Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO
Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO

Social distancing is a vice that’s been converted to good effect. Moral distancing is a virtue that’s been causing endless harm.

Moral distancing is something all of us do every day, for the most part unwittingly. It’s a learnt habit involving the registering of distaste for some or other person, party, entity or cause. The way it works in an age of social media is that as we signal our hostility, publicly, we get a rush of dopamine and, in short order, a raft of affirmations from those who share our preferences.

The habit starts in early childhood and by the time we reach adolescence it feels as natural as any other form of human expression. It’s like happiness or sadness, triumph or frustration, amusement, ambition or fear — the difference being that it doesn’t appear anywhere on the list of dos and don’ts.

Growing up we are regularly scolded for being greedy, lazy, jealous, stupid, careless and so on; but no-one says a word when we make exaggerated moral judgments. I’m not even sure there is a word to fit this blight, and it’s telling that the nearest approximations have very little currency (among journalists, artists and even politicians). I can only speak for my immediate circle with certainty, but I doubt that the average 16-year-old has ever been told off for being sanctimonious, unctuous, self-righteous or priggish.

There are aspects of the practice that are, needless to say, either benign or wholly morally worthy. There’s nothing wrong with calling out proper scumbags, or denouncing bad behaviour, or attitudes. Mobilising or galvanising one's allies will usually feel like an eminently worthy thing to do — and it might even be just that.

So no, I’m not talking about moral neutrality or political quiescence. Rather, all I’m saying is that before going splenetic on Facebook about some or other “fascist apologist” or reposting some snarling tweet about “our vengeful, racist minister of trade”, why not take a moment to reflect on why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what it’s likely to achieve.

I get that it’s cathartic. I get that it scores you points with your community. I’m sure it feels like “the right thing to do”. But have you considered the actual real-world effect? 

Of course, if you don’t give a toss about the way it lands, or if you know without a doubt that your cause is immaculate and the other lot are the devil’s own spawn, then you’ll swat away my caution. If, though, you do care a little, and if you do recognise that memes really matter, then you might want to ask the following questions:

  • Am I being fair in my characterisation, of the issue and the “other”?
  • More specifically, is my attribution of malice really warranted, or is there another, less damning explanation for what’s going down? How differently would I behave if I were in their situation? 
  • Are the people on my side — the victims of the injustice — entirely free of blame, or do they bear some culpability as well?
  • What chance is there that my input will weigh with the bad guys, or some of them, in a manner that will move them to change, or repent?
  • How likely is it that I will drive one of my (less temperate) allies to do something terribly destructive?
  • Would I be able to justify what I’ve said in front of an impartial tribunal? Which  question will also help answer another, namely how a person with no stake in the conflict would react.

Moral distancing — showing that you’re not one of “them” — is doubtless a source of considerable satisfaction for billions of people everywhere. It is bound to go on, it needs to go on, but the world could be a measurably better place if teachers and parents (and everyone else) were to start telling those in their orbits about the pitfalls of playing this game too aggressively.

Glen Heneck
Cape Town