “colonized minds,” the divination isn't particularly far from the core of what I want to discuss.

Resistance against empire isn't easy, but it also isn't particularly new. As long as there have been empires, there have been those who sought to destroy them. A whole range of strategies and tactics were used (from violent confrontation to civil disobedience) to challenge imperial power. This being the case, it should come as no surprise to anyone that volumes were written about the strategies and tactics of resistance. In the twentieth century alone Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and a host of other revolutionaries laid out detailed how-to guides on starting and organizing resistance movements.
Yet despite having access to virtual libraries worth of knowledge on the subject of resistance and revolution, the majority of modern proto-revolutionaries are stuck in a self-defeating cycle of rhetoric and protest. I could speak at length about the environmental, economic justice, or numerous other movements, and I probably will speak about them at a later date, but here I want to confront a movement that is particularly active at the moment: Black Lives Matter (BLM).

BLM is not a single homogeneous group, but an extremely diverse number of groups marching under a single slogan. I have my own views about the argument surrounding that slogan, but that's a discussion for another time. Here I want to look at a far more important, and unaddressed, issue about the real motivations of the movement’s supporters, and what two tactics they use – namely protest and social media promotion, and what these can tell us about the motivations of the supporters.

BLM's supporters cannot be easily categorized because they are ultimately bound together by a common idea rather than a common organization. That does not mean that they defy categorization, just that the categories must fit them, instead of the supporters being made to fit the categories.  Divisions based on their regions of operation and names of their groups are too narrow while categories based on their rhetoric are too ephemeral to provide any meaningful understanding. Here the best way to categorize the supporters of BLM is by their collective actions.

By 'actions' I do not mean the recent shootings or riots, which are isolated regionally, but the day-to-day activity that the movement’s supporters do to resolve the injustices of police excess upon the black community. One’s actions ultimately establish one’s underlying motivation, which is easily hidden by loud rhetoric.

The emotional motivation driving the actions of the movement comes from anger at the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by the police. The anger is followed by compassion for those suffering, and hope to remedy the problem causing the suffering.
Anger, compassion, and hope are excellent motivations for a movement calling for justice, but only if they are the fuel to move a well thought out strategy. Without a strategy it is impossible to establish benchmarks, without benchmarks it is impossible assess whether progress toward resolution is being made. Even worse, without benchmarks, it becomes impossible to determine who genuinely supports a movement, and who is simply using the movement as a status symbol.

Before we proceed, it is important to understand the virtue signal. The term is synonymous with status symbol, but derives its meaning from something that anthropologists noticed in all societies. A good example of virtue signalling comes from an NFL player named Tim Tebow, who would kneel on the field and give thanks to his god after every successful play. Tebowing was a meme for sometime as people poked fun at his explicit religiosity by Tebowing in absurd locations. The meme itself became a kind of virtue signal from sports fans. Tebow was performing his actions as a way to signal people within his sub-group, Evangelical Christians, that he was one of them. It is quite common within that community to loudly and publicly declare ones faith. Similarly, politicians who declare their faith publicly are signalling their virtue to their base, saying, in effect, “I am one of you, vote for me.” Every sub-group, from video gamers to music lovers, has their own system of signalling their virtue to their groups.

In our society, facebook and other social media platforms have become the loudest stage from which to signal one’s virtue, and thus improve one’s status among a sub-group that one wishes to affiliate with. Movements for justice are especially vulnerable to this problem because there are very few people who don't want to be affiliated with calls for justice. A article from IFLScience exposed this problem, noting that most people share articles without actually reading them. Social media is proliferate with articles about environmental, human rights concerns, health, politics, and many other issues which are largely unread, but heavily shared because their titles are provocative.

Here we have our first categorization between those who truly want to see police power constrained, and those who are simply virtue signalling. The problem with these categories is that as the situation currently stands with BLM, there are no clear actions that allow true supporters to separate themselves from false ones. Afterall, the only three actions that seem to be available are protest marches, social media posting, and writing to one’s congressperson. The two former actions are public displays that any  individual, whether out of vanity or sincerity, can partake in to signal their virtue, and placate themselves for making a contribution to the cause. The latter action, writing to one’s congressperson, is ludicrously ineffective.

Police violence is directly, and provably, related to training, discretionary authority, and lack of oversight. Each of these factors, along with many others, are not handled by the federal government. The United States of America is one of the few countries where police power is determined by those policed. As far as accessible strategic goals go, reforming the police is actually possible for an organized and motivated group of reformers. The task is by no means easy, but reform has never been easy.

Following the well worn path of reform would give real supporters a checklist to help verify true allies and supporters from virtue signallers. Is person willing to set aside personal time to write letters, knock on doors, or attend meetings? If not, then that person is virtue signaller. Is the person registered to vote? If not, then that person is a virtue signaller. Do they know the names of their city/county councillors, mayor, sheriff/chief of police? If not, then that person is a virtue signaller. These kinds of checklists are usable no matter the person’s skin colour.
While it may seem crude to vet the virtue signallers from your rank, ask yourself if you really want someone claiming affiliation with your cause and doing nothing substantive to support it. BLM should be especially offended because virtue signallers are literally using the deaths of young men and women to improve their public status. Voter registration, letter writing campaigns, attending committee meetings, reading, and study groups are not very sexy, but they are the core of successful civil rights movements. Real movements take the sacrifice of time and energy, they take the humility to work knowing you may never be publicly recognized for what you do.

All the available evidence points to a fairly significant portion of BLM supporters being little more than virtue signalling parasites. BLM is already stuck in a death spiral of protest and rhetoric, one very similar to other reform movements. They attack potential allies in other minority communities, such as breaking up the LGBTQ vigil for the shootings in Orlando; miss vital opportunities to open their movement to other aggrieved persons, like failing to co-opt the All Lives Matter mantra; fail to establish a functional strategy; and pursue one endless series of publicity campaigns after another. A meaningful road to reform would necessarily require people to give up as many leisure activities as possible, in order to join together as a community to take real actions against police violence. Sacrifice is the core virtue of reform movements, and the more people are willing to sacrifice the more likely beneficial change will happen.

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