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Looking Good Vs. Doing Good
It's one or the other
Many of the most baffling and horrifying aspects of human behavior occur when someone desires to look like a good person rather than to actually be one. It is the impulse behind empty and vapid virtue signals like slapping a rainbow sticker on a business door or putting a land acknowledgment in an e-mail signature, but it is also the impulse behind some of the worst atrocities in human history. Seeking to project an image of virtue quickly overrides any desire for moral integrity. It can also preclude acts of actual kindness or, at the very least, a refusal to do harm.
I generally try to stay away from complaining that modern times are morally decayed compared to some highly moral mythic past. Humans have always been imperfect and people of bad character have always existed. But I have to admit to myself that I do think there is something different about today’s all-encompassing obsession with keeping up the appearance of being a right-thinking and right-acting person, and I fear a corresponding rise in the lack of desire to actually improve one’s character and to actually do what is right when it counts. Nothing matters more than reciting the right mantras, displaying the right symbols, or supporting the right cause. This doesn’t leave any room to ask oneself if you are actually doing the right thing.
A rise in victimhood mentality and the validation of this mentality is only solidifying the problem. One’s position on the oppression hierarchy is seen as a proxy for virtue and character. At the top are the “cis” white straight men who have to apologize for every evil in the world, and anyone below them bears less and less responsibility. Position yourself low enough on the hierarchy as, say, a heterosexual man who happens to think he feels like a lesbian woman, and suddenly you aren’t capable of bigotry, no matter how abusive you are to your perceived “oppressors” (women who don’t want men in their spaces). Once again, this leaves no room for judging people based on how they actually conduct themselves. Your virtue is based solely on where in that hierarchy you are placed by those who have the power to place you there.
In my opinion, one of the most obvious manifestations where the distinction between looking good and doing good is very stark today is on the issue of “trans” kids. I do not think it is possible for someone to be truly interested in doing the right and good thing for these kids and to support extreme views such as teaching kids that sex isn't even real and basing “gender identity” on nothing more than sex stereotypes (i.e., a preference for the toys or clothing associated with one sex or the other). Anyone who supports all this without question, because it is the “right” thing to do according to their preferred political view, is doing it only for appearances and validation.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s space for disagreement or that anyone who doesn't agrees with me is a shallow fool. I vehemently disagree with but understand the position of some people who, for example, want to maintain a semblance of trust in the medical establishment and who believe that in some very rare cases, in the hands of informed and trustworthy clinicians, a minor could benefit from “transition.” I disagree so strongly that even typing those words was difficult to do, but I do want to maintain a distinction between people who hold a different view from me but are willing to have a conversation, and people who seem to find it so painful to think that they simply buy the party line and smear everyone else as bigots and ‘phobes.
This conversation extends far beyond the gender issue and into the broader culture. As I’ve mentioned before, coming out as not voting left was harder than coming out as a lesbian. Depending on where you live and what social circles you run in, you are immediately placed on the back foot and suspected of every bigotry under the sun. Nothing has become a bigger virtue signal than your political alignment and, in many cases, anything but avowed progressivism simply doesn’t fly. Schools and other captured institutions that should at least pretend to be politically neutral are today anything but, positioning squarely progressive ideas like pronoun declarations and acknowledgments of privilege as simply “kind” and “inclusive,” and any opposition, which naturally comes from the right of such an extreme position, even if not right of center, as morally bad.
It frustrates me because, in the discussions I have with many friends, family, and acquaintances here in Alberta, many express views and positions that are far more right-leaning in private but openly express their disdain for our conservative government and politicians in public. No, I don’t think that everyone is a secret conservative but again, depending on your social circles, expressing any sympathy toward views and opinions deemed “conservative” or “right-wing” is one of the easiest ways to lose your shiny appearance of virtue and moral goodness.
This obsession with appearances removes opportunity to do or say what one thinks is right, especially if it contradicts what is currently deemed acceptable. Such outsourcing of morality to one’s preferred tribe is among the worst symptoms of the sickness that is valuing appearances over actions. Right or wrong is judged solely by fear of the wrath of the mob, which makes one even more likely to double down on a position without any critical thought. Showing a willingness to question the accepted axioms, even out of a genuine desire to do right, incurs swift and ruthless punishment.
This is the root of cancel culture as well, and it contributes to the phenomenon of people being reluctant to stand up for someone even if they know they are being persecuted unfairly. And this exists on all sides of every issue, in every group. I’ve seen it enough times myself, particularly among people who consider themselves “allied” with one another. Sure, they are allies right up to that one wrong opinion that goes against the group screed, no matter how mild and reasonable you think it is. This is the difference between allies and friends.
Choosing to do the right thing might not always get you noticed, and it doesn’t make you a bad person to want some recognition—we’re all human, after all. Recognition is always nice, even if taking comfort in doing good for its own sake may be the lofty goal. But here is the deal: opting to do the right thing regardless of appearances will get you noticed by the right people who are looking out for the right things. You shouldn’t want the approval of those who are judging you for your vocal and lockstep adherence to the acceptable social mores of the hour or of the in-group. It’s a scary prospect to lose that approval, at first, but there is hardly anything more freeing.
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