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.

23 thoughts on “Virtue signalling

  1. The use of ‘politically correct’ as an insult has something in common with the use of ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘social justice warrior’ as insults, but to me the ur-example is the use of ‘do-gooder’ as an insult, as if there’s something bad about doing good.

  2. What is a little odd about the use of virtue signalling as a term of abuse by the right is that traditional conservatives have proclaimed the classic virtues justice, courage, piety, and wisdom – classic in that they go back to Plato – as being not just desirable in themselves, but as also the basis of virtue ethics, one of the three main approaches to normative ethics.

    Indeed the students in Tony Abbott’s paean to Western Civilization degree will probably learn all about virtue ethics.

  3. Smith9 is spot on about virtue ethics, but of course the right says it with implied scare-quotes i.e “virtue”-signalling. Even better if it can be contrasted with the signaller’s hypocritical behaviour to show that their profession of “virtue” is empty; you know, like someone banging on about climate change who then spends $15 million on international tra–oh, wait, never mind.*

    When I first heard the term “social justice warrior”, I honestly did not realise that it was being used sarcastically.

    * (The only real surprise about this escapade is that they haven’t yet convinced someone in his office to fall on their sword for it. What else are political staffers for?)

  4. “Virtue signalling” refers to moralistic and often hypocritical comments that reflect politically correct view and made for some kind of personal or psychological gain.

    It is especially the element of insincerity and for want of a better word ‘tosserdom’ than evokes the term ‘virtue signalling’.

    For example a working class black woman can talk about white male privilege with authenticity. But when a well off male academic or executive does, while still retaining and indeed furthering their class and other privileges by their daily job, it is virtue signalling.

    The fact that the term stings shows it has substantive content.

    As do the other terms woke’ and politically correct. However, SJW seems to me have less pejorative comment because the element of insincerity or at least unauthenticism is not present.

  5. Pr Q said:

    The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this

    His metaphor would make more sense if was replaced by the phrase “negative image”, implying that the MAGA hat should properly be seen as a wholesale inversion of liberal values, “vice signalling” so to speak. He then gets tangled up in a semiotic thicket for a while before finally concluding, to the surprise of no one, that Trumpians are “white nationalists”.

    No doubt many of them are. But Occams Razor suggests a simpler explanation for MAGA psychology than “wearers should be treated as superior”, the opposite of the truth for a movement which revels in its ordinariness. After all, the “deplorables” curse has been gleefully adopted by many wearers.

    Populists dont worship themselves, they worship their ancestors. Look at their favourite movies. It is no accident that many Alt-Right intellectuals hail (!) from California, once upon a time the Golden State for the “grapes of wrath” progressive middle class. Alt-right populists are essentially nostalgic for the lost land of the Beach Boys. If you believe that is a coded form of neo-Nazism then you will believe anything.

    Pr Q is correct to say that MAGA in particular, and the Alt-Right in general, is a triggering trolling exercise. But not in the way suggested by the tin-eared OP. The taunt is precisely aimed at an emperor who suddenly realises that his slip is showing.

    After all America was great for the 40 plus years (1945-89) that form the populist “race memory”. Winning wars that counted (esp the Cold War), making products that people loved (I drove a Grand Torino right the way across the US in 1993) and generally calling the tune.

    But since the aftermath of the Cold War the globalist liberal elite (in both its equity-Left and property-Right wings) has had the whip hand in economic, ecologic, ethnic and pedagogic policy, not to mention an iron grip on the Narrative megaphone With results that speak for themselves, in both the disgraces of the winners and the diseases of the losers.

    Thus the fury of the liberal Establishment at the MAGA hat, literally a red flag waved at a bull that has lost its charge, in both senses of the word. People accustomed to winning dont like to be told that they are phonies, especially by a bunch of losers. Why wont these red-necks just shut up already? Nobody asked for their opinion.

    This reactionary protestantism of the populists is obvious to anyone not invested in the conventional liberal pieties. But the populist Red Pill is proving a bit hard to swallow. No doubt because, in some cases, the cure will be worse than the liberal disease.

    Planck was wrong, science really does progress by persuasion. But his quip looks right for our current ideological impasse, which will only change by funerals, hopefully from natural causes.

  6. “The whole point is to be offensive, to ‘trigger the libs.'”…

    The interesting and endlessly amusing thing about “trigger the libs” is that it’s completely masturbatory. Liberals are not triggered by MAGA hats, etc., only amused and, to an extent, baffled by the self destructiveness of what now passes for conservatism.

    The wingnuts, however, will proclaim that they have somehow “owned” or “triggered” the “libs” (something only the wingnuts can see, apparently), and start jumping and howling and throwing their own feces at each other in this odd ritual dance we see so often.

    Point this out and the responses are silly, rambling, logically inconsistent screeds that are rarely less than a couple thousand words. Odd.

  7. Historyintime

    The far right Victorian Liberal backbencher Bernie Finn has derided the Victorian Government’s policy to make priests report pedophiles to police as virtue signalling. There is no element of calling out hypocrisy in this. In fact it doesn’t make any sense in its own terms because the policy has nothing to do with any virtues. Finn is merely flinging about a right wing term of abuse, like a monkey in a cage flinging its faeces.

  8. I think “virtue signalling” has more substance then this John. It reflects an individual who wants to demonstrate to their peers that they “think correctly” but they have no actual skin in the game. Specifically they do not bear any of the costs of any policy introduced in alignment with such a belief. And when they do, they may act hypocritically in private. Being a supporter of large scale immigration is an example of this as long as said immigrants live in areas other than where they live . Calling for rapid reductions in carbon emissions as long it only affects other people’s jobs.

    As you know, every policy has an opportunity cost. A virtue signaller is someone who wants to appear to be progressive as long as the opportunity cost falls on others

  9. “Being a supporter of large scale immigration is an example of this as long as said immigrants live in areas other than where they live” But, in general, the opposite is true. Support for One Nation (and Trump) is strongest in rural areas with low proportions of immigrants.
    I agree though that the kind of claim you are making is an important part of the appeal of the “virtue signalling” attack.

  10. When Jacinda Arden visited the Christchurch mosques wearing a scarf, she was accused of virtue signalling. In a way it was true. She showed visible empathy t of traumatised community.

  11. The upside I guess is that, if the right isn’t signalling virtue when they pontificate on moral issues, then they must be…vice-signalling? (How else to describe Bernie Finn’s position as stated above?)

  12. Am I the only one here who is so virtuous that he does not need to present his virtuosity to his fellows?

  13. “vice-signalling? ”

    JQ: “… but if the right chooses to engage in a religious culture war, all that will change.”
    https://johnquiggin.com/2014/01/11/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-3/

    JQ: “… So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.”
    https://johnquiggin.com/2014/04/19/tu-quoque/

    At least these commenter’s below (screen cap) at teh oz deserve some respect commenting on kevin donnelly’s new book. Kevin Donnelly sets up the defence. He has no need of “seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric,”.

    Launched w tony abbott and alan jones. And the other 70 or so “… to talk about political correctness.

    “Specifically, how they felt it was destroying Australia.

    “Broadcaster Alan Jones described it as a crisis. Former prime minister Tony Abbott said people should not be cowed into silence by the “outrage industry”.

    “And both agreed that there was a “march of the left through our institutions”.

    https://abc.net.au/news/2018-06-07/alan-jones,-tony-abbott-launch-kevin-donnelly-anti-pc-book/9843824

    Here is the screen cap of cherry picked teh oz comments showing knowledge and empathy – as opposed to donnelly, abbott & Jones…

    The last sentence says it all. They don’t even understand someone else is suffering. 

  14. ““Being a supporter of large scale immigration is an example of this as long as said immigrants live in areas other than where they live” But, in general, the opposite is true. Support for One Nation (and Trump) is strongest in rural areas with low proportions of immigrants.”

    JQ, I think this needs a rethink. Clearly it’s the LNP, ALP, Lib, NP, and Greens and not ON that support “large scale immigration”. Clearly ON walk their talk on this. They and their supporters want lower immigrant numbers everywhere regardless of any current particular regional or electorate demographics. If ON and their supporters don’t support “large scale immigration” how is their saying so this type of “virtue signalling”?

    Given 1) the LNP, ALP, Lib, and NP parties longstanding policies and spin in support of large immigration, and that 2) most of their electorates are not subject to “large scale immigration” heavy localised crush loading effects, &etc, how is this not virtue signalling of the type mentioned, to wit, “Being a supporter of large scale immigration is an example of this as long as said immigrants live in areas other than where they live”?

    Please explain ;

  15. It may be true that for “leftists. the MAGA hat is not treated as a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American”, but it’s certainly not true that Republicans feel the same way. Many of them believe sincerely that they stand for traditional values of patriotism, liberty and “decency”. While the last of these embodies a vast, ill-defined grab-bag of issues from sexual prudishness through zero tolerance law enforcement to teaching young people to be “respectful”, they certainly believe these things to be moral virtues. Many elderly Australians who’ve faithfully voted for the coalition for the last 40 years regardless of “policies” feel the same way.

    “Virtue signalling” is applied more to arguments used in political discourse than to physical artefacts. A good example is the instant calls for resignation when an elected official is accused of sexist or racist behavior even decades in the past. The people issuing the calls are signalling their own virtue at zero cost to themselves, and trashing in the process any regard for the longstanding virtues associated with natural justice.

  16. Ken. On my reading, flagwaving, “support our troops” stickers etc are intended as patriotic, and taken by the left as expressions of a claim to be patriotic, That can be criticised as hypocritical or misguided, given Trump’s obvious lack of patriotism, but there’s no doubt as to the intended signal. I don’t read the MAGA hat that way at all: it’s not a claim to patriotic virtue but a (literal) red rag, intended to anger the other side.

    Svante: This makes no sense. You haven’t contested the point that ON voters aren’t primarily in high immigration areas. If, as you claim, most ALP, LP and NP electorates are also not subject to “large scale immigration” it would appear that the 30 per cent of us who are overseas born have vanished into thin air.

  17. > but they have no actual skin in the game

    When I’m accused of virtue signalling because I ride my bicycle to an event, what does that mean? I always took the phrase to mean “I don’t like what you’re doing but I can’t think of a valid criticism of it”.

    SJW is one of my favourite terms, because the reply is “are you arguing against society, justice, or fighting for what I believe is right?” Normally the answer is “bah you suck” or something equally intellectually rigorous. I’ve occasionally got “I disagree with what you’re fighting for” with an explanation that they’re using a Randian definition of society or an economists sense of justice.

  18. > the instant calls for resignation when an elected official is accused of …

    Ken, those come just as vigorously from the other sides when there’s political advantage. Recall for example the s44 demands that the Greens senators resign immediately (which they did) followed by an abrupt about-face when members from other parties were found to be equally at fault. Suddenly there was a need for due process and an adversial test in the courts rather than it being a simple matter quickly remedied by resignation.

    The flip side is the stunning *lack* of those calls in many cases, as for instance the member who vigosously defended a paedophile even after he was convicted, but the few calls for his resignation were largely ignored and there was definitely no lynch mob. The member was de-elected because apparently voters in that electorate have a greater sense of shame than he does.

  19. If the MAGA wanted an America on the mend they would not wear a silly hat but urge the perjurers, crooks and thugs running it to stop their criminal activities and restore the country to true habeas corpus law, instead of trying to beat it, as they also do here in Australia with the likes of Agnus Taylor, Cash, Stuart Robert, Dutton, Morrison and Porter.

  20. JQ said ” mostly associated with the culture wars.” And in linked article “So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.”

    John Berger imo would agree. Perhaps we need a new way of seeing culture wars as, like the air we breath and the concepts we engage with, we are sometimes unaware of the medium we are in and ‘the way we are seeing and seen’. Tricky.

    “In an age of open media, the implications are vast. If the internet has made all of us critics, that means we are all now foot soldiers in a culture war: self-armed semioticians and practiced deconstructors of political signification.”

    Ways of living
    John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ exploded a discipline. But his greatest legacy might be a quieter project of re-enchantment ”
    https://aeon.co/essays/john-bergers-ways-of-seeing-and-his-search-for-home

    … “The term ‘home’, he admits, has been long taken over by the moralising of conservatives and xenophobes, both representatives of the ruling class, who have worked to hide its more original meaning. He writes:

    “Originally home meant the centre of the world – not in a geographical but in an ontological sense … home was the place from which the world could be founded … Without a home at the centre of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in non-being, in unreality. Without a home, everything was fragmentation.”

    …”…Berger’s essay slaloms through a conceptual minefield, one that has confused (and intimidated) most thinkers on the Left for at least a century. No other baby has been as perpetually thrown out with the bathwater of politics as has the concept of home – perhaps due to its presumed relation to the ‘national question’ or the desire for property. On each of these scores, Berger drew fundamental distinctions. 

    …”Said reframes the question, asking how we might ‘surmount the loneliness of exile without falling into the encompassing and thumping language of national pride, collective sentiments, group passions?’ At a political moment that has seen the stunning rise of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán – the list goes on – this might be the million-dollar question of our time.”

    John Berger Interview – ABC Radio National
    On youtube.

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