On virtue signaling

Let me detail some of the many ways in which I am basically a hypocrite.

I am a “liberal”. Does that mean that I fight for women’s rights? Do I work tirelessly for the downtrodden? Well I got into an argument with a family member once in which I said that men and women deserved equal professional opportunities. I sometimes post articles on social media when I’m particularly “disgusted” by women not getting a chance. A lot of people see it for what it is- a stab at the social applause meter.

However, let us imagine a better version of me. Imagine a (slightly better-looking) version of me who went on long marches advocating for equal pay for men and women, gave money to the poor, etc. I would probably do all of that, and then expect some social capital out of it. Although I’d be discreet enough to not bring it up myself in conversations, people would eventually “come to know”, and then they’d think of me as passionate about equality of justice, etc. Come to think of it, even this slightly better version of me is not that great.

Well let’s imagine an even better version of me (who’s even better looking). I maintain strict anonymity, but work really hard to serve the marginalized sections of society. I go on long marches (perhaps wearing a Guy Fawkes mask), and distribute a lot of my income to the poor who I think have better use for it than I do. Although people don’t really know my true identity, I feel pretty good at the end of the day. A true savior. The closest thing to Batman a baniya from Kolkata can get. Is this guy “good”?

Moloch is probably the word/feeling that most closely resembles what this much better version of me is trying to do. “I will defend the rights of all the marginalized sections of society. And I will do so because I matter, and my chosen actions are exactly what are needed to correct these evils.” The sheer arrogance of it. What if going on marches and redistributing my income are not what is needed to cure these problems?

If I really wanted to help, I would have made an effort to discover what actually helps. And what actually helps is often counter-intuitive, and can only be found after experimentation. For instance, Abhijit Banerjee discovered that it was very difficult to convince people in India to have their kids take the Polio vaccine. However, when they started a policy of giving away 2 kgs of rice free after administering the vaccine, this relatively inexpensive intervention convinced hundreds of thousands of people to buy much more expensive tickets, and brave hours and hours of journeying to travel to the polio administration centers, kids in tow.

What actually helps in improving the general condition of people is not redistributing wealth to the poor, but allowing the rich to hoard it (Capitalism)! This is perhaps one of the most counter-intuitive ideas in history. If you allow the rich to hoard wealth, they pump in so much money into a country’s infrastructure that the poor are bettered as a consequence. Who’d have thunk!

Did this much-much better version of me care about finding out what actually helps? No. He was mostly invested in an ineffective cocktail of arguing with family members, sharing updates on social media, and perhaps going on marches and redistributing income.

Most people don’t really want to do anything! Whether it be helping others, doing meaningful research, basically anything at all! They mostly want to be thought of as doing something meaningful or important. If I can shut down a “male chauvinist” uncle at a family gathering, I will have emancipated all women alive. Because it is I, the emancipator of women, that stands at the crossroads of history, on whose actions the future arc of humanity depends. What if I am basically a stupid and inconsequential bystander, who is too stupid to realize this?

What if asking that uncle to shut up is not the best intervention? In fact, I will only have further alienated him. Instead of taking the higher moral ground at family functions, what if I look up ways that actually work to emancipate women? What if I help my mother cook? What if I *really listen* to her with full attention, as she tells me stories of her past? What if I devote more time and effort to what the women in my life want me to do to help them? What if I stop assuming that the only way that women can be made equal to men is if they’re doing the same jobs, because I, me, myself think that way? What if it is not my f@#king place to make that choice for them? What if I just shut up, listen and learn?

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Graduate student

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