Pretend Benevolence and the Code of the Coward
Sacrificing your neighbor for a distant abstraction.
Pretending to love the poor half a world away is a common problem, especially in an age where everyone is trying to signal their virtue. As the old saying goes, “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.” Nowadays, it can be properly modified to say:
Everyone wants to post pictures and memes about saving the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.
This is just a slight intensification.
Taleb focuses on the elites who go to conferences and talk big but then are rude to the waiter at dinner that night. The poor are an abstraction that they don’t really encounter in real life, but they think their efforts at helping hypothetical poor people give them a license for humiliating them in real life.
Remember the woman in Central Park who was walking her dog without a leash? She had internalized the victimhood and plight of black Americans, and like many, she no doubt thought she was fighting for social justice because she had the correct opinions. She had bought into the narrative so much she assumed it was true that the police would be more likely to respond to her situation if they knew certain facts about her so-called “attacker.”
She liked black people from a distance. When confronted with an actual black American, she despised him.
This goes along with the Prius phenomenon. In San Fransisco, Prius drivers were more likely to commit traffic violations. Doing something that they feel is moral (buying a responsible vehicle) tips the scales in their favor, so they are justified in breaking other laws.
If you protest about their inaction (say, giving up their spot at a university for someone in an “underprivileged” group), they themselves will protest, saying they want to fix the system. It won’t do much good unless everyone else also joins him, or is forced to join him.
This is just code for a coward who never wants to take an actual risk for their stated principles. They don’t want to be the first to try and take the hill. They just think about important things and point in the direction for others to go. They want to pretend to be virtuous while scolding others. They will act only when they have the mob behind them, and they will speak only when there is no risk to themselves.
But you don’t get to let someone drown just because no one else has noticed it yet.
C.S. Lewis talks about people having pretend benevolence toward people or groups they don’t really know and never interact with but then feel justified in malice toward direct neighbors.
The malice becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.
p.28, The Screwtape Letters
A single act of kindness to your neighbor is worth more than a thousand conference talks to the “right” people. A single act of hospitality is worth more than a thousand hours of good feelings toward the poor. Saying a genuine “thank you” to your waiter is worth more than a thousand social media shares of the “correct” memes.
Likes and retweets are worthless currency. Mere words are cheap.
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