On Virtue Signalling


I had an argument on politics where the phrase “virtue signalling” popped up. I realized that the other guy and I were coming at the topic from different angles. He focused on people who were insincere in their stated convictions, seemingly with the belief that the convictions are understood by all to be good and just. So, an example might be former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a favorite of the #metoo movement until last week when it turned out he was physically abusive to multiple ex-girlfriends. Presumably, he had always known he was in the wrong on that one.

Obviously that’s an example of insincere virtue signalling, but there are further implications. One question would be why an opinion is considered popular enough to signal. If there is a consistent failure for people to be completely ideologically consistent with expressed views, there is a possibility that there is a deficiency in their position. In some cases, the problem may be that the virtue they’re trying to signal isn’t able to withstand scrutiny. There was an example of a writer whose protagonist didn’t seem to stick to his political ideas. If a writer says they have one view, but they don’t articulate in work that addresses the topic, because the situation is more complex and messy, it might suggest the fallacy of their stated view. The same could be true of efforts to implement ideas as policies.

The stated “virtue” will often have unintended consequences, especially when taken to extremes and efforts at oneupmanship. For example, modern politics seems to prize outsiders and denigrate career politicians, so elected officials may virtue signal about their ties to the community and unfamiliarity with the capital. There can be some drawbacks, as decent people who know about the issues and have been involved in it for a while feel the incentive to lie about who they are, and ignoramuses who get elected into office by being fresh faces get rolled by lobbyists who have a better understanding of the existing structures than the newcomers.

Many controversial topics do come down to competing interests, so there will be rivaling virtues to signal, which gets to be another complicating factor. There’s diversity VS qualifications, believe the woman VS innocent until proven guilty, giving young people chances VS ageism, nuance VS moral clarity, etc.

“Virtue signaling” can apply to a situation in which someone takes a good thing and goes too far. The official definition “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue” does allow for the possibility of taking the wrong stand, or someone doing the wrong thing to demonstrate their good character. The idea that all humans should be treated equally works as a starting point but can be problematic if taken to an extreme, if someone demands that airline companies have the same percentage of minority pilots as found in the population, or that hospitals have the same percentage of minority heart surgeons. You can believe that cultures should be treated with respect, but disagree when there’s a push for the United Nations to make cultural appropriation illegal. Virtue signalling could also be something nice but impractical, such as excessive generosity, as when someone supports a project that sounds good, but is either a scam or well-intentioned but poorly run. An example would be FanCon, at best a deeply flawed effort at an inclusive comic convention.

Finally, “Virtue signalling” could be applicable to people who believe in wrong and disgusting things. Antisemites might try to make sure their fellow antisemites know how much they hate Jews. The willingness to threaten an abortionist could be seen as virtue-signalling for members of a far-right group.

I wonder if there’s an underlying reason I came at this from a seemingly atypical angle. Perhaps I’m a particular type of conservative who is concerned about unintended consequences, so my skepticism of virtue signalling is to be suspicious of the incentives, rather than just the individuals who fail to live up to their image.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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