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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A worthwhile debate or a reward to virtue signalers and trolls?

Some Catholics, Native Americans and Black Hebrew Israelites walk onto the Mall…

After video of what appeared to be a group of MAGA hat-wearing Catholic teens taunting a drum-playing Native American went viral, more videos emerged over the next few days that contradicted the original interpretation, presenting a clearer picture of the event.

A wave of people wrote angry social media posts expressing their outrage in response and helped the video clip go viral. It’s just too bad that viral posts were based off people’s first impressions of incomplete information about the stare-down between Native American elder Nathan Phillips and high schooler Nick Sandmann. The overwhelming desire to condemn the high school boys, both to express genuine anger and to posture about morals, is a classic example of virtue signalling. When aggregated together, all these individual acts of virtue signalling created a viral “product,” which Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker wrote is exactly “what our social media platforms sell to us.”

In the Covington Catholic case, it’s obvious that social media succeeded in its purpose to sell us this virality. Social media companies don’t have to do anything — our acts of moral posturing and virtue signalling do all the work for them, regardless of whether or not events are being portrayed accurately. Rothman also warns against this danger of letting our un-fact-checked reactions drive virality, and in turn, letting viral content determine “newsworthiness.” Rothman describes the Covington ordeal as a “pseudo-event” because “it exists primarily so that it can be reported upon and debated,” adding that when “the dramaturgical or rhetorical interest of a debate exceeds the interest of the real events that inspired it, that debate becomes a fantasy — an occasion for dramatizing our values, rather than testing them against the real world. This, in turn, makes our values feel hollow.”  

The question then becomes this: is this debate, and consequently the debate about the debate, even worth having? There are some decent justifications for why the conversations and meta conversations both are and aren’t worth it.

The event was highly symbolic because so many different elements that fuel today’s divisiveness were fused into one neatly packaged, pre-cooked meal of a story. Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic aptly compared the event to a Tom Wolfe novel. There were MAGA hats, religion, indigenous people, viral videos, virtue signalling and mischaracterization of events. The more objective videos of the entire encounter show that there is no shortage of fascinating exchanges between all the bystanders and groups present, including the Native Americans, the high schoolers and the Black Hebrew Israelites. Without the stare-down, the concerns of these various groups provide plenty of interesting topics of discussion.

It’s also worth considering the harm that this amplified virtue signalling via social media inflicts. It’s easy to assume that virtue signalling always implies inauthenticity, but that’s not necessarily the case. I’m sure many people who made social media posts about the video were authentic in their anger. And there are probably others who wanted to showcase their virtue.

But these reactions can coexist. When I first saw the video, I was disgusted, and while I didn’t make my own Facebook post about it, I proudly clicked the “angry” reaction on just about every post I saw about the incident. Despite my authentic reaction, I’m also guilty of perpetuating an incomplete narrative about an event that I didn’t entirely understand, simply because, on some subconscious level, I hoped that people would see that I too was outraged. When confronted with more facts, however, many people, myself included, were able to adjust their opinions and realize that they may have rushed to judgement. This type of reflection is a good sign of our ability to overcome the power of virtue signalling, viral videos and sound bites. Celebrating this would likely have more positive outcomes.

On the other hand, continuing to over-analyze every aspect of the event only promotes the dangerous idea that everything that happens on social media is valuable. Prolonging the lifespan of this story also feeds the tribalism that we thought caused it in the first place. For example, it allows Breitbart News to continue generating narrative after narrative of how this proves that everything’s fake news.

It can be beneficial to discuss how the media can learn from this event, but some of the scrutiny goes too far into the weeds, damning the media even more. In Deadspin, Laura Wagner writes that efforts from media outlets like The New York Times to amend errors of their initial reporting is a type of virtue signalling itself because they are saying that admitting wrongfulness means they can always be trusted. Maybe that’s part of it. But to be that cynical of honest attempts to correct errors demonstrates the real problem exposed by all of this virtue signalling in the first place: we can’t believe each other about anything anymore. Jane Coaston wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2017 that with virtue signalling, “almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance.”

It’s important to note that the new videos and information that came to light did not totally exonerate the boys. While Sandmann’s actions seem to be of a less sinister nature than they seemed in the original video, some of the other boys were actually making Tomahawk-chops and being as obnoxious as (in)humanly possible, and Sandmann’s statement about trying to “diffuse” the situation is dubious.

Yet at this point, you may not have known that the boys weren’t 100 percent innocent because the second part of the story has mostly been about the media and its botched coverage of the initial event. This area of focus suggests that perhaps the debate has now overshadowed the actual event and become a “fantasy,” just as Rothman warned.

So, is the debate worth having? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m tired of it. To prevent the debate from becoming a fantasy (if it hasn’t already) and to prevent myself from becoming a fanatic, I will now shut the hell up.

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


  1. The media wrote those stories cause that is what they wanted to see it. You can take the same video and conservative news organizations see it one way and liberals see it another. For instance savanah Guthrie interviews you can see her bias since when is it threatening or intimidating standing there as well as failing to fact check Phillips story. Walter Cronkite must be rolling over in his grave welcome to the new age of media this is how democracy dies.


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