Philosophy | Opinion

Let’s Talk About Performative Rationality

Social media has created a new type of conservative, the one who’s absolutely adamant that they aren’t conservative (until the mask slips)

Joe Duncan
7 min readMay 14, 2023

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Over the last few years, a curious criticism of sensible beliefs has cropped up.

It’s a buzzword among certain communities, one that’s used to dismissively smear legitimate grievances, painting them as dressed-up and ornamented self-interest. The criticism comes in the form of a single word, an adjective to be exact: performative.

During the George Floyd protests, those who took a stand against racism were accused of being performative. When someone denounces something obviously horrible, like racism or genuine Third Reich Nazism, they get accused of being performative.

The accusation serves several purposes at once.

It makes an ontological claim about the nature of reality (that individuals are always self-interested and that egalitarianism does not exist). But this doesn’t convince most people because most people feel egalitarian at various points in their lives, so it conflicts with their inner experience.

But “performative” has a remedy for this. Though it won’t convince people who feel genuine empathy and egalitarianism that these things don’t exist, it will cast doubt on the messenger.

The second purpose is tactical.

The moment “performative” is employed, suspicions are cast, and once the thought enters our minds — the reminder that people’s motives aren’t always authentic — we can thenceforth never be sure if the protestor’s message is authentic or all a charade.

Because the message and the messenger are so deeply intertwined, if you smear the messenger, you destroy the message.

This resonates with undecided people who might be open to the person’s message but aren’t experiencing it, and thus they can only understand it in their minds — not their hearts.

Accusing someone of being performative still has one more trick up its sleeve. This third purpose is good old fashion self-serving self-interest.

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Joe Duncan

I’ve worked in politics for thirteen years and counting. Editor for Sexography: Medium.com/Sexography | The Science of Sex: http://thescienceofsex.substack.com