While I consider empathy a highly important value, shaming people who don’t seem to have it doesn’t seem like the best way to inspire it. Thanks to cosmic inequality, people come with unequal amounts of intelligence, talent, and yes, virtue. Whether by nature or nurture, some people are more open hearted and empathetic than others. Demands for empathy are a lot like demands for affection. The people who lack sympathy can only fake it at best when pressured, so asking them to be kind, once again, with feeling, is beyond their range. We can ask for apologies when a rule was broken or harm caused, but asking for true remorse or sincere feeling is futile if it was never in stock to begin with. I fear the emergence of a “virtue-on-demand” society, as though instant empathy was a product as readily available as streaming videos and fast food delivery. One aspect of empathy is understanding that the empathy-impaired lack the private inventory to supply public demand.
Over the past few years, pre-existing bigots have burst out of hiding to proudly fly their hate flags. Meanwhile, social justice activism has intensified to protect vulnerable populations against hate crimes. We have far to go in policy and attitude changes to remove systemic and personal injustices, but how much effect does social justice marketing have on private emotions? Social media posts challenge followers to check their implicit biases as a way to uproot prejudice from the inside out. Cancel culture punishes violators who’ve been caught with socially offensive behavior. While public shaming is an effective weapon to ostracize offenders, how much does it impact private morals? The shameful truth about many human transgressions is that prohibition only drives negative impulses underground, hidden from the scrutiny of social judgment. Even when we change public policy to promote morals such as anti-racism, anti-sexism, or any other form of anti-discrimination, the percentage of the population who are bigots, misogynists, or other types of haters doesn’t necessarily fade in numbers. They’re just prohibited from practicing their hatred at the risk of public shaming and ostracization.
I certainly benefit from laws that protect me from violence and discrimination, but how much lasting effect does public policy have on actually changing human nature? Society can strive to discourage harmful private beliefs for the sake of the public good, but if one is inherently and unchangeably racist, misogynistic, or bigoted, no amount of public regulation will cure this ill. As much as I desire a society that prohibits racism and sexism, I do not anticipate negative bias to quickly disappear from the hearts and minds of the silenced offenders. I can call people out for violating the rules of social decency, but I’m not in a position to demand inner change any more than I can demand someone to like me. Even when we ask for respect from strangers, we know we’re often getting the simulated version, not the deeply heartfelt kind, and that is an acceptable minimum.
Asking people to behave better is much more attainable than asking people for an inner conscience makeover. Cancel culture can inhibit bad behavior, but it seems more and more like public shaming is encroaching upon the territory of the mind and private thoughts. Not only is racist and sexist behavior abhorrent, but you could be considered guilty just for allowing any hint of racist or sexist adjacent thoughts to enter your head. I’m in favor of abolishing hate speech and hate acts, but if we’re going to start going after negative thoughts, we’re all in serious trouble except those who have the purest of love in their hearts all of the time. I fear the new thought police, the upcoming social justice morality judges who demand not just better behavior, but a better heart, or else you are canceled.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez excoriated Ted Yoho for calling her a “fucking bitch,” she was standing up for the respectful treatment of all women. I admire AOC for her values and accomplishments and holding Ted Yoho accountable for his rude conduct reminds the public that words matter greatly as carriers of intent. She disparaged Ted Yoho’s non-apology as a self-defense statement in disguise. Granted, Ted Yoho’s apology seemed like a weak effort to recover from public embarrassment, even a deficient public apology is better than none at all. In the absence of conviction, public apologies belong in the “fake it until you make it” category of aspirational behavior. Acceptance of public apologies are in deep decline, as most are considered thinly disguised excuses for “I’m sorry I got caught.” Public apologies are not meant to meet the same standards as private apologies between people who actually care about each other. Public apologies mostly serve as concessions of misconduct, not declarations of actual sorrow. The offender acknowledges they were caught doing something unacceptable to others. Empty apologies made under pressure feel insulting to its victims, yet it is still important to uphold and encourage the practice of public contrition. Even if a public apology appears weak, insincere, and self-serving, there is value in maintaining the form with or without the substance to back it up.
Canned, public contrition, however unsatisfactory, should never be discouraged if the free-range, organic version is not available. Virtue-on-demand is an off-menu item that everyone wants but very few carry in stock. The “don’t apologize if you don’t mean it” stance slams the door on attempting even the tiniest step in the right direction. I’m glad when public figures feel pressured to apologize because I believe strongly about encouraging this social requirement even if I don’t believe the offender’s sincerity. Authentic remorse may not be accessible on demand, but public admissions of harm are still worthwhile gestures to uphold. If true remorse from the offender is not available on tap, a synthetic apology is similar to a grudging handshake (back when handshakes were safe). Professional athletes and presidential candidates who openly despise each other used to shake hands or give high fives to their opponent as a gesture of good sportsmanship. This gesture is an expected courtesy regardless of personal vitriol. Similarly, when people say the words, “pleased to meet you,” it’s not always true, but I still prefer this token phrase than for someone to truthfully share “I don’t give a damn about you.” Benevolent social rituals signal the message, “I want to appear decent.” Before we denounce the sham of fake sincerity, consider the value of acting kind even when we don’t feel like it. Even though AOC considered Yoho’s insincere apology as unacceptable as his raw honesty, I hope the practice of public apologies, however perfunctory, does not disappear. Obligatory gestures for the sake of appearances is less about individual feelings and more about observing social decency. In the absence of genuine enthusiasm, rote simulation of respectful behavior is the middle ground between virtue-on-demand idealism and an openly hostile society.
The Me-Too movement denounced the practice of exploiting vulnerable women as sexual objects, but I seriously doubt that sexual objectification in male minds will ever go away. A feminist-friendly society wants men to respectably keep their hands off nonconsenting female bodies, but is it reasonable to expect those same men to not fantasize about fondling hot bodies that cross their line of sight? If there was a way to cancel all men until they cleaned their minds of nonconsensual lascivious thoughts, the entire gender would be banished. Limiting sexual objectifying thoughts to the realm of the mind is a realistic compromise between individual desire and public well-being. Given that the evils of misogyny, racism, and other forms of bigotry cannot be eliminated from individual personal minds, all society can do is prescribe standards of conduct. Sincerity and enthusiasm are very desirable, but often unattainably high requirements for legal and social compliance. For example, I understand the importance of contributing to society by paying income taxes, but I often feel reluctance when I hand over money to the IRS. If the IRS only accepted truly heartfelt contributions, and spat on before refusing grudging payments, the US Treasury would be flat broke. Taxes, and, to a certain extent, public apologies, are feeling-optional duties.
When Disneyland reopened in Tokyo, upper management advocated screaming inside one’s heart in favor of screaming out loud and risk infecting others with Corona virus. This strategy acknowledges that for some, the impulse to scream during a scary ride will not go away. One must keep the scream inside without being heard, without spreading droplets of disease to one’s fellow Disney fan. What if we took a similar approach to social change and understood that restricting anti-social tendencies to silent, inner screaming is the best we can expect from the virtue-impaired? Society can reach toward more social justice and compassionate codes of conduct without waiting for its members to grow sufficient conscience on their own. In fact, part of society’s mission is to construct and promote a public conscience, knowing that compassionate values don’t spontaneously grow on trees or minds. Heaping public shame and punishment helps deter bad outward behavior, but hastily demanding that people “grow a conscience” is just as scornful as asking someone to “grow a pair [ ].” If only we can snap our fingers and improve human nature on command, laws to protect the vulnerable would be unnecessary. In the meantime, let’s adjust our expectations toward what is possible. We can’t always get made-to-order decency or virtue on demand, but we can demand bigoted people to wear an essential mask of civility to contain destructive droplets of hate.