And how it’s destroying our politics.
Collins Dictionary defines virtue signalling as, “behaviour that is aimed at demonstrating one’s own enlightened attitudes.”
While the first use of the term online was in 2004, on a discussion page about, “Virtue signalling at its most pedestrian,” but it was popularized in 2015 when James Bartholomew, writer for The Spectator, wrote a piece critiquing the rising phenomenon. He explained that it is meant to be a much easier way of showing one’s kindness than actually committing kind acts.
While the virtue signal can be in support of something – such as wearing a shirt from a particular charity – it is more often performed in opposition to something – such as participating in a march. This is because, “Often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are.” Masses are then able to get away with egregious flaunting, under the guise of vitriol.
The focus of a virtue signal on beliefs is not an accident as, “The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness… The virtue lies in the wish.” As such, this tactic turns a political discussion into a contest of ‘niceness’, instead of an issue of truth and practicality.
According to Bartholomew, the danger surrounding this phenomenon is its simplicity and easiness, “Twitter lends itself very well to virtue signalling, since it is much easier to express anger and scorn in 140 characters than to make a reasoned argument.”
While he was likely correct at the time, he had not expected the term would balloon in popularity. As he wrote in a later article for The Spectator, “To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language.” Bartholomew even said, “I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.”
He is correct that the awareness of virtue signalling has permeated much of our thought, but at what cost?
As pedestrians and politicians alike remember that much of what people say is ultimately meant to make them look good, we become susceptible to dismissing beliefs simply because they paint the speaker in a favourable light. Put simply, I cannot express an opinion that (while possibly founded on facts and reason) makes me look good, because I will then be accused of virtue signalling.
Instead of just drawing attention to the anti-intellectual phenomenon, we have created a new behaviour that is just as anti-intellectual.
If I were to then call someone out for virtue signalling, I am engaging in my own kind of virtue signal. The person who accuses another of this cliche, creates a new cliche. By publicly denouncing virtue signalling, one demonstrates Bartholomew’s pattern of hating things while “The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are.”
Instead of railing about how terrible you may think pipelines are – proving that you care about the environment more than everyone else – you complain about how terrible you think the protesters are for pretending to help – proving that you care more about intellectual honesty than everyone else.
If this concept continues to expand, I become ridiculous for virtue signalling by ridiculing the ridiculers.
It becomes a vicious cycle in which anyone ‘virtuous’ becomes untrustable, and only the abrasive and anti-charismatic become trustworthy. In that event, I predict that genuine people will go out of their way to seem unlikeable, ignoring the irony of a reverse virtue signal becoming its own virtue signal.