Virtue Signalling

Have you heard about “virtue signalling”? Among the nationalist political writers, it’s all the rage to deride liberal causes and activists by using this term.

Apparently, the use of the phrase was popularized by one James Bartholomew, in this article for The Spectator:

“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”

My take on this would be: “It’s a poster; what do you expect?” It’s propaganda (or “public relations”, if you prefer). But we’ll have it your way, Bartholomew.

The Wikipedia article on virtue signalling lists some other oft-cited examples of the phenomenon:

All of these things could also be described as public relations or publicity stunts.  The Ice Bucket Challenge did get a bit ridiculous as a way for do-gooders to establish their liberal bona fides. I mean, look at this guy:

But where did this term come from, anyway? Wikipedia explains:

“Signalling theory has been applied to human behavior. Costly religious rituals such as male circumcision, food and water deprivation, and snake handling look paradoxical in evolutionary terms. Devout religious beliefs wherein such traditions are practiced therefore appear maladaptive. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly and elaborate rituals, performed publicly, to demonstrate loyalty to the religious group. In this way, group members increase their allegiance to the group by signalling their investment in group interests. Such behavior is sometimes described as ‘virtue signalling’.”

This is an example of a phenomenon that often occurs in academic or bureaucratic writing: using overly-complicated language to describe a simple and straight-forward idea.

Demonstrating that one is part of a group is not an unusual or complex concept.  It is the basis for how organizations function. It’s an elementary part of social activity.

But by calling it “virtue signalling” and applying the phrase in such a way that it becomes a pejorative, it creates a whole new way to criticize commonplace behavior.

This manipulation of language to cast mundane things in a more sinister light is an age-old technique.  For example, in the marvelous book Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:

“The word plot also acquired negative connotations during the seventeenth century… Yet the etymology of plot resembles that of plan. Both originally referred to a flat area of ground, then to a drawing of an area of land or a building, then to a drawing to guide the construction of a building, and eventually to a set of measures adopted to accomplish something.”

“A set of measures adopted to accomplish something” has neither good nor bad connotations, but by using the word “plot”, one can make it sound inherently malevolent.

Something similar has happened with the use of “virtue signalling” to make routine statements or actions seem disingenuous or hypocritical.

6 Comments

  1. Well said! The only “virtue signaling” that could be contemptuous is faux outrage, and even then it’s tricky to describe someone else’s intent. Maybe if the term is used to describe someone who has a history supporting what they claim to be outraged about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said right back! I suppose you could also claim “faux outrage” in a case where someone’s outrage seems out of proportion to the actual offense. But as you point out, it’s hard to know intent, or to define the “right” level of outrage.

      Like

  2. Yeah, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with communicating the values which happen to be important to us, either as individuals or communities. This isn’t North Korea — you’re not going to be forced to hang the Whole Foods poster on your wall. And if we’re going to nitpick about changing social media avatars, what about all those alt right dorks flaunting their Pepe the frog logos?

    Liked by 1 person

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