By George Caffrey & Jonathan Midgeley
The phrase virtue signalling is relatively new to most people’s lexicon – and to those accused of it, it is frequently characterised as a term used by bigots to demonise those who merely wish to display their political beliefs. Yet to we who have embraced the phrase, ‘virtue signalling’ has enriched our language wonderfully, calling out a real phenomenon that has infected our public discourse and politics.
Virtue signalling is the expression of opinions that are held in common by a social group and, more importantly, distinguish the virtue signaller from others outside that group who think – well, the wrong thing. Typically, virtue signalling takes the form of banal statements, perhaps setting out how strongly the virtue signaller sympathises with the plight of a minority, how terrible western society and culture is, or how strongly he is against racism, inequality, or Donald Trump (to give the most recent example). Of course, as well as the approval your chosen social group, what virtue signalling also gives you is a feeling of moral superiority over those who have not expressed similar views. It is a short-cut to smugness.
At this point, you may be wondering what justifies labelling such behaviour as a virus. Well, virtue signalling does appear to operate as though it is infectious. The symptom of spouting trite platitudes spreads like a contagion amongst people who associate with one another and who then begin to repeat parrot-like the same words and phrases. After all, signalling your membership of the group guarantees you a level of respect and means you avoid the criticism, demonisation and ostracism experienced by those who don’t recite the mantra. Because that’s what lies at the heart of this – demonisation and ostracism. As can be easily seen, the spread of this virus is exacerbating the ‘in-group/out-group’ division we see in our society. Simply put, we need people to inoculate themselves against it.
The biggest problem comes, though, not because of what virtue signalling is, but what it is not. Signalling what a good person you are because you have peer group-endorsed opinions about which issues to whinge about does absolutely nothing to try and change anything. Examples of virtue signalling range from the insulting (“Tory scum!”) to the casually offensive (“Get cancer Trump!”) are are often accompanied by vague platitudes about caring and building a tolerant world. What the virtue signaller really means is: “… someone else needs to do something but I haven’t got the first clue what that thing is.” This is the problem, and it’s a big problem. Signalling virtue acts to relieve people from the responsibility of actually doing anything, or of thinking things through logically. It goes without saying that the virtue signaller never reaches out to connect with the other side, never seeks common ground, never tries to understand the opposite viewpoint. Virtue signallers are too busy getting peer group brownie points for that. They are true bubble dwellers, only able to see their own point of view and hating those who refuse to share it.
Almost incredibly, people don’t seem to notice this in themselves. Today, people have fallen into a trap of thinking that changing your Facebook profile picture makes you some kind of activist who is engulfed in the struggle against evil. And because a tendency has grown to view those who refuse to indulge in such hollow gestures as clearly on the side of evil, virtue signalling has become akin to the witch-hunt mentality that has disfigured human history from Salem to Stalingrad. It takes one’s own status in one’s social group as paramount, yet never questions whether the ‘virtue’ being displayed is a virtue at all. Because that can only come by seeing one’s opinions in the context of the opinions of others, when one engages in the free and open exchange of ideas.