Most political opinion postings on social media these days are little more than virtue signalling.
Here’s a working definition that I picked up from the internet: “The public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things”. And I would add to that “hate the people who hold different views”.
The goal of such displays is to present oneself in a noble manner and to reassure oneself of social acceptance and belonging. In other words, I am on the right side of this issue and therefore on the team.
As a psychotherapist I teach that in order to live one’s own life as an individual it is necessary to give up the performance of good for the practice of true. Virtue signalling is an anxious impulse to be seen as good, and in turn be accepted by your preferred group. The genesis of this impulse is partly evolutionary biology. The antelope at the edge of the herd are more likely to be the lion’s next meal than those in the centre.
But the psychological and emotional roots go to discovering early in life that to express one’s true self is to risk the loss of love and belonging. Better to be good in order to survive. Better to figure out what the norms of the family system are and perform these behaviours and thought form rigorously. Which was a smart decision when we were young. But to grow up and be true to oneself requires willingness to be an outlier for the sake of what we hold as true. For an individual to perform good at the expense of true is to betray one’s soul.
The political roots of virtue signalling were fertilized when Donald Trump won the U.S. election, much to the disbelief and chagrin of the liberal elite, resulting in the so-called “Trump Derangement Syndrome”. Anything or anybody that could possibly be construed as Trumpian was deemed to be far-right MAGA propaganda, and dangerous to all that American stood for. The media, the FBI, academia and Big Tech platforms cooperated to neatly divide the electorate into bad Republicans and good Democrats. Virtue signalling was a simple matter of showing disgust for the Trumpster, the Republican party, and those who voted them into power. You could thereby identify yourself as one of the reasonable (good) crowd, unlike the deplorables (to use Hilary Clinton’s term that lost the election for her) who voted for the orange man. Republicans were the cause of every social evil. No thinking required.
Essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was onto virtue signalling a century and a half ago : “A man must consider what a blindman’s-bluff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere.”
The men and women of history that have gained lasting respect have found the courage to be individuals and risk the wrath of conformists. Think Lincoln’s stance on slavery, or Thomas More taking on King Henry the 8th and getting his head chopped for advocating that the King allow his subjects to have a different opinion than him; or Copernicus concluding that the earth revolves around the sun. Or Nelly McClung fighting for the right of women to vote. The courage to think for oneself is the basis of the scientific method. Doubt everything. Take nothing as given. Research. Test. The irony today is that science itself has been hijacked by special interest groups with money – Big Pharma and the food industry to name just a couple. When you hear “trust the science” trotted out on mainstream media it’s time to ask which science, and funded by whom? What research is being banned, suppressed, or determined by the orthodoxy to be invalid? Science itself has been recruited for virtue signalling. “I’m on the side of science”. No need for further conversation or debate.
As somebody who has until recently identified as politically left of centre, I am surprised to discover how little I have in common with the radical left these days. I still hold classical liberal values including freedom of speech, but these have been eroded by a mean-spirited groupthink that has weaponized the buzz words of inclusivity, diversity and equality to justify outrageous policies such as the rights of children to determine if they are boys or girls. Slinging this linguistic holy trinity around “liberally” is itself virtue signalling.
The “woke” world of the left is all in on this. My old leftie friends hate the term woke. Because it is directed at them.
Woke is itself the arena of the most egregious virtue signalling today. It is a culture that has divided the world neatly into victims and persecutors. Anyone who does not pledge allegiance and devotion to the holy trinity of inclusivity, diversity and equality is attacked, cancelled, and shunned. If you do not wave this placard you are a colonialist, racist, patriarchal, trans-phobic, capitalist, white, deplorable. And if you are deemed to hold any single one of these identities you are also all of them. There’s a word for it: intersectionality. Thinking for oneself is not necessary, which I guess saves time. Nuance is going against the party-line. As Emerson put it: “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument”.
Even corporations are getting in on the act. BlackRock, a mega-investment firm, developed something called ESG. Environmental and Social Governance. BlackRock has “conversations” with companies it invests in relating to the values of, yup, inclusivity, diversity and equality. Companies scramble to update their websites to appear more of both in order to get the stamp of approval which is required to be included in BlackRocks basket of stocks they support. But it’s questionable if any change on the ground is actually being made. ESG washing is every bit as real as greenwashing. It looks good on BlackRock and it looks good on the companies who get the stamp of approval signalling to the marketplace sensitivity and goodness. But BlackRock has recently stopped using the phrase, ESG, because everybody is seeing it for what it is, empty virtue-signalling, in the service of attracting liberal elite investors. Mainstream publications like The Economist are calling bullshit on the program.
I spent 30 years as a leader in a religious institution called the United Church of Canada. It is known for the stance it takes on social justice issues. Some have quipped that it is the NDP party at prayer. For my last decade I was badgered incessantly to take a mandatory course on racism. I refused to take it. There isn’t a leader in the UCC that is racist. It is pure institutional virtue signalling. Drive through any city in Canada and you will see rainbows painted across the front of sanctuaries signalling to the world that we are for diversity. We are not like those evangelicals down the road. I refused to declare the congregation an “affirming” congregation as well. We were affirming alternative lifestyle choices without getting the badge to display to the world. The congregation had plenty of gay and lesbian persons without any rainbow flags flapping. Why do the churches need to splash the values of diversity and inclusivity all over their church walls and buildings? It’s marketing, through virtue signalling, pure and simple. The last gasp of a dying institution.
Virtue signalling can happen in alternative cultures as well. Egos aren’t fussy about left or right. It’s a matter in the end of being desperate to belong to the group you want to belong to. During Covid a few journalists stayed true to themselves, were critical of the consensus narrative and yet were able to concede some ground where they thought that the narrative had merit. The alternative culture attacked them as viciously as the mainstream culture for not being true to the cause.
It takes courage to stay true to yourself, to live your own life, and know that if solitude is the cost, then so be it.
For the record:
I’m for equality. But not if it renders a particular population the status of perpetual victimhood and another persecutors.
I’m for diversity. But not for identity politics that reduces humans to race, religion, gender, etc.
I’m for inclusivity. But that extends to the right of others to think, believe and take different positions than me.