The Problem with The Problem of Virtue-Signalling

Scrolling through social threads today, I came across a criticism than an action was virtue-signalling. At first the phrase slipped by without reflection. Virtue-signalling is one of those phrases that gets thrown around in politics, particularly the subdivision of politics that is the culture wars. In those dialogues, it lives with a range of phrases from the left and right of politics, like political correctness, cultural appropriation and so on, that often had a specific meaning, but are now widely used as criticisms with loose, if any definition. I was about to go on reading but then I stopped and asked myself “What does that mean? What is wrong with signalling virtues?”.

Virtues are demonstrations of high moral standards.  Those standards are only standards and recognised as positives if they are shared in community.  An effective civil society needs some foundation of shared virtues. Virtues aren’t virtues in theory. You might source your virtues from a religious text, an ancient philosopher or lived experience. They become societal virtues when they are shared with others. A society comes to share virtues as a result of actions in line with those virtues. Actions that help those virtues become shared may be demonstrations of those virtues publicly or they may be creating signals that the virtues are required and will be rewarded. Of course, as with anything human, this is not a perfect process. Some of those signals may be false, flawed or hypocritical. The signals still contribute to creating the community standard that underpins the virtue. In fact, some of the strongest signals are when people suffer consequences for false, flawed or hypocritical demonstration of virtues. The problem with the problem of virtue signalling is you don’t have virtues without signalling.

Even if we accept that virtue-signalling is problematic, are we next going to suggest that evil-condemnation is also morally complex? If people can be unworthy to signal virtue, surely they can be unworthy to condemn evil. While I haven’t yet seen anyone explicitly throw that term as a pejorative, there are plenty of examples in our discourse as a society where people have cast doubt on (a) someone’s right to condemn evil (b) whether the way evil was condemned is adequate, (c) whether the evil is truly evil in some narrower or broader context and finally (d) whether evil is truly evil if it there is doubt as to intent, to means or to consequence. When we look the criticism of virtue-signalling, we see the intent is often not to address the issue of how best to promote virtue or suppress evil. The issue is a desire to silence others. Nobody is perfect. We know that. If we demand perfection as the standard for comment or action. Nobody gets to meet the mark. Only those with the power to speak anyway will get to discuss the issue.

One thing we learn from totalitarianism and other systems that leverage propaganda is that they master the art of taking phrases emptying them of their actual meaning and then twisting them to the purposes of control and power. We have to continue to question any phrases, subject them to discussion and query their role as criticisms and barriers to people to engage in civil society. Civil society needs more real debate, not less.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” – George Orwell, 1984

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