What is a good action, and who is a good person? More relevant to the real lives of human beings: Who gets to be treated as good while acting badly, and who ends up being treated badly no matter what they do?
These are the questions raised by a small interpersonal drama which blossomed into a legal dispute and now a New York Times Magazine article that has Twitter abuzz.
In June 2015, Dawn Dorland donated a kidney “altruistically”—to whoever needed it most, to someone she didn’t know at all. Before the donation, she made a Facebook group about it and invited people to join, including Sonya Larson, someone she knew from a writers’ group. The group didn’t work out as Dorland intended; the reader gets the impression that people weren’t praising her for her donation as much as she would have liked. She sent Larson an email which included the phrase: “I think you’re aware that I donated my kidney this summer. Right?” The article sees Dorland remembering that she wondered things like: “If she [Larson] really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened?” And: “Do writers not care about my kidney donation?”
Dorland was looking for attention for her good deed, and she got it, but not the kind of attention she wanted. Larson texted with friends about how narcissistic Dorland’s behavior was. They wrote messages like “I’m now following Dawn Dorland’s kidney posts with creepy fascination” and “A hashtag seems to me like a cry for attention.” Larson wrote replies like “I just can’t help but think that she is feeding off the whole thing” and “Like, what am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS??”. Larson ended up writing a modestly successful short story, “The Kindest,” about an organ donor desperate for friendship and approval from the recipient of her donation. She took some text in that story almost verbatim from a letter Dorland had written about her donation, writing to a friend, “I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to—that letter was just too damn good.” In an early draft, she named the donor character Dawn. “The first draft,” a friend wrote, “really was a takedown of Dawn, wasn’t it?” Larson wrote to another: “Dude, I could write pages and pages more about Dawn. … The woman is a gold mine!”
As facts came to light, Dorland hired an attorney who sent a cease-and-desist letter to a Boston book festival that had started distributing "The Kindest," alleging copyright violation. (The festival eventually dropped the story.) Larson's attorneys responded with accusations of harassment and defamation. After some legal back-and-forth, Larson filed a defamation lawsuit in January 2019, and Dorland filed a counterclaim for copyright violation and infliction of emotional distress in April 2020.
The real-life situation, to Larson, had become like the didactic structure of her story. Her website reads: “Hi. I wrote ‘The Kindest.’ To learn how this story functions racially, watch this video below. To learn more about racism faced by Asian-Americans, watch this video. To learn more about alcoholism and addictive thinking, watch this video. These are things I was thinking about when writing this short story. – Sonya.” I don’t know what it means for something to “function racially,” but Larson’s quotes, and those of her friend, Celeste Ng, author of the highly lucrative novel Little Fires Everywhere, return to this theme frequently both in interpreting Larson’s story and in interpreting Dorland’s reaction: they’re about “racial dynamics,” they’re “racially coded.” Dorland and Rose, the donor from the story, both wanted to be “white saviors.” Chuntao, the narrator of Larson’s story and clearly her authorial stand-in, “resisted,” according to Larson, and in the Times’s words “refused to become subsumed by Rose’s narrative.” Larson says: “Small acts of refusal like that are things that people of color—and writers of color—in this country have to bravely do all the time.”
But Dorland and Rose were both, in fact, saviors. It wasn’t just a narrative: They both did, in fact, donate organs to people in need, to little advantage of their own. Meanwhile, it was Larson who had subsumed Dorland into her own story, in a much more real way, as a character—and as one in a class of “characters who have these big blind spots,” in Ng’s words, Dorland’s foibles were meant to be a sort of cautionary tale to white readers. Don’t be like this; don’t do this! The hero is the brave woman who refuses to be friends with the person who saved her life by giving up her kidney. And Larson, too, saw herself as the hero of a story in which she refused to give an inch of friendship or approval to the person who had inspired the most successful story of her career.
The critique of “virtue signaling” is associated with the political center and right, although it’s sometimes taken up on the left as well, where it goes by stranger names like “optical allyship” (saying that phrase is in itself a bit of a signal!). The idea is that political progressives’ interest in seeming good does not always help, and sometimes hinders, any genuine interest they might have in doing the right thing. Using the most up-to-date language, “calling out” people for minor lapses of political etiquette, expressing outrage on social media at the news story of the day, relating every event back to the hegemony of this or the imperialism of that—that’s what people generally have in mind when they talk about virtue signaling. The pushback against virtue signaling has itself received pushback from writers like Jane Coaston at The New York Times, Tim Miller at The Bulwark, and philosopher Neil Levy, whose article “Virtue Signalling is Virtuous” appeared online from the journal Synthese last year.
They didn’t use the phrase, but the problem Larson and her friends had with Dorland is that she was virtue signaling. And it’s understandable: Her desire to be thought of as good, her constant broadcasting of her good deed, her apparent view that she deserved something in return—there’s something a bit off about all of it, isn’t there? At the end of the Times story both Dorland and Larson discuss the fact that Dorland attended some of Larson’s recent Zoom events. The combination of her seeming self-regard and her obsession with the people who refused to befriend her—whether in a brave political act, as Larson tried to suggest, or just out of normal human antipathy—would trouble anyone.
But at the same time the charge of virtue signaling is a bit odd coming from Larson. After all, her story, and her account of it, is all about reframing the withholding of approval for a clearly moral act as some sort of courageous political stance. The story itself is didactic; as quoted in the Times article, Larson seems far more interested in the political upshot of the story than in the characters and events portrayed or the language she used to portray them. The text on her website seems to say: I’m not just a storyteller; I’m the sort of person from whom you can learn something about being a good person—about the big issues, like white saviors and anti-Asian racism and so forth. “The idea that it’s about a kidney donation at all seems almost irrelevant,” according to the Times. What was important was the moral and political insight she brought to bear in writing it.
A few months ago, 3:AM Magazine published a poem called “Jia Tolentino,” ostensibly about the poet’s infatuation with The New Yorker writer and author of the acclaimed essay collection Trick Mirror. That episode shared two things with this one. First was the sense that life had imitated art—a poem that seemed to be about the poet’s one-sided, parasocial attraction to a relatively famous figure brought out an enormous number of critics who seemed to have a one-sided, parasocial relationship with the same famous figure. And second was the sense that some bounds had been overstepped by the author in bringing another person into their work. 3:AM ended up removing the poem from their site, convinced by a massive social media response (their Twitter posts normally get around a half-dozen likes; their post of this poem received thousands of replies) that it had been, maybe, creepy. But it’s hard to see what the problem would be with “Jia Tolentino” that wouldn’t also be a problem with “The Kindest.”
It won’t come as a surprise to most people—though it did to me—that in conflicts like this, the better-liked person, or more generally the person with more social cachet, tends to come out on top, no matter the actual events that transpired. Like Tolentino, Larson had people around her—the people she texted with to complain about Dorland. Like Nicholas Rombre, the poet in question, Dorland was alone. The roles of writer and subject matter less than the statuses of well-liked and unknown. So it was when the much-wealthier Chrissy Teigen got food writer Alison Roman suspended from The New York Times for critical comments about how Teigen had developed her income stream. Like Larson, who is half-Asian, Teigen accused Roman of imbuing her comments with some sort of racial overtone; like Larson, she was able to frame her success and interpersonal viciousness as politically courageous.
Nobody in the Times story comes across as really likable, but there’s something endearing and familiar to me about that initial moment of confusion, self-aggrandizing as it may have been, that Dorland felt when she wasn’t getting any recognition for her donation. This all started in the summer of 2015; Dorland’s procedure took place eight days after Donald Trump announced that he was running for president. Black Lives Matter was gaining steam. When Larson’s friend said that “a hashtag seems like a cry for attention,” had he meant to include other virtue-signaling hashtags? Of course, he might have: there were already critiques of shallow social media posturing about politics circulating among progressives back then.
But then again Dorland wasn’t just superficially posturing, either. She really, actually donated a kidney! Some evolutionary game theorists have held that any honest signal must be costly: that it must harm the sender; without such a cost there is always the possibility of deception. Dorland’s virtue-signaling was costly and therefore, in at least a limited sense, honest. She wasn’t tweeting “Je suis Paris”—a popular slogan after terrorist attacks later that year—or adding a rainbow flag to her profile picture. Indeed, the honesty of Dorland’s signaling, again in the sense of being costly, of being truly sacrificial, seemed to grate on Larson; that’s why she wrote, “What am I supposed to do?” Dishonest virtue signaling can just be reshared, retweeted. It doesn’t hurt anyone except those of us who can’t quite understand dishonesty. Honest virtue signaling, though, leaves the signaled-to no option, no way of matching virtue for virtue. That’s unforgivable.
What’s endearing to me is—maybe rightly, maybe wrongly—imagining Dorland thinking to herself: These writers are all into good causes, like gay marriage and Black Lives Matter. So I’ll join a good cause too … something like, I don’t know, donating my kidney. I’ll fit in that way, and I’ll seem good. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It makes sense in the same way that it made sense for me, as a child, to think “amn’t” would be a valid English contraction. But kidney donation isn’t the right sort of good cause. You signal your dedication to it by donating your kidney, not by learning to throw around jargon about white saviors and so on. I’ve had moments like that too—moments in which, in a fit of absolute and devastating hickishness, I took it for granted that the people who spend all their time talking about being good, about hardship and evil and justice and so forth, would be thinking hard about what’s actually good. But they’re not, and in particular, there’s little that people in politics hate more than the idea that the most morally important actions might be those which, though they might require some sacrifice, just about anyone can take, like donating money, or donating an organ, or treating close friends and family the right way. Just as the literary and artistic elements of writing gave way in Larson’s account of “The Kindest” in favor of the political puppet show, so too does any discussion of what’s really right and wrong when a series of events can be made to seem political—“racial dynamics,” “racially coded,” and so on.
Dorland, at least in my imagining, thought the etiquette of a progressive writers’ group would be logical, just like a child might expect the English language to be logical. But she was wrong. You get praise for doing good not when you do good but when you do something that makes other people feel that they are good. Nothing points one out as a rube so quickly as this, as failing to realize that it’s all just a game; and that’s what the term “virtue signaling” is really meant to capture. Every hick, like me, makes the same mistake. We get to these prestigious social circles and can’t tell the salad fork from the steak knife or whatever, and we think: “Wow, there are so many rules in this society. They must care a lot about following them.” But that isn't right. It’s only the rube who cares about following the rules, in the end, and thus we’re the only ones who are surprised when different rules apply to different people. What the smart set cares about is making the rules.
Correction: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Dorland sued first and Larson filed a countersuit. The text has been updated to reflect the actual sequence of events.