Ethically Cool Work
There were eight speakers at the conference I attended this week. I want to single out two, who shall go unnamed, in the hope of saying something of a more general nature about a phenomenon I’ve begun to notice for quite a while and, after this event, am now much clearer about.
One of those speakers calls herself a “conservationist” whose art is a “vehicle” for wildlife conservation. The other is an ethnographer whose company works with Silicon Valley and Chinese companies focused on “big data.”
I’m less interested in what
these two individuals spoke about, and I’m more more interested in the basic assumption
behind their work. The assumption–evident in their slides, short movies, easy adoption of technology, and slick projects–is that their work is very cool
. In Issue #9
, I wrote a little about a “cosmopolitan aesthetic of the ‘ethical cool’: it’s creatively cool to do good (or to believe that you are).” I’d like to write more about that topic here.
Signs of Ethically Cool Work
How do you spot a purveyor of ethically cool work? Well, you know that work is ethically cool if it’s “smooth” (in the words of Byung-Chul Han from his book Saving Beauty), innovation-y, and full of virtue signaling. Consider each in turn.
“Smoothness” means, in my terms, that something is without texture or friction, struggle or torsion. The image presented, the words spoken pass through your consciousness with a frisson of pleasure and without getting snagged on a branch, so to speak. A day later perhaps, you realize that nothing agitated, unsettled, or stirred you.
“Innovation-y” means that it’s full of innovation language: the creation of neologisms, the use of fancy charts, the heaping on of buzzwords, the presumption that the purveyor is presenting cutting edge ideas.
And “virtue signaling” refers to the way in which there is progressive ideology afoot. The object of investigation, which often is implicit rather than explicit, is basically whoever is, or turns out to be, the worst among us. I once joked that the leftist question is: “Who’s getting screwed over by whom?”
(By the way, it’s a reasonable political question to ask, and asking it can increase compassion. It’s just that it’s not the only
question to ask, and justice as equality definitely isn’t the only game in town.) For one speaker, the ones getting screwed were certain endangered species. (By the way again, I’m very sympathetic
to the view that we’re living in the Anthropocene. Bear in mind that here I’m speaking about how virtue signaling works.) For the other speaker, the worst off was whichever race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality was getting screwed over due to biases built into big data. (That may very well be true and so far as it is true it is sad, but that’s not my point here.) Virtue signaling works by giving you a feeling of righteousness
owing to your willingness to point to
whoever you deem to be the worst off among us. To virtue signal is to accrue status points from members of the audience, who tacitly acknowledge that you’ve said the politically appropriate thing. Everything feels warm and good. In all this, you make yourself appear
to be like Christ.
When you notice someone presenting “smooth,” “innovation-y,” and “virtue-signaling” work, then you know you’re in the presence of someone who’s purveying the “ethically cool.” The person who does it all his life–i.e., who pulls this stunt off time and again–could be called the “ethically cool careerist.” In one post, I argued that pulling off stunts is the key to understanding bullshit
So What? Three Quick Objections
Fervent believers in ethically cool work are often shallow, vain, and oblivious. They’re shallow because becoming deep requires really feeling pierced by the extent of human suffering: your own as well as others’. Depth, you might say, is a spiritual matter. Shallowness manifested in the ethically cool worker is an indication that this person has glossed over having to pass over the jagged ridges ranging across the landscape of our lives.
Next, vanity. I’m convinced that the ethically cool worker is usually quite vain and is largely committed to social or ecological missions out of
vanity. Appearing to do good is done for the sake of looking and feeling good. (I’m not saying that such a person isn’t doing any good. Nor am I saying that part of that good isn’t done for the sake of the other. I’m saying, rather, that the chief motivation is vanity. Maybe a utilitarian would dismiss all this as “virtue ethics.”
) Since Instagram is the medium of vanity par excellence
today, let’s call this phenomenon the “Instagramization of social goodness.”
Lastly, occlusion. What concerns me about our ideas about work, those that define the modern culture we live in, is that they have been obscuring the possibility of our embracing the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life). I define genuine leisure as that which enables us to apprehend ultimate reality. Could work, here the ethically cool kind, be closing us off from deeper immersion in reality: in genuine love, in art, in philosophy, and in religion or spirituality? I think so. The basic assumption that ethically cool work is the be all and end all of life (or as I like to say, “the cat’s pajamas”) is, by my lights, a profound mistake.
We should resist the desire to do “ethically cool” work ourselves, and when need be, call bullshit or bad faith when we see it.
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