Value Signaling and Awards Ceremonies

Critically thinking about moral grandstanding.

Posted Jan 10, 2020

The New Year has arrived—and in pop culture terms, that means "Awards Season" is upon us, having kick-started with the Golden Globes this past Sunday. Over the past few years, it seems that all the subsequent talk about them was not about winners or losers, but rather acceptance speeches full to the brim with value signalling. In the days following this year’s Golden Globes entry, the only talk I’ve heard was about host Ricky Gervais’ monologue—which addressed this very trend.

Of course, Gervais’ monologue was crafted for laughs—don’t forget he is a comedian. However, there was indeed a great deal of truth behind his words. “So, if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech, alright? You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything… If you win, right, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your god… and &!<% off.” Whether you agree with him or not, the moral grandstanding Gervais spoke about needs to be accounted for when considering and engaging societal issues.

Interestingly, some thought-provoking research has recently been published on moral grandstanding in public discourse, particularly in the context of social media (Grubbs et al., 2019)—research that advances some thoughts I presented in a piece on this blog a couple of years ago: "Virtues, Values, and Moral Bullying." In the latter piece, I re-labelled the term virtue signalling as value signalling given that the "virtue" moniker implies that the individual is right based on some kind of "moral correctness," which is largely inaccurate given the subjectivity of morality. I concluded that, perhaps, value signalling fits better because, though individuals can certainly share values, there is no guarantee that all of an individual’s values will overlap with another’s; and that despite the trend of value signalling in social media usage, it is important for individuals not to be swayed or pressured by "whoever shouts loudest." I ended the piece with the hope that research pursues this phenomenon; and am delighted to see the publication of such pursuits.  

In their research, Grubbs and colleagues approached the phenomenon, not necessarily as signalling value or even virtue, but rather from the perspective of addressing, perhaps, the foundational mechanism of the signalling—that is, moral grandstanding. Specifically, moral grandstanding refers to the use of public moral discourse for self-promotion and status attainment (Tosi & Warmke, 2016). A series of six studies conducted by Grubbs et al. revealed a number of interesting findings, including traits of striving for dominance and prestige were correlated with self-reported social media behaviours consistent with moral grandstanding as well as traits associated with narcissism.

To reiterate, my piece on value signalling discussed the phenomenon in terms of social desirability and emphasised its dangers (e.g. facilitating emotion-based social media behaviours, such as responses that ridicule, shame, and bully those who disagree; and in cases where there is little [if any] opposition, social media users may begin to believe that the observed position is the only moral and/or virtuous position).

The findings of Grubbs and colleagues provide further insight into the motivations behind such signalling and may aid in demonstrating that such signalling is not necessarily a function of believing in some moral correctness or superiority. Rather, such posting may exhibit individual exercises in seeking prestige and dominance as a means of feeding one’s ego and/or narcissistic tendencies through grandstanding.

Though Grubbs and colleagues acknowledge the limitations in their research (as any good piece of research does), it remains that their series of studies provides a very important stepping stone for future research on this relatively novel concept of moral grandstanding in social media settings. Indeed, there are social mechanics and motivations to be considered behind each and every post on social media, particularly those that relay some message of virtue, value, or morality.

With that, it remains important for social media users to acknowledge these mechanics and consider their motivations for posting, as well as this phenomenon’s implications for critical thought. Though there is nothing wrong with an individual presenting ideas and perspectives that they value online, it is ill-conceived and dangerous to treat them as global virtues or a moral code that everyone else should value too.

References

Grubbs, J.B., Warmke, B., Tosi, J., James, A.S. & Campbell, W.K. (2019). Moral grandstanding in public discourse: Status-seeking motives as a potential explanatory mechanism in predicting conflict. PLOS One, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0223749.

Tosi J, Warmke B. (2016). Moral Grandstanding. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 44, 197–217.