Calling in Virtue

I am an academic, with publications in peer-reviewed journals and a terminal degree. And today I want to make what many certified smart people would regard as an anti-intellectual argument in one specific area.

I abhor the emotional and social corrosive effects of many aspects of “wokeness” and the calling out culture that it produces.

Yes, some brilliant intellectuals can display their gifts for dissecting even excellent behavior by others and calling it “virtue signaling,” a term I despise.

You are a teen-age girl. You help a little girl across a busy crosswalk. The snobby intellectual would sneer and tell his students, “That’s an example of virtue signaling. She’s just making her socially acceptable bid for approbation based on this act that is actually done in self-interest.”

Yup. And I thank you, teen-age girl, for helping. If you only did it for approval, you’ve got it!

But it takes a serious cynic to view such altruism as selfish.

What I teach my students is that figuring out how to help others can be also considered enlightened self-interest. By “enlightened” I mean that my goal is to figure out how to work with others to achieve mutual gain. And I also mean that, if I lose nothing and someone else is helped or made happy, I regard that as in my enlightened self-interest as well.

One of the smartest young people I ever met is Daniel Hunter, and in one of George Lakey’s books (one I use in one of my classes, “How we win: A guide to nonviolent direct action campaigning”), Hunter is interviewed and tells a story about helping a young rural Indiana college student–we’ll call him Jimmy– start to see homosexuality differently than it had been framed and described to him as a boy growing up in a very Christian, conservative part of a red state.

Hunter’s style is not to call out negative conduct but to call others in, to help them think more deeply and with more compassion, about others.

Jimmy wrote a letter to the college student newspaper and tried to explain his new acceptance of anyone who was gay. His letter used some outdated terms but anyone reading it with any sort of open mind could see his authenticity.

A few from the “woke” culture on campus took extreme umbrage at the Jimmy’s failure to use the most current terms and attacked him on social media, in the paper, and on the campus.

Jimmy went to Daniel, literally in tears, and told him in no uncertain terms that was the last time he was going to try to say anything like that.

Daniel went on to tell Lakey that such calling out behavior is how social change happens–for the worse, back to intolerance, back to silence in the face of identity slurs, back to nonparticipation in events calling for inclusion.

I admit, it’s hard to avoid calling out some behavior, but I’ve learned in my 53 years as a white dad to two African American sons that it’s always possible to call people in and to begin the process of helping them pivot toward empathy, toward appreciation for all.

As a young dad, it took me a long time to develop alternatives to angry calling-outbursts. But when I stumbled on them it worked. Every time.

For instance, with some who might use the n-word, I learned to say something like, “You’re a better man than that. You don’t mean that.”

With others, I’ve used some version of, “Yeah, you have the right to say anything you want. But I want you to understand that when you use that word, it hurts my heart. My sons are good guys and that word stabs me in the heart.”

Those approaches work. Literally, one or the other works every time. I am not claiming that the person who used a racial slur is now all cured of racism, nor even that he didn’t use it 10 minutes later when he was with other people and I wasn’t around.

But I brought out the best in him, even if for a brief moment. And in every case for those past 53 years whichever person that was never used such language around me again. So, to me, it’s a minor example of enlightened self-interest. I was spared the rotten experience of hearing that word. He was treated like someone with power to hurt or not and he chose to stop hurting, almost certainly feeling better about himself for his compassion.

So, to conclude, I am hereby calling out those who call out others. Did I introduce myself as a perfect intellect, a consistent and brilliant guy? I did not. So please excuse my lapse as I call out those who call out others. No virtue signaling for me!

Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice