Carrying around a reusable fork doesn’t make you a good person, but it might make you feel like one when you post about it on Instagram.
Virtue signaling isn’t a new concept, but it’s taken on new power in the age of social media. The idea that people use good deeds to show everyone how superior they are is evident to anyone who’s ever had to write a college essay or dragged an entire church choir to a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve. The number of times that I’ve been asked to donate to a mission trip so that a high school student can experience poverty, post a selfie with a group of black children on Instagram, and then build a house would lead to me to believe that all of Costa Rica is made up of tiny, nicely furnished houses. That is, unfortunately, not the case. And most of the time if those same people were to be asked if the low-income family down the street or the homeless man deserved the same amenities at home in the United States, they would scoff.
We are all guilty of this phenomenon. I can think of a dozen times during my own life that I’ve said or done something in order to gain praise from other people for my goodness. We often grow up believing that the light at the end of the soup kitchen line is a valuable and worthwhile reward for spending some time down at the local homeless shelter. And while these acts are arguably harmless at times, they can be damaging to those we’re allegedly trying to help.
Environmentalist movements like the great straw reckoning of 2019 are good examples of the way that a person’s determination to be seen as good and moral by those around them can become incredibly bad. Not only does the entire movement completely ignore the opinions of those with disabilities, but it often belittles them. Hoards of people determined to tell off anyone who might somehow threaten their saving of the environment, and making sure that everyone knows about it, regularly tell the disabled community to simply get over it all while sharing the latest video of a person with a degenerative disease on social media.
Do you know what that person with a degenerative disease probably needs to drink?
Probably a plastic straw.
What is perhaps ethical is not always accessible and automatically good for everyone. When we talk about purchasing ethical products, we often forget that for most of America, fast fashion is a necessity in a world of stagnant wages. While we preach about eating healthy and freshly sourced food, we leave out that entire urban communities, often minorities, are locked out of affordable and accessible healthy food options — leading to higher rates of preventable health conditions. The wellness industry as a whole is built on consumerism and the perception that being fit also means that you can afford to be. Then there are lifestyle choices like becoming a vegan or vegetarian that, while certainly more ethical, are not options for those (like myself) with serious medical complications or specific nutritional needs.
The issue arises when these ‘good things’ become a symbol of status or we begin to tell ourselves that we are superior to other people for making the choices we do. And when we go into the communities that we are trying to help for our own benefit, we often assume a lot about them from the beginning — that we know what they want, what they need, and how it should be done. We even assume that they want something from us at all; rarely stopping to ask if our help was even appropriate. We forget that the most difficult part of being a public servant isn’t the service — it’s knowing when to pass the microphone.
Of course, none of these things are bad on their own. It’s perfectly fine to go greener or plant a local neighboorhood garden. We also live in an age where many previously inaccessible things, like becoming a vegetarian or ethical fashion, are becoming more realistic and affordable. And as more people gain access to green energy in the future, and the jobs that it will produce, the financial burden of sustainability will decrease — as will its status value.
The question I most commonly ask myself now is whether or not I would be doing something if Facebook or Instagram didn’t exist, and the answer often reveals whether or not I should be doing it at all. In a world where no one will see your success, are you still hanging out at the homeless shelter? Why, exactly, did you go to the protest? What will you do when nobody is watching? What happens if nobody cares? These questions become more and more important in the world of activism and politics as we confront living in a world based on the perception from a screen. And while there’s nothing wrong with making the world a better place on Instagram, perhaps the most interesting, and the most important bettering of the universe, will never be seen by anyone.
Perhaps that is the point.