Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote virtue: rather to argue against it. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

By contrast, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”.

Virtue signalling

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is just a not a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. For leftists, the MAGA hat is not treated as a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s regarded an offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to be offensive, to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual claim to being superior, morally or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to <i>tu quoque</i>, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Blue Labor: rightwing identity politics

I’ve started writing a regular column for Independent Australia (every two weeks), and my first column has just gone up. It’s a response to Nick Dyrenfurth and David Furse-Roberts, Australian advocates of Maurice’s Glasman’s Blue Labour ideas in the UK (apparently Glasman visited here for a few months. The central point is that, far from offering a policy alternative to the political right, Blue Labor is all about a specific kind of identity politics, focused on stereotypical male manual workers. These workers assumed to be socially conservative and economically aspirational, but to vote for Labor because they don;t like the silvertails on the other side, despite sharing all of their views.

It took me a while to write this, and several other people came out with very similar analyses in the meantime, notably including Jeff Sparrow. Dyrenfurth responded, complaining “I doubt Jeff Sparrow has read my book instead of relying upon selective media reports and a book extract comprising less than 3% of the book’s contents”

I have (almost) zero sympathy for this. If you can’t summarize your book in 700 words without giving readers a radically wrong impression of your central idea, you shouldn’t publish a summary at all. The only criticism of an extract I would regard as unfair is of the type “Quiggin doesn’t mention topic X or qualify the argument with reference to Y”. In this case, it’s perfectly legitimate to point to the fact that these topics are in fact covered in the book, but not in the extract/summary.

Almost invariably, this rhetorical move involves backing away from the core message presented sharply in the extract/summary, and pointing to the more nuanced presentation in the full length version. On this score, I can only appeal to my Crooked Timber co-blogger Kieran Healy (NSFW title)

The new normal: put up with it

Anthony Albanese has finally responded to the bushfire disaster. On the positive side, and by contrast with Morrison, he has at least acknowledged the role of climate change in turning our historical pattern of episodic bushfires into a new normal in which fires burn for weeks on end in places that have never seen them before. As of today, with the worst of the crisis behind us for now, NSW Fire and Rescue Service reports

At 8.30am there are 129 fires burning, 66 are uncontained. One fire is at Watch and Act level. More than 1,800 personnel are working to contain these fires. Severe and High Fire Danger Ratings continue over much of the state today.

Albo’s response is to call for an emergency COAG which will discuss how to deal with climate related disasters, but not, it seems, look at doing anything about our contribution to climate change. That would, it seems, be unnecessarily divisive.

We now have a choice between two exciting climate policies

LNP: Don’t believe your lying eyes, let alone lying scientists. It isn’t happening

ALP: It’s happening, and we’re not going to do anything unpopular to stop it. Get used to it.

China going wrong

Despite the opacity of Chinese politics, it is clear that things are going badly wrong there. In just the last week, we’ve seen

  • The rejection of the officially backed candidates in Hong Kong’s local election
  • Leaks exposing the massive repression of the Uighur population
  • The defection of an alleged Chinese spy, with allegations of interference in Australia’s domestic politics
  • Clear evidence that the energy transformation towards renewables has been abandoned or downplayed in favor of the revival of suspended coal projects

We can add to that longer term problems such as the failure to resolve the trade war with the US, and the slow-motion trainwreck of the Belt and Road Initiative.

At the core of much of this is the central government’s incapacity to control what goes in the provinces. I wrote about this a while ago in relation to coal, and it’s clearly evident both in the failure to control events in Hong Kong and in the resort to state terror in Xinjiang. It’s also true in relation to the Belt and Road, which has turned from a geopolitical grand strategy to a slush fund for provincial politicians and SOEs seeking easy money in corrupt overseas investment deals.

This is unlikely to work well for China, and failure in China bodes ill for the rest of us. Most obviously, if China’s coal projects follow their current trajectory, there is no chance of stabilizing the global climate.

But more generally, it seems hard to see how the current integrated global economy, with China playing a central role, can be sustained. Trump’s trade war was largely motivated by a pre-modern mercantilist analysis, but now that has started, it seems unlikely to stop, even if Trump loses in 2020.

I’ve been sceptical both of the idea that Chinese activity in the South China Sea is a major problem and of attacks on Chinese influence in Australia. While I still think these claims are overblown, it is hard to see the current Chinese state as anything other than a bad actor, one of many we have to confront today.

Unmitigated failure

That’s been the response of Australia’s political class, politicians, pundits and journalists alike to the arrival of catastrophic climate change in the form of ubiquitous and semi-permanent bushfires. The failure has been so comprehensive, encompassing nearly everyone in Labor and the LNP, and most of the commentariat, that there is not much point in naming names.

I can’t motivate myself to write a proper analysis of this, so I’ve been reduced to writing a series of snarky tweets.

Update: Sean Kelly spells out the same point in the SMH.

Read More »

Predictions and projections

I have a piece in The Conversation arguing against the common practice of publishing projections, based on holding constant parameters that are unlikely to remain so in practice. I suggest modellers need to bite the bullet, make predictions and stand by them.

A slight clarification, arising from discussion. To the extent that we are concerned with policy, it’s fine to make conditional predictions about the consequences of alternative policy packages.


The use of “woke” as a term of abuse by rightwingers has expanded rapidly in the recent past. A typical example is Deputy PM McCormack’s claim (rapidly refuted by fire chiefs) that the supposed relationship between climate change and the bushfire disaster arose from “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”

This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve never seen anyone in Australia describe themselves as “woke”. That’s not surprising: the term comes from the US and refers to changed consciousness of the structures of racial oppression there, and specifically to the position of black Americans. Being “woke” refers to things like the gaining of a new understanding the way blacks are portrayed in the media.

While Australia has plenty of problems with racism, particularly in relation to indigenous Australians, there hasn’t been any real transformation of consciousness here, or at least, anything sufficient to be announced as an awakening. So, the pejorative use of “woke” is yet another example of the dependence of the Australian right on culture war tropes imported from the US.

The same is true, by the way, of “political correctness”. The term was initially used ironically within the US left of people who were more concerned with taking the “correct line” than with effective action. It was then appropriated by the right to become the catchphrase we all know. In the Australian context, the term “ideologically sound” was used within the left, in just the same way as “politically correct”, but our local rightwingers never picked it up.

A second striking observation is that, having no real referent in Australia, “woke” is being used as an all purpose pejorative for anything the right doesn’t like. There’s nothing “woke” about being worried about climate change – the entire scientific community has been shouting about it for decades.

The extreme case, so far, is Janet Albrechtsen in the Oz (no link), using the term to describe veteran corporate gadfly Stephen Mayne, also notable as the founder of Crikey and previously an advisor to Jeff Kennett. Mayne certainly makes trouble for the cosy network of the Australian corporate elite, but describing shareholder activism* as “woke” stretches the term beyond any possible limit. In the current case, he is campaigning for more independent directors, while Albrechtsen (in a very confused piece) plays the gender card against him,

  • To be clear, I’m not referring to the kind of activism done by groups like Market Forces, pushing for divestment from fossil fuels. Mayne’s typically complaint is that boards aren’t capitalist enough preferring a comfortable life to their fiduciary obligation to maximize shareholder value.