The rise of moral superiority and the death of empathy: how the quest to demonstrate wokeness is making us mean

So You’ve Been Privately Shamed

I know someone who likes to feel like they have the moral high ground. About absolutely everything. And really enjoys demonstrating that they are, indeed, morally superior and here’s why. It’s exhausting.

They pounce on perceived injustices. They are quick to cut you down to size if you express an opinion they have deemed unacceptable. It’s like being face-to-face with the leader of an incensed Twitter mob. I have been shamed by this person in front of a group of others. They were greatly offended on behalf of someone else present. They tilted their head back and laughed, incredulously, at my faux pas.

The moment passed but the dagger remained lodged in my heart. You think that’s hyperbole? In the hours and days that followed I agonised over it. I absorbed their words and let them eat me alive, quietly rolling them up into a big ball of self-doubt. “Maybe I am an awful person?” I was cut up over it. How easy it is to lead me along the path to self-loathing. How different life would be if I could bulldoze my way through it like those oblivious types who let insults glance off them like arrows off a shield.

The person who effectively said, “I’m appalled by you in a way which only highlights how morally superior I am” will never be aware of the impact they had on me. I didn’t call them a few days later when I’d decided this thought-spiral of self-hatred had to stop. (I know overthinking is bad for you, by the way. I understand that is my problem.) I called the other person, the one I’d been led to believe I’d horribly offended, to profusely apologise. They had no clue what I was talking about, couldn’t remember it and told me to stop being ridiculous.

That was all I cared about. That I hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. But the person who was so offended on behalf of another had no qualms whatsoever about hurting me or humiliating me in front of a group of peers. In their haste to do the right thing on principle, they were happy to do a cruel thing to me. A friend. This is where the death of empathy correlates with the rise in the need to be seen as woke. We’re all tripping over ourselves to be the most righteous person in the room and screw anything that gets in the way of that. “I’m the wokest.” “No, I’M the wokest.” Often, it’s performative.

I know I’m constantly trying my best but that I will make mistakes I need to learn from sometimes. I’m a mess of contradictions, like everyone else. But I try to be unfailingly kind. If I’m friends with you it’s because I’ve decided you’re a decent person and your minor flaws do not define your character. I hope I cut the people I care about some slack and that they would do the same for me in return. We are allowed to call each other out on our bullshit- indeed, we should- because it’s coming from a place of mutual respect rather than superiority.

I’ve decided to stay quiet around this person. If you don’t speak, you don’t get berated for speaking. This is cowardly but I’m very, very tired. And so conversation is shut down. I’ve been cowed into submission for an easy life. I’ve censored myself. I’m noticing more and more, both online and off, that we live in a binary world. There is good and bad. There is saint and sinner. There is woke liberal and evil fool, with no room for an in-between.

In this era of referenda and 50/50 splits down the middle of countries and families, division feels inescapable. I’ve heard people wish death on those they disagree with. I’ve heard people my age say they can’t wait for everyone who voted Leave to hurry up and die. I heard someone who wasn’t alive in the ‘80s say they wish they could have attended Margaret Thatcher’s funeral so they could have had the chance to spit on her coffin. These are all quite extreme things to say and yet they’re said in the name of all that’s right and good and moral. I’ve been guilty of it myself when in drink and talking about Donald Trump. I catch myself saying, “I wish he would just… disappear.”

There is hypocrisy in this. Kindness and compassion often go out of the window when you’re crushing anyone who disagrees with you. But isn’t the idea that everyone should be treated with respect one of the founding principles of wokeness? Do people not see the heavy irony in professing to be morally superior and then speaking or behaving in a way that’s morally reprehensible? The line of thinking is: I’m right, you’re wrong, fuck you, die in a hole. It’s so easy to preach tolerance while simultaneously demonstrating precisely the opposite.

Emma Gannon’s recent article in Elle magazine explores how the pressure to be ‘woke’ is the new ‘impossible perfect’. Whereas being in the public eye used to mean intense pressure to look a certain way, now it also means intense pressure to behave in an exemplary way. Young people worry about whether they’re doing enough to be the best social activist. Gannon quotes a Tweet written by Munroe Bergdorf: “Nobody is born ‘woke’. You ‘wake up’.  Show others the courtesy of forgiveness, just like others forgave you when you started to become socially conscious. We have ALL at one time or another been problematic and none of us are done growing.”

The above comment on ‘the courtesy of forgiveness’ is remarkably chill compared to the rest of Twitter, which I have heard described as a ‘flaming hellscape’. I follow writers and journalists who link to articles I’m interested in reading. I always get in and out quick, though. It can be a dispiriting place full of people screaming the equivalent of ‘I AM A BETTER PERSON THAN YOU’, wilfully misinterpreting each other, jumping to conclusions and berating others so they can feel better about themselves.

Why are we like this? Ease of sharing is, of course, a crucial factor. Words tumble from brain to mouth in an instant on social media. In fact, these words that are tumbling out right here, right now, feel terrifying to me. Have I engaged my brain enough, I wonder? Have I said something here that could be dissected later and found unacceptable? Where once judgements were made privately, now they can be publicly proclaimed. Jon Ronson posits that it might also have something to do with the gradual disappearance of religion from our lives. He calls the culture of shaming ‘the civilian policing of morality’ and wonders whether we have replaced the structure of religion with a new moral code. Now, you’re ‘cancelled’ rather than ex-communicated if you deviate from it.

‘Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world’

Barack Obama said that. I’m sure you think it’s twee and naïve of me to wholeheartedly agree with that statement but I believe truer words were never spoken. Empathy is the key to everything.

These are the rules I try to live by. Form your own opinions. Recognise that there are multiple sides to every story. People are not usually either entirely good or entirely bad. There is a vast grey area. Don’t jump to conclusions or onto any bandwagons. So many times, the goodie is revealed to be a baddie in disguise. The way something is presented to you might not be the full truth. In fact, getting to the objective truth is a nightmare. Events are skewed by the perceptions of the people telling you about them.

Sometimes prejudice is the result of malice, which is not acceptable, but sometimes it’s the result of ignorance. Don’t shame someone for the latter. Maybe it’s a challenge for some not to claim glory, assert betterness and revel in the act of humiliating someone else. Those people should know that you are always, always more likely to change the minds of others with empathy rather than cruelty. You could always explain- with compassion, without being patronising and not in front of an audience- why the thing somebody said might offend. They might never have thought about it from that perspective as a result of their own very particular experience, environment or personal list of curated outside influences. They might have a sort of mini epiphany. They might be mortified. If you’re cruel, all of that room for a change of heart might be overridden by anger and hurt.

Tara Westover spoke about this very subject with stunning eloquence on Elizabeth Day’s podcast, ‘How to Fail’. She said:

“I feel like we’ve become so puritanical and moralising about these political questions. If someone doesn’t think the right thing, we don’t attack the ideas, we attack the person. And I’m very against it… I tend to think people who have ‘enlightened views’ [or] ‘metropolitan views’ have those views because they’ve had exposure. Because they’ve had some kind of education, privilege, whatever they’ve had. I very much dislike the idea of education becoming another privilege that people have and don’t acknowledge… I can’t think of anything more horrid than allowing your education to putrefy into arrogance and not recognising [that],  if this person has a prejudice, it might be because their life’s been different than mine. They’re not genetically different from me. I’m not superior. I’ve just had a different life… It’s very hard for me to accept any kind of moralising that dismisses people for small-minded beliefs, for prejudiced beliefs. I think it’s always about the ideas. Always attack the ideas and never the people.”

It’s easier to label and judge than it is to attempt to understand where someone is coming from. It’s important to remember, though, that we are all fallible. There are some real shits out there but most of us are trying our best. We need to be given the space to mess up occasionally so that we can learn and continue to explore the incredibly complex issues which are difficult to talk about. Otherwise we just won’t talk about them.

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