Here's how to avoid turning your moral talk into a "vanity project" and instead keep it focused on the people and the causes that matter most.
"This is personal," wrote Jide Zeitlin to his company, Tapestry, following the death of George Floyd in May of 2020.
Zeitlin, who was born in Nigeria, is one of just four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. He confessed, "I sat down several times to write this letter, but stopped each time. My eyes welling up with tears." Zeitlin went on to describe his own experiences working in apartheid South Africa, once facing tear gas and rubber bullets from armored vehicles.
As the chief executive of Tapestry, Zeitlin is in charge of well-known brands like Coach and Kate Spade, brands that were affected by looting during protests following George Floyd's death. Nevertheless, Zeitlin made his priorities clear:
"We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter."
Zeitlin was one of many leaders who spoke out after George Floyd's death and the protests and demonstrations that followed it. But not all leaders' statements rang with the authenticity of Zeitlin's. Some observers accused these "shows of solidarity" of being heavy on the "show" and light on the "solidarity." Were critics right? Were CEOs just being hypocritical, "woke washing," or "virtue signaling"?
A helpful set of answers lie in the work of moral philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke. Tosi and Warmke introduce what they call "moral grandstanding." Moral grandstanding occurs when we use discussions about ethics and morality to gain status or dominance for ourselves. Or, as they put it, "To grandstand is to turn one’s contribution to public discourse into a vanity project."
The term “grandstanding” comes from baseball. A "grand stand player" is one that plays not simply to win or to perform with excellence, but instead plays "to the audience, those in the grandstands."
What's Wrong With Grandstanding?
What's wrong with this form of moral discourse? Tosi and Warmke say the root problem is the way moral grandstanding adulterates the currency of our moral talk. Although a common saying holds that "talk is cheap," moral talk shouldn't be. We need our ethical voice to be authentic in order to share ideas and convictions and to mobilize support and build consensus about what matters.
When moral talk is cheap, the results can be disastrous. Grandstanding sends the signal that moral talk is pointless. It has a tendency to make us burned out, cynical, and too polarized to have serious moral conversations. Ultimately, it can cause us to lose trust and give up on the process of ethical change altogether.
Why Do We Grandstand?
If moral grandstanding is so bad, then why do we do it? What makes it so tempting to us?
For one, grandstanding taps into our desire to feel recognized and valued. We want to prove that we have the right (or maybe even the best) insights, judgments, sensitivity, and sentiments, and grandstanding can feel like a surefire way to do that. We might also grandstand unintentionally. In fact, we may actually believe our own hype; most of us consider ourselves above average on many positive traits, including morality.
Put it in Practice
So how can we tell whether a person is taking a stand (authentically) or just grandstanding? Tosi and Warmke warn there is no perfect litmus test. To know for sure if a person is grandstanding, we would have to know that person's intentions. And that's something we can never know with absolute certainty. But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. Instead, we can start with the person whose intentions we know best: ourselves.
Look in the mirror.
Tosi and Warmke suggest testing your intentions before you speak up about an issue by asking, "If people aren't impressed with what I'm about to say, will I be disappointed?” This question is a way to test your own motives and to think about it about what you truly hope to achieve. If you would be disappointed, Tosi and Warmke’s research would suggest you are at least partly guilty of grandstanding.
Avoid amplifying grandstanders.
Tosi and Warmke don't suggest that you take to Twitter or Facebook armed with their concept in order to call out grandstanders. But they do suggest that it's possible to stop rewarding and enabling them. By refusing to provide them with the status they crave, you can avoid reinforcing their behavior.
Pass the mic.
Not all leaders will have Jide Zeitlin's intense personal experiences or depth of understanding about racial issues. But that should not become a reason for silence. Instead, it can become an opportunity to "pass the mic" to those whose experiences differ from your own. Empower people who do have personal experiences with injustice to share their stories. And amplify the voices of experts who can provide a rich, nuanced, and evidence-based approach to important issues.
Don't pass the buck.
Regardless of a leader's own personal experiences, she or he can hold the organization accountable. What might a real commitment look like? What new practices, policies, and behaviors could you adopt? You might institute equity goals, implement new measures of diversity, and set up a regular cadence of accountability for making progress. Without these tangible, actionable commitments, any talk is likely to ring hollow.
Whenever we take a stand, we have the opportunity not just to advocate for our cause but also to nurture the ecosystem of moral talk itself. That doesn't mean we can't be candid. It doesn't mean we must always remain calm. And it certainly does not mean we should always make everyone feel comfortable. But it does mean we won't abuse it for our own purposes and that we will keep it focused on the people and the causes that matter most.
Tosi, J., & Warmke, B. (2020). Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. Oxford University Press.
Tosi, J., & Warmke, B. (2016). Moral Grandstanding. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 44(3), 197-217.