Virtue Signalling and a Warning for U.S. Progressives

A quick post to bring everyone’s attention to an article I read a couple of weeks ago and to which I may be referring in the future. It has an insight that I think might be very, very useful for the progressives in the U.S. to internalize.

Most people are probably at least vaguely aware that there was an election in the UK a couple of months ago and, uninterestingly if you are not British, the same guy will continue to be Prime Minister. That is probably a relief to much of the world because it took us a long time to learn to identify him in a group photo. Apparently, it was a big upset since a lot of polls had predicted the other guy would win.

In The New Statesman, Helen Lewis wrote about the role she believes social media played in “The echo chamber of social media is luring the left into a cosy delusion and dangerous insularity.” I’m not sure who coined the term, but most links led back to an article by James Bartholomew. It is when you say something that is mainly intended to show other people what “kind, decent and virtuous” person you are.

It’s noticeable how 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. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.

One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word ‘belief’. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness — the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to ‘the best’ healthcare. The virtue lies in the wish.

Although the article leads me to believe that he is conservative, I must confess his observations are accurate.

This behavior, virtue signalling, contains a particular trap for progressives. The social nature of forums like Twitter and Facebook encourage it.

But news on Facebook travels through “Likes” and shares, and people won’t Like a crackdown on benefits, even if they secretly support it. A lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” – showing off to your friends about how right on you are.

It was this “Tyranny of the Like” that had many social media users convinced that Ed Miliband could squeak the election; after all, their friends seemed to be lapping up the mansion tax and the action against non-doms. No one seemed enthused about taking £12bn off the benefit bill, or reducing the help given to disabled people.

She notes how, when polled, people say they are concerned about issues that affect them like “law and order, health, education and variations on the micro-economy.”

Now imagine those same people tweeting or facebooking their thoughts. Would they be as honest and open about their self-interest? I doubt it. They’d be changing their avatar to a rainbow flag, or ostentatiously sharing the touching story of a girl who needs a new wheelchair but can’t ­afford one. And on 7 May, a large percentage of them would have voted Tory.

I would go a bit further and say that “virtue signalling” is a subset of “tribal signalling.” People on the right do it, too, but they are usually not signalling “virtue.” They convey assertiveness and independence by showing how “not PC” they are.

However, as we approach what will be the first seriously contested Presidential election in eight years, we would be wise to consider the potential pitfalls of this behavior.

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2 comments
  1. James Bartholomew said:

    Very interesting to read this post. Yes, I came up with the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ after struggling for some time to find a phrase to encapsulate a concept I had been aware about for some years. I am grateful to you for indicating that the phrase started with my article in the Spectator. Kind regards, James Bartholomew

    • fojap said:

      Thank you for stopping by.

      A very apt expression which seems to be coming up quite a bit recently.

      For some reason, that reminds be of a time a number of years ago, at a party in France when several people were trying to to tell me about a new French word I might not have heard, “Bobo.” I told them that I had indeed heard of it since it had been coined by the American columnist, David Brooks. I was under the impression I made myself a bit disagreeable by telling them that the new French word was not French at all.

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