Virtue Signaling : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 010

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, —else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; —though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

This is a study, not a race.

There hasn’t been an entry added to this series in a couple of weeks. I had a really hard time with this particular section, and wasn’t sure if I could, or even wanted, to continue.

I (thought) I disagreed with it so much, that I was ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as I’m wont to do (wont to do??? WTF, now I’m writing like Emerson…)

I didn’t want to do that, so the plan was to simply write “Disagree” and move one so I could get past the bottleneck that my brain was causing.

The idea that

“Thy love afar is spite at home.”

is bullshit. We can be concerned with the well being of others if they are suffering on the other side the world or in our own backyard – to be callous to that fact is to violate one of the principles that I hold dear, that of cosmopolitanism.

And the rest of the passage seemed to be just another expression of “Fuck y’all, imma get what’s mine.”

But upon rereading for the umpteenth time time this morning, I realized I had glossed over one of the first, and most important, lines of this section:

“If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?”

Holy shit, he’s talking about virtue signaling – expressing your concern for a worthy cause in order to look good; making a show of your “righteousness” so that people will give you props.

Sonofabitch – he’s right again. I just couldn’t see it when I first read it, because I didn’t really read it.

It makes me think of when I’m at the grocery store, and the little box pops up asking me to donate a buck or two to Tom Brady’s latest charity. I always do it – not because I give a shit about the cause, but because I want the cashier (a complete stranger) to think that I’m a good person.

Even now, I think that I may be virtue signaling in a strange way – “Oh, look how humble he is, he can admit publicly when he’s wrong. Here, Lyman, have a cookie.”

Ahhhh…. acceptance by my tribe, even if it’s only imagined. That’s a nice hit of dopamine right there.

I’ve got some real work to do.

“Oh, look at him, so willing to do what’s necessary to become a better human being. Here Lyman, have a cookie.”


Or maybe I’m not. I’m writing about it to explore it, and sharing it to ask for discussion and constructive criticism is a way of changing.

But I still want my damn cookie.


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