The Mask of Virtue

song in my head — “Yeah, Whatever” by Splender

Virtue is an interesting quality, one we strive to find in others and one we hope is present in ourselves.

After all, who doesn't want to be good?

Gillette recently released a piece of branded content that aimed to be good. Maybe you've heard of it. It's been kind of a big deal.

Predictably, it's ruffled a few feathers— the Daily Wires and Fox News’ of the world, whose opinions by now on such matters are obvious in almost any circumstance. It also, equally as expected, garnered much praise for its message, especially from feminists and feminist allies.

Nevermind in all of this that Gillette is a multinational, billion-dollar corporation still marketing pink things to woman that cost more than "man" things (a double insult, if you ask me), or that this “degrading” commentary is at its core nothing more than an advertisement designed to incite conversation in order to sell razors. What matters the most in this game of public virtue is that everyone gets to feel good about themselves.

You see, those who love the message already held those beliefs—that there's a problem with today's men. I do not disagree with this viewpoint outright; I'm simply saying that the message of the ad aligns with this worldview, and having such a view confirmed by a high-profile piece of marketing—excuse me, “short film”—feeds hubris. It feels good to be justified. Thus the positive response.

Oppositely, there are those pissed off by the piece, those who feel slighted or attacked. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with the substance of their complaints (though I often grow weary of the condescending manner in which they are generally delivered.) But like their counterparts, the reactions of the “stereotypical conservative” are practiced and expected, especially those of the pundit class. The message doesn't align with their worldview, because they already believe that they are right and virtuous; their hubris is their brand. So any suggestion of malice in their tribe as a whole is an insult to their individual and supposed virtue, an insult requiring loud and sometimes aggressive rebuttal. (see: #NotAllMen)

And then there's Gillette itself, the leader in this virtue Olympics, who have now purchased the right to crow the loudest, while their unfair practices are swept further under the rug.

But here's the thing about virtue. Being good is tough. We seek to be good, but it takes work—inner work and self-reflection and self-awareness, things our mainstream culture has no real interest in fostering. To seek true virtue is at this point almost countercultural, which is uncomfortable for many.

Fortunately for us, as Gillette aptly shows, virtue is a quality that is easy to fake. And in today's culture, where our every public move is categorized and cataloged and judged with impunity and in perpetuity, the temptation to at least appear good has never been higher. So the self-righteousness and the opinions and the judgments and the corporate lecturing will continue, while actual, inner change seems harder and harder to find.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius

A hollow and precisely-crafted message like Gillette's, then, with its corporate origins and its simplistic overview of complex humanity, can be regarded as little more than an opportunity to don our virtue, to "argue what a good man should be" when we should, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, place our focus and energy on just being better people—people understanding, compassionate, and empathetic to others, who seek to serve those around them while worrying little about the morality of a morally relative and reactionary culture.

The truth of the matter is is that these responses to such stimuli, positive or negative or somewhere in between, are not about being good. They are about the viewer and how the viewer uses the message as a mirror to signal their own, often misrepresented or misplaced virtue. Their own correctness. Being right is the ultimate trophy, after all. And such an appealing prize makes for good marketing bait. Gillette has made a connection now, you see. We've either found an ally or an adversary in a global manufacturer of toiletries. (Hooray for us.) And this was the aim all along; as with sex, polarization sells. It is better for Gillette to be hated or adored than ignored altogether.

So for my part, (as I admittedly signal my own supposed virtue), Gillette didn't really rile me in any direction. This is because I try to hold a counter perspective to that of the two polar ends doing the most shouting in the halls of public discord, an attitude which many of us keep. We see the ad for what it is, we think the message is valuable, and we understand that most of us will, more often than not, fall short in its pursuit. This is simply the reality of it, free of our opinions and judgments.

We try. We fail. We learn. We try again.

Of all the masks we wear, the Mask of Virtue may be the hardest to discard. But it's also the most damning to embrace. It puts us above others when humility should be our chief goal. It says we are incapable of being wrong when learning from our failures is the only true path to growth.

So remember, then, if you can, to keep in check such emotions, especially when they're being manipulated in the pursuit of financial gain. Our work should be in striving to be good, not in arguing about who is better.

And certainly not in faking who is best.

— G