As I have reflected on the wild years of 2019 to 2022, one of my biggest regrets as a CEO was to buy into a culture of performative virtue-signaling. At the heart of virtue-signaling is the idea that everything, down to our smallest action, is a statement rooted in politics and power. This concept—everything is political—sits at the heart of Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling 2019 book, How to be an Antiracist. Kendi says either you are advancing racial equity or you are advancing racial inequity. Quite simply, he articulates in eloquent prose, there is no middle ground.
As the CEO of Uncharted, an organization that pursued social impact and social justice, I bought into these new rules. If we weren’t doing something about COVID, then we were not standing with frontline workers and those most affected. If we weren’t doing something about systemic racism after George Floyd’s murder, then our silence was a form of violence. We rushed to make statements, adopt new vocabulary, and perform our party-line politics internally and externally. It was exhausting, but also invigorating: we were playing this new game where we could score points at any time. More importantly, the consequences of non-performance loomed large: in a world thinly sliced by moral and political dichotomies, you had to pick a side. At the time, I convinced myself that this virtue-signaling was necessary—and a form of impact unto itself. Over time, however, our performative work began to compete with the organization's actual work for our primary attention.
In the years since, I’ve told myself a story that I could have chosen not to kowtow to the false equivalencies of silence equaling violence or everything being political or that our performative work was somehow as important as our actual work. I’ve felt some shame about it: why was I vulnerable to this way of thinking? Why couldn’t I have carved out a courageous middle ground and stood there?
I’ve paid close attention to the cultural moments when those courageous middle spaces get collapsed into a razor’s edge and we are forced to pick sides—when the humanity and history of complex issues and stories gets swallowed by the hunger for simple explanations.
We are again at such a moment with the conflict between Israel and Hamas: the rush to choose sides, the attempts to vindicate oneself publicly, the collapse of nuance. People are being harangued for what they have said and what they haven’t said because we’ve been tempted by the idea that there is no middle ground.
Part of this is a consequence of cultural ideas, and part of it is a consequence of participating in arenas where everyone believes they’re being watched. Digital media platforms that enable everyone to speak are such panopticons: we thought platforms of distributed voice would become 21st-century digital town squares for diverse expression and connection. Instead, they’ve become the primary arenas where we convey our self-vindication and parade our rectitude. All of this makes me ask a bigger question… a question I wish I would have asked myself as the CEO of Uncharted: what games have I unwittingly entered whose expectations and rules I am now following? Maybe even that question is somehow political, or maybe it’s just an invitation to make the radical choice of tuning everything out and slowing down enough to determine what ground I actually stand on.