Some observations on sincerity, ritual and moral outrage on the Interweb

Moral outrage is self-serving say the psychologists – a form of virtue-signalling that serves to insulate the outraged against feelings of guilt and culpability.  The link is here:

It’s an interesting piece of research, and has much relevance to the tenor of the debates in which I find myself involved on social media but also in academia.  Intuitively, it seems to me that these dynamics are exacerbated by virtual interaction on the Interweb.  In an online spat, abstract ethical mores and principles are not tempered or filtered through real, complex, multi-dimensional people and relationships, in real places. The echo-chamber effect ensures that, increasingly, we live and communicate within self-policing bubbles which minimize any real diversity of opinion. If you think I am overstating the problem, just try venturing onto Facebook with even a hypothetical and timid pro-life opinion or perhaps a tentatively pro-Brexit analysis of the EU politics, or if your friends are conservatives you could say something nice about Hilary Clinton. Either way, prepare to be pilloried, insulted and dismissed with every ad-hominem play imaginable. Prepare for anything, in fact, but a reasonable exchange of views.

The reason is something to do with what Ulrich Beck referred to as hyper-individualization. The disembedding of individuals from place-bound communities, and ascribed social and occupational roles, is synonymous with modernization. To be modern is to be able to ask questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What can I become?’ This hallmark of modernity is less the freeing-up of individuals and more the creation, for the first time in human history, of the individual as a unit of both social organization and consciousness. The process has a great deal to do with capitalist political economy  (after Karl Polanyi) but also with changes in forms of consciousness that followed in the wake of mass literacy (after Walter Ong).  What is absolutely true is that the sense of ‘self’ as rattling around a relatively, hermetically-sealed individual body [Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’] – is not, as was imagined by Enlightenment philosophers,  a universal feature of human nature. Elias referred to this modern self-perception as the ‘thinking statue’ image of the psyche. For most of human existence, consciousness was much less individuated, only marginally concerned with the idea of a self carving an individual path or a career through time, from past to future. This much more ‘we-mediated’ mode of thinking matched the totalizing experience of the hunter-gather band as the condition and conduit for living any kind of expression. As Walter Ong showed, it was only with mass literacy that the ‘interiorization’ of a self-reflective, introspective, individual, narrating consciousness of the kind we take for granted, was able to emerge.

Although it is invidious to compare such different ways of being, probably most people would consider this process of individuation a social advance – a kind of progress. After all, every significant aspect of social emancipation since the abolition of slavery has been framed and achieved traction on the back of the idea of individual human rights, proclaimed most cogently by Tom Paine and Mary Wolstonecraft.  Nevertheless, all of this progress doesn’t come without a cost.  I have written elsewhere about the ecological cost of the cultural complexity. But carried to its logical conclusion, there are other costs associated with this ‘society of individuals’ – pathologies relating initially to neurosis and mental health, but now spilling over into the spheres of politics and culture.

Adam Seligman distinguishes between ‘sincerity’ and ‘ritual’ as two ubiquitous modes of human symbolic interaction and expression. The trope of sincerity is predicated upon individual expression and behaviour as a true and unvarnished representation of an internal ‘self’, conceived of as  an essential  spiritual core. Ritual by contrast, involves conventional behaviour which is socially orientated to achieve results but makes no assumptions about any relation to an putative internal essence of self.  Ritual works by creating and recreating subjunctive ‘as if’ worlds, modes of engagement with other people that have much in common with play. According to Seligman, the sincerity trope emerged as a quintessential modern orientation to social action with the protestant reformation, and the idea of a relation between God and the individual, unmediated by the institutions and rituals of the Church. In the context of an expanding social division of  ‘free’ wage labour, the sincere, ‘rational’, mobile individual  relatively unhindered by attachments to place, community, tribe and even family,  has become the animating agent of every modern institution, from the courts, romantic love and education, to the economy and the institutions of electoral democracy. Rational choice theory in the social sciences and homo economicus  in economics are a reflection of this transformation and represent a warped reflection of reality. Such modern individuals habitually construe social interaction whether in Church or the market place, in terms of a sincere reflection of a unified and integral but bounded and separate self – the real ‘me’.  As George Fox would have said ”my word is my bond’.

For Seligman, the balance between sincerity and ritual has shifted too far towards the former. Sincerity is a trope shared by Jihadis and Christian fundamentalists. It makes rubbing along with people who hold different beliefs difficult and compromise often all but impossible. Ritual, by contrast has an important, but now largely unappreciated, role in managing difference and problem of co-existence, not by collapsing or eliminating incompatible categories or ways of thinking. But by playfully engendering temporary ‘as if’ modus operandi that allow life to carry on whilst minimizing conflict. Seligman’s message is simple. If you want a diverse multipolar, multicultural society to work, you need to bring back ritual and put sincerity back on a leash. Too much sincerity causes irreconcilable conflict. Ritual creates scope for people to grow together, unwittingly and unconsciously.

It is a great book and well worth reading. Once tuned into the tension between ritual and sincerity, you begin to see sincerity everywhere, and you see the damage it can do.  North American culture is famously concerned with ‘feelings’.  Where a BBC commentator will focus on some structural or dynamic feature of a topic (‘Who is suppling this rebel group in Somalia? Who did you talk to on the ground’), a CBC interviewer will quickly focus on the individual experience (‘How did it make you feel, to be in a war-zone?’). And of course identity politics is supremely concerned with experience and feelings – claims of white privilege, gender and racial experience, class authenticity, sexuality etc., all serve (i.) to establish an authentic and truthful expression of an essential self (a metonym for a a wider group or corporate self: ‘I’m a woman, and I can speak for women’) and (ii.) to establish an  hierarchy of inverted privilege that determines who should speak and be heard. I’m not of course making any claims about the veracity of oppression and inequality.  The issue is about the role of identity, the overarching concern with a highly interiorized and abstract sense of self together with a teleology of progress and perhaps even manifest destiny, all combine to guarantee polarization and conflict and preclude, perhaps, more practical and effective measures that might be worked out in the playful ‘as if’ spaces opened up by ritual.

More generally, in liberal and social democratic circles (for Europeans), online debate is becoming more and more concerned with symbolic political-philosophical ‘selfies’ — protestations of outrage, affiliation, identity that establish a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and confirm, to all who will listen (as Peter Seeger once asked ) whose side we are on.

This on-line culture of virtue-signalling and political identity posturing is certainly sincere and heartfelt. That is the problem. It leaves no room for playful, hypothetic explorations of alternative political fault-lines, different coalitions of interest. It denies the possibility of growing together, unwittingly – an accidental rapprochement. Sincerely articulated political ‘positions’ become like World War One trenches. The only path forward is annihilation or total surrender and ‘transformation’. It is no accident that Protestantism  was  and is often associated with evangelical conversion. You can’t live with or alongside Pagans.

But the Facebook culture of liberals and cosmopolitans is becoming steadily less tolerant, more theological and more orthodox (doctrinaire as opposed to the looser habits of ‘orthopraxis’ – seeing what works).

We are becoming narcissistic, unhinged, egos floating around in a cartoon landscape of goodies and baddies; and by pointing at the silhouetted monster we can forget just how integrated we are into every bit of this system. Greens lambast consumer culture on uber-smart MacBook Pros (that’s me by the way); feminists demand free childcare on demand, but ignore the ecological costs of economic growth that is necessary to generate the fiscal transfers to pay for it; they ignore also very real evidence as to the importance of parent/mother-child attachment during the early years – and the possibility that working motherhood might be a zero-sum game; cosmopolitan liberals attack the stupidity of the masses as they trip and skip up the dark mountain of populism, whilst ignoring the very real differences between the winners and losers of globalization…I could go on, and this is a self-critique as much as an attack on liberal-left culture. It is easier to point at a baddie and signal our own virtue than to really acknowledge our embeddedness  in the system – the small child-slaves mining cobalt in African to power our smart phones.

But this is definitely not about hypocrisy. That is another ‘sincerity trope’. Facebook is the uber-vehicle for sincerity. The pub is a vehicle for ritual togetherness. Conversations that you can have in a pub in which context, nuance, body language and self-deprecating honesty and a practical need to rub along, all take the edge off mutual antagonism, differences of interest and perspective. The digital version is devoid of irony, paradox ….and often, of humanity (even when the finger pointing and accusations are in the name of that elusive relationship). ‘You’re a  bastard [fascist/liberal/man/deviant/white/immigrant]…and I’m ok’.  Hence the unconsciously ‘self-serving’ nature of moral outrage.

There is a psychoanalytical framework we work with at Waterloo called ‘terror management theory’. It stems from the work of Ernest Becker and is pretty well substantiated in experimental psychology.  A major finding /theme is that if you put the thought of ‘death’ into someone’s mind (‘a death prime’), they will, more often than not, become more defensive of their in-group and worldview, more hostile to out-group/other world views. Christians become more Christian; Muslims more Muslim; greens more green; consumers more likely to consume; liberals more hostile to conservatives etc. In TMT language, a death prime leads people to become more engaged with their existing hero/immortality protects i.e. the culturally sanctioned activities and beliefs through which all people accrue social prestige, feelings of self-worth, the sense that the cosmos is meaningful and either literal immortality (e.g. the Christian afterlife) or symbolic immortality – achieved by psychoanalytical projection onto an ‘immortal’ corporate self [‘Manchester United’] or the creation of legacy projects (e.g. Trump Tower).

The Rothschild and Keefer study referred to above (‘Moral Outrage is Self-serving’) fits very well with hundreds of TMT studies. Given that the virtual world lowers the transaction costs associated with dissing the opposition and increases the relative costs of real-time, real world interaction /exchange ….it points to a future of exponentially increasing, self-serving moral outrage; collapsing shared norms and political consensus; increasingly severe legitimation crises; conflict and eventually violence.  The funny thing is that in numerous media presentations of TMT over the last year, they invariably show someone with a Nazi flag, as if this stuff only applies to populists and fascists. It absolutely doesn’t. It applies just as much to liberals and people who pride themselves on a kind of even-tempered rational problem solving approach to politics. Liberals are increasingly just as intolerant as conservatives. In my own domain, you will get endless forms of diversity paraded on university campuses as a testament to free-will and tolerance – except diversity of perspective. You will find almost no conservatives – whether theological, free-market, Burkean ….whatever brand; very few ‘out’ Christians.  And I think compared even to when we were undergraduates,  conversation /debate across very real intellectual-political silos is almost non-existent.  It will end in tears…More tears I should say.

There is something that we can do about it however. We can go to the pub (or the Church/Mosque). We can talk and interact with people and suspend judgement and try to ritualize forms of engagement that place much less emphasis on sincerity and the ubiquity of the endless self-narrating, authentic individual who is consistent, articulate, and coherent. Instead we could try to create social contexts in which it is taken for granted that people are chaotic, incoherent, inconsistent and often discontinuous. Our verbal expressions and states of mind are often defined by the social-psychological situation, as much or more than by some preconceived ideological outlook. We are different people with wives, husbands, grannies, kids, strangers.  We need less to look for sincerity and more to look for playful joie de vivre – not an intellectual habit of mind or an ideological position, but an emotional habit of humour and good nature.  Most people are good, and better in some contexts than others. Like horse whispering or dog training, the secret to success is leading the mind through the body – or rather through the contiguities of bodies in social contexts which are not about sincere linguistic expressions of self but somatic evocations of our underlying good nature as human beings. Break bread, walk along-side, drink with……make love to….but [note to self] don’t look to be right, to agree, to win an argument.

Becker, E. (1997) The denial of death. 1973. New York: Free Press

Dickinson, J. (2009) ‘The people paradox: Self-esteem striving, immortality ideologies, and human response to climate change’ Ecology and Society14(1). THIS HAS A GREAT SHORT REVIEW OF TMT and available here:

Elias, N. (1991) The Society of Individuals, edited by Michael Schröter translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York & London: Basil Blaekwell, 182.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and literacy. Routledge, 2013.

Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation: Economic and political origins of our time. Rinehart, New York.

Seligman, A. B., Weller, R. P., & Michael, J. (2008). Ritual and its consequences: An essay on the limits of sincerity. Oxford University Press.

Rothschild, Z.K. & Keefer, L.A. ‘A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity’ in Motivation and Emotions (2017). doi:10.1007/s11031-017-9601-2 – available with google I think

3 thoughts on “Some observations on sincerity, ritual and moral outrage on the Interweb

  1. Matthew Day

    Hey Steven.

    Sam Laban pointed me towards your blog. I’m glad he did. Although I read it very quickly, these observations, in a matter of minutes, accelerated my personal thinking significantly. Thanks.

    I have consciously been pushing myself to be less hypocritical lately. It was a shock-to-thought when you quickly mentioned this as another form of facebook sincerity. I’ll need to reflect on the consequences of this, but you may be on to something. I had been reading Kant as an anti-hypocrisy ethicist. I’ll need to re-examine this interpretation.

    Have you read about the psychological benefits of small talk? I read about it today. It gets at the benefits of the ‘ritual’ interaction from a different point of view. ( I just read about it today.

    Perhaps the one bit of facebook sincerity I’m left with is the appreciation of my constant confusion. What are your thoughts about being confused? Is it best to embrace confusion and treat it as a muse or supersede it like a Buddhist?


    • Steve Quilley

      🙂 I am so glad you liked it. I am on the run now but i like the idea of psychological benefits of small talk – and actually I immediately see a relation with the ritual/sincerity idea. I will certainly follow up. Confusion is seen as negative in the western rationalist tradition – something to be cleared up by evidence or rational deduction. I am coming to embrace a kind of post/pre-ENlightenment neo-pagan paradox….which is to say, few things can be evaluated as simply x or y, good or bad. They are always party to wicked dilemmas and paradoxes…and can’t be parsed neatly, or finally, or without caveat. So yes embrace confusion.. or as I have put it elsewhere ‘creative cognitive dissonance’ that allows different frames to be sustained simultaneously without too much anxiety. Say hi to Sam 🙂

  2. Steve Quilley

    Nb. Kant, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau all in different ways inherit a very protestant understanding of the disembedded sovereign individual (equal under the eyes of god and with an unmediated direct relation etc.) The kind of individualization (Weber, Beck, Elias), disenchantment and rationalization (Weber, Berman) and disembeddeding (Polanyi) that creates a ‘society of individuals’, by tying everything to a kind of disembodied rationalism (Quaker founder George Fox: ‘My word is my bond’) – are very linked to this societal shift away from ritual towards the modality of sincerity. It is also tied to that kind of brutal reductive materialism that denies the multiplicity of overlapping realities in favour of an integral dead world (and something else called God) – and in the end, when we killed God, we were left with just the dead world. The ritual subjunctive allows the timber of human nature to be crooked – so we all have multiple facets, sides, selves that emerge in different contexts, we are never consistently one thing (what a bloody relief); and at the same time, ties this to the possibility of diverse realities, modes of being. Socially, this means it might at least be possible to co-exist along side someone who is different without wanting to collapse their reality into yours or visa versa…(also what a relief). And a re-enchanted world opens up many ways for the world to be meaningful (again what a relief). But it means doing science whilst believing in fairies – an uber kind of creative cognitive dissonance. But if you can manage this cognitive trick you will probably be happier, healthier ….and more able to get on with others of a different cognitive-cultural persuasion, more able to handle paradox. if that makes any sense

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