The term "virtue signaling" as virtue signaling

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Jillian Jordan and David Rand, "Are You 'Virtue Signaling'? Probably. But that doesn't mean your outrage is inauthentic", NYT 3/30/2019:

Expressions of moral outrage are playing a prominent role in contemporary debates about issues like sexual assault, immigration and police brutality. In response, there have been criticisms of expressions of outrage as mere "virtue signaling" — feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.

Clearly, feigned righteousness exists. We can all think of cases where people simulated or exaggerated feelings of outrage because they had a strategic reason to do so. Politicians on the campaign trail, for example, are frequent offenders.

So it may seem reasonable to ask, whenever someone is expressing indignation, "Is she genuinely outraged or just virtue signaling?" But in many cases this question is misguided, for the answer is often "both."

The authors suggest that "virtue signaling" is not always pure hypocrisy, which Wikipedia explains as "the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations, especially with respect to religious and moral beliefs; […] the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another." Or as François de la Rochefoucauld wrote, "Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue" (in the original French, "L'hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu").

So then is "virtue signaling" a moral analog of bullshit, with virtue signalers as indifferent about vice and virtue as bullshitters are indifferent about truth and falsehood? Harry Frankfurt explained the term bullshit this way:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

This would mean that virtue-signalers don't really have any relevant moral opinions or behavioral dispositions. Their only goal is to register their affiliation with a certain socially sanctioned set of attitudes.

No — Jordan and Rand give a more sympathetic account of "virtue signaling":

Psychological studies reveal that a person's authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation. In other words, even genuine outrage can be strategic.

In a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we show that even when people are unobserved — and thus have no incentive to signal their virtue — their sense of moral outrage is influenced by their desire to be seen positively by others.

Of course, we might also give a similarly sympathetic account of bullshit, in which beliefs and lies are "inherently interwoven".

Anyhow, my point today is that unlike bullshit, which (I think) is used pretty uniformly across the political spectrum, the term virtue signaling has come to have a particular political resonance. As far as I can tell, it's now used almost exclusively for attacks from the right of the American political scene on statements or positions to the left of the attacker — or at least, for attacks that accuse someone of insincere expression of views associated with the left.

Wikipedia describes virtue signaling in a politically neutral way, as

… a pejorative for the conspicuous expression of moral values. Academically, the phrase relates to signalling theory to describe a subset of social behaviors that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious. In recent years, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative by commentators to describe empty or superficial support of certain political views and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing appearance over action.

But if we search Google News or Bing News for the phrase, we find lots of leftward-directed hits on right-associated sites:

"More pointless virtue signaling on guns", PowerLine
"Virtue-signaling corporations are lying to you about using green energy", Washington Examiner
"Infanticidal virtue-signaling sparked Virginia Democrats' self-immolation", Washington Examiner
"Incremental virtue-signaling at Dick's", American Thinker
"Starbucks learns the price of virtue-signaling, now must install needle disposal boxes in bathrooms 'open to all'", American Thinker
"This Week in Congress: Expanding the Nanny State and Virtue Signaling", Liberty Nation
"California's Proposed Paper Receipt Ban Is Just More West Coast Virtue Signaling", Townhall
etc.

And the relevant headlines from centrist or left-leaning outlets are (nearly?) all criticisms of people or organizations that fail to back up words with action on left-associated issues:

"The Democrats' net neutrality bill is political virtue signaling at its worst", LA Times
"Buttigieg Scolds 'Sanctimonious' 'Virtue Signaling' Chick-Fil-A Protesters", Tribune Papers
"Pete Buttigieg Thinks Chick-Fil-A Boycotters Are 'Virtue Signaling'", BuzzFeed

No one in the media seems ever to have accused Republicans of virtue signaling about deficit spending, though there have certainly been plenty of complaints about "empty or superficial support" and  of  "valuing appearance over action".  Even right-ring critics of the current American presidency raise the issue of hypocrisy without moving on to virtue signaling — thus Russ Douthat, "The Mick Mulvaney Presidency", NYT 3/30/2019, goes on at length

You could describe the cut-the-Special-Olympics budgets and anti-Obamacare efforts as just classic Republican hypocrisy, the tribute that big-spending vice plays to small-government virtue. 

Similarly, among the many complaints that Donald Trump's verbal commitments to "great health care" haven't been backed up by any concrete plans, the phrase virtue signaling does not seem to have appeared.

Since that phrase seems to have originated less than ten years ago, and came into popular use only over the past four or five years, it should be an easy study in cultural evolution to see how these socio-political connotations came into being. It may simply be that early popular usage (like James Bartholemew, "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'", The Spectator 4/18/2015) set the tone. But since the actual meaning seems to be politically neutral, why have those connotations endured? Because from the beginning, use of the term itself has been a certain kind of (virtue) signaling?

 



36 Comments

  1. John Shutt said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    Though it's a bit difficult to untangle whether uses of the term "virtue signaling" are likely to be virtue signaling, it does seem they're likely to be bullshit.

  2. FM said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    The term "virtue signalling" is frequently accompanied by a sneering attitude towards the word "virtue" itself — so rather than signalling virtue, the use of the term would seem to be signalling a sort of callous amorality raised to the level of principle.

  3. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    The expression always seemed superfluous to me: I always called it posturing.
    As to whether hypocrisy or no: it's impossible to tell with most of the people who indulge in it. They can rarely be put on the spot, or the media are averse to posing the apposite questions. It's one of the characteristics of the internet culture that it doesn't encourage dialogue (Language Log excepted!).

    When you do get the chance, on immigration, for example, I've found if you ask somebody who's fuming against those who call for proper controls on it whether he's in favour of removing all controls, you tend to get evasiveness, or even a grudging admission that, no, he's not.

  4. Uly said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

    The right wing is so prone to blatantly projection that their obsession with the term "virtue signalling" says much more about them and their morals than it does about anybody else.

  5. Uly said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    When you do get the chance, on immigration, for example, I've found if you ask somebody who's fuming against those who call for proper controls on it whether he's in favour of removing all controls, you tend to get evasiveness, or even a grudging admission that, no, he's not.

    1. What do you define as "proper controls"? Those are some weasel words right there.

    2. At this point in the ridiculous immigration wars I've actually come to the point where I do think that it'd be cheaper and better all around to have either very few immigration controls or none at all. So hiya!

  6. Thomas Rees said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

    The pronouns used in the Jordan Rand article are interesting. We have "Psychological studies reveal that a person's authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation." Then "In several experiments, we presented participants with an act of selfish behavior, in which one person was given an opportunity to split a sum of money with another person but decided to keep all the money for himself."
    Mostly they use singular they as they should.

  7. Kristian said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 1:25 pm

    I disagree with the New York Times article in that I don't think accusations of "virtue signaling" are generally accusations of hypocrisy.

    At least sometimes I think the person accused of virtue signaling is accused of having an attitude that makes his or her personal "virtue" (as judged by by their standards) more important than the consequences that their stance would have if it were generally adopted. (That it's better to be "pure" ideologically than to compromise with the "enemy")

    I don't want to get into any controversial political discussions, but to give a not very good example, I remember hearing about a fervent atheist (no one famous) who refused to go into a church even as a tourist or to attend a secular event. This is a kind of virtue signaling, the way I understand it. It would not occur to me to think that this person is a hypocrite.

    But maybe I understand the term differently from other people.

  8. Kristian said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

    Let me just add to that example that the reason this was "signaling" at times was that this person would explain that he couldn't enter a church even when not doing so was inconvenient to other people (it wasn't just a private rule).

  9. Doug said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 4:54 pm

    Mark Liberman wrote:
    "No one in the media seems ever to have accused Republicans of virtue signaling about deficit spending"

    Although there's a lot of feigned concern about deficits on the Right, I wouldn't call it "virtue signaling" because the main purpose (it appears to me) is not to get praise from other (real or fake) deficit hawks, but to convince the general public that the federal government cannot possibly afford the programs that the Left wants.

  10. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 6:09 pm

    If one is going to study the rising salience of this phrase, one might also consider whether it has any commonly understood antonym. I've used "vice signaling" myself (signaling something all right, but something that's decidedly not virtuous) but what's the opposite of "signaling" in signaling theory, and is it something that an actor can positively do?

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 7:02 pm

    This is not American Political History and Sociology Log, but let me offer a hypothesis. One common source of political misunderstanding — I say misunderstanding because it may be qualitatively different than mere disagreement — arises when one "side" (whether viewed in left v. right terms or otherwise) views a particular contentious policy issue in essentially moral terms while the other side views the exact same issue as one to be thought of in pragmatic terms as involving trade-offs and cost-benefit analysis and blah blah blah. The former side will view the latter side as amoral and inhumane and reductionist while the latter side will view the former side as incapable of rational discussion and compromise because they're off on some sentimental moralistic crusade. My hypothesis is that "virtue signalling" is used as an epithet by the latter side in these sorts of conflicts. The important point is that while obviously both major political parties or factions will be inconsistent and behave differently on different issues, it is not stable over time and not a 50/50 balance, so at any given moment in history the tendency to see more contentious policy disputes in essentially moral terms may be more prevalent in one party or faction than the other.

    If you wanted to do some historical corpus research, I would hypothesize that the sort of people who say "you can't legislate morality" are likely to be the same people who accuse their political opponents of virtue-signalling. I suspect that if you trace it over enough decades the center-of-gravity of you-can't-legislate-morality-sayers has migrated from place to place on a left-right axis rather than being stable.

  12. Ray said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 9:54 pm

    virtue signalling is a kind of piety — real or fake — exercised to get attention on social and mainstream media. and it's all good, because we also have victim signalling (oppression — real or fake — that gets attention on social and mainstream media). at the end of the day, it's all about empowerment. 'virtue' and 'victimhood' are wielded as a form of status and privilege. neither exists or flourishes in a vacuum.

  13. The Other Mark P said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 11:57 pm

    I'm with Kristian, but with a twist.

    Virtue signalling is when the point of your message is to signal to others on your side that you are a virtuous person. It is indeed posturing, of a sort, but of a very specific sort. It is indeed attention seeking, but of a very specific sort.

    When you change your Facebook image to include a rainbow if someone is rude about gay people, you achieve no change in the real world. No-one on the other side even notices, since they probably don't read your Facebook messages anyway. But a signal has been made that you are virtuous in your circle.

    The example of not entering churches above is similar. It's only effect is to show how good you are that you don't even go into a religious building. The church and churchgoers neither know or care about such things. (The top end virtue signaler would refuse to enter a church but would ostentatiously put on Instagram when they enter a mosque, thereby scoring double "points").

    Rather a lot of people assume that the right can't operate in good faith, so a phrase like "virtue signalling" is obviously never correct and is just abuse. Well plenty on the right do operate in good faith, and their preferred terms of description are not without some merit.

    That a publication like the NY Times can't even get basic stuff like this right, is a worry.

  14. Semaphore said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 8:24 am

    It's interesting that the word "virtue" is no longer always the thing that is being signaled. It has moved on to merely modify the manner of signaling something else: for example, a person "has been virtue signaling his support for marriage equality since 1993," or he "is virtue signaling his own generosity." "He spent 3 hours on his show virtue signaling his adoration for communists."

  15. Eneri Rose said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 8:27 am

    J.W., very well said. You are a genius!

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    "Virtue-signalling" is obviously intended as a pejorative term, as is "vice-signalling", but I genuinely wonder how many of us are guilty of one (or the other, or both) on a regular basis. For example, if I write up a chicken recipe, or an egg recipe, I will invariably use the phrase "free-range" to describe the chicken or the eggs; am I wrong to do this ? It is, I am sure, a form of virtue-signalling, yet it is equally a statement of fact since I would never intentionally cook with chicken or eggs that were not free-range.

  17. Paul A Sand said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 10:08 am

    I've seen people argue for "piety display" over "virtue signalling" as a more accurate description of the phenomenon. Whichever, I don't think the hypocrisy component is a necessary part. Phony outrage is an independent phenomenon.

  18. Vulcan with a Mullet said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    I don't think the mere practice of not entering a church, in and of itself, should be called virtue signaling. (Although I am sure there are many who take it that way, somewhat in the way that some meat eaters take the mere existence of veganism as "virtue signaling.")

    What matters most is the ostentatious mentioning, often unsolicited, of a personal belief (usually a liberal one).

    In my view, anyway.

  19. rosie said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 10:52 am

    Philip Taylor, you are of course not wrong to use the term "free-range" in a recipe. And your message gets closer to what I see as the real issue, which is not an action called "virtue-signalling", but is rather the denigration of someone by accusing them of virtue-signalling. The word is a loaded one. Can such insults be justified, given that the denigrated behaviour is no worse than using the term "free-range", or incorporating a rainbow flag into your avatar? Such actions are no worse than, say, wearing a poppy on or near Remembrance Day.

    The Other Mark P: the cause which someone might indicate by sporting a rainbow emblem — LGBT rights — involves objection to murder and oppression of many people in many countries. Brunei's anti-LGBT law which is soon to come into effect will add to the widespread state oppression of LGBT people. IMHO your phrase "someone is rude about gay people" misrepresents the cruel reality.

  20. Laret Luval said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

    The concept of virtue-signaling is one of the primary tools the right has to understand and predict the left. Since the right understands the left better than vice versa[0], it is worth paying careful attention to the concept.

    In fact it's not hard to find cases of people on the right being accused of virtue-signaling, including Mitt Romney[1] and Donald Trump himself[2]. These cases are especially useful because they show that the term isn't just a generic attack on progressives, and lets us figure out what it really means.

    Donald Trump was accused of virtue signaling most strongly when he ordered missile strikes on Syria. The reasoning was that he was wasting American resources for something that did not benefit America.

    In general the "virtue" in virtue-signaling isn't just any virtue. The application of virtue-signaling to deficit spending or providing healthcare seems almost ungrammatical to me. The "virtue" in virtue-signaling is showing how moral you are to *other* people, and in particular how much you care about other people. Thriftiness is a virtue, but it's not a virtue that benefits other people directly: it's a virtue that benefits the thrifty person himself. On the other hand, a white person who lives in an all-white gated community going to march in the streets on behalf of black people is acting in the interests of other people, and signaling how much they care about other people. Similarly, Trump's action on behalf of Syrians does not make America better, it just demonstrates what a caring person he is about other people who he has never met.

    [0] https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/liberals-conservatives-and-the-haidt-results/46113

    [1] https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/423490-rand-paul-defends-trump-against-romney-op-ed-he-wants-to-signal-how-virtuous

    [2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/06/26/donald-trump-reckless-syria-folly-james-bovard-column/426924001/

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

    Within the same broadly "progressive" political constituency, I would imagine that many of those activists who do the grunt-level concrete political work of organizing, lobbying, fundraising, etc etc to advance specific policy changes sometimes resent those of their purported allies whose political progressivism is almost entirely on-line and performative – they tweet and retweet all the right memes and slogans but when you need people to do the practical stuff that is actually hard work they're never there. What do they pejoratively call these symbolic-only supporters of their cause when they're feeling aggravated by them? Because the people they'd be irritated with probably largely overlap with those accused of virtue-signalling but this pejorative would be coming from a different political direction.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    Going back almost a half-century, here's a song that's easily understood as a left-of-center critique of right-of-center people engaged in what would now be called "virtue-signalling," but I guess that phrase didn't exist. But was there some synonym at the time in the hippie/radical register of AmEng for when the uptight squares engaged in corny low-cost symbolic displays of fealty to Middle American values?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Your_Flag_Decal_Won%27t_Get_You_Into_Heaven_Anymore

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

    Garrett: I like "vice signaling", and there's certainly a lot of it [1] [2], but I think the antonym of "virtue signaling" might be "hiding one's light under a bushel".

    [1] Tom T. Hall, passim.

    [2] Snoop Dogg, passim.

  24. Roscoe said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 1:14 pm

    J.W. Brewer: "What do they pejoratively call these symbolic-only supporters of their cause when they're feeling aggravated by them?"

    Slacktivists.

  25. TLK said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

    This reminds me of "dog whistles," most commonly used to describe the right. It seems anecdotally the left is accused of signaling virtue and the right is accused of signaling its opposite (vice, intolerance, etc.) with similarly coded messages.

    But they're not true foils because virtue signaling is more about the signaler and dog whistles are more about sneaking in an unacceptable belief (referring to the Overton Window, not trying to editorialize).

    Might virtue signaling be recast as a sort of disingenuous incredulity about what is acceptable, in an attempt to shift the Overton Window back over to the virtuous side? e.g. "I can't believe the government would separate families at the border!" Yes, actually I can, but I don't want this fact to be so readily believable so I'll pretend it's not.

  26. Mark Plant said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 3:20 pm

    Rosie,

    You really aren't getting it.

    Putting a rainbow on your Facebook page doesn't do what you think it does, because the people on your Facebook page already agree with you. It is virtue signalling because it at no cost to yourself, and with little or no effort. It moves the law in Brunei not one jot.

    Actual virtue involves costs. You have to actually be virtuous, not just be prepared to do some low cost measures that are meant to show that you have the right intent.

    Actually opposing gay prejudice comes with real costs. Even at the bottom end you might have to march and lose some of your time. And the truly virtuous might actively support political parties and measures, expending real time and energy. Putting a twee rainbow on your page doesn't show that you are opposing gay prejudice, it merely shows that you are willing to be seen as doing that. I know some quite prejudiced people who will happily put a rainbow flag up, then actively discriminate in private.

    Virtue signalling isn't about signalling actual virtue. It's about the signalling of purported virtue.

    if I write up a chicken recipe, or an egg recipe, I will invariably use the phrase "free-range" to describe the chicken or the eggs; am I wrong to do this ?

    It depends. Do you buy and eat exclusively free-range? Because if you don't, it is indeed virtue signalling, because you are signalling what a good person you are, but not backed up by any actual virtue. Like a Hollywood actor who says we should all cut back on our carbon footprint, and then flies buy private jet — a no cost approach to virtue.

    But if you are active in trying to avoid non-free range, and support actions to increase that option, then you are merely making a statement of your values.

    I personally only buy free-range, but I accept that the ones I eat in other food not prepared by me might not be the same and I don't mind excessively. Hence I don't signal I am virtuous by insisting that egg be preceded by "free range".

  27. Ellen K. said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 5:05 pm

    Mark Plant, Rosie clearly indicated her objection was to the idea that the cause for which one put a rainbow flag being described as "being rude to gay people". She made no claim that doing so actually does anything other than "virtue signalling". She has a good point that people dying is beyond "being rude". Whether or not out actions do anything to accomplish change.

  28. Gwen Katz said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 2:10 am

    "Virtue signaling" is akin to "slacktivism" and other terms that denote supporting or condemning something in the way that gets the most attention while requiring the least effort. I suspect that the main reason it's mainly used be the right is circular–it was largely popularized by people on the right, so using it makes you sound like you belong to that group, so other groups tend to avoid it, even if it might be semantically useful (see also "fake news").

    But there may also be a bigger disconnect: I think that in many of these cases, the person on the right is claiming that the person on the left genuinely doesn't care about the issue–as in, they're totally indifferent about the outcome–and is merely claiming that they care because it's what the public wants. But in most of these cases (corporations possibly excepted), the person doing the signaling does indeed care about the outcome–they just also care, perhaps excessively, that their concern is noticed by others.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 8:44 am

    Gwen Katz: In several of the links Prof. Liberman posted, the criticism was not that the person on the left didn't really care, it was that in the writer's opinion the actions being taken wouldn't accomplish anything

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    To add to Jerry Friedman's point and try to tie it back to one of my earlier points, people who are irked by "virtue-signalling" may also be people who tend to focus on the notion that what makes a policy good or bad is its real world effects (which are sometimes complex and counterintuitive) rather than the subjective good intentions of its proponents. So when those proponents frame debates about e.g. raising the minimum wage as "we really care about helping poor people, unlike you heartless bastards," others who think concerns like "how much will a minimum-wage increase incentivize employers to eliminate low-skill human jobs by replacing them with robots and/or, for example, making customers scan their own groceries in the check out line" should be given more weight in the discussion get aggravated. It's not so much a concern that the moral feeling is feigned or subjectively insincere, it's more that it reflects doubling down on thinking about the issue the wrong way — the more people talk about just how awesomely good their intentions are the harder it is to convince them that that just isn't the right focus for evaluating the issue. On a number of different policy issues, I think the "who cares about your subjective good intentions, let's think more about how your idea might backfire in practice" critique has been more common in right-wing circles than left-wing circles in recent decades, but there are certainly multiple exceptions to that generalization and I wouldn't be so bold as to predict that even the broad generalization will be stable (in terms of its left v right correlations) over a long-enough timescale. (Again, I'm trying to be descriptive here rather than normative: I'm not claiming the who-cares-about-your-good-intentions perspective is the better one for any given policy dispute; I'm just trying to show what plausibly follows from holding that perspective.)

  31. Marc Foster said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    A few points:

    1) In my experience the accusation of "virtue signaling" is almost never a good faith criticism. It is never an accusation from the left to other people on the left or from the left to the right. instead it is an insult from the right to the left and almost exclusively in relation to "social issues" – LGBT, anti-muslim discrimination, bigotry, etc. I would be amazed if someone was actually accused of virtue signaling over support for increasing the minimum wage. It bears a great resemblance to "political correctness" in that regard. It is a way of denigrating a progressive social stance without explicitly endorsing its opposite.

    2) I don't know about anyone else but it is definitely not the case that if I post a rainbow flag on my Facebook page that everyone who sees my page will agree with it. (And I'm probably well to the left of the median even among Democrats.)

    3) The posting of the flag and other examples of "virtue signaling" are often intended to show support to people in the affected community (gays, minorities, Muslims, etc.). Maybe they already knew that or maybe not, but it never hurts to say it and it isn't an empty gesture.

    4) Things that conservatives do that do not bring charges of "virtue signaling" include ostentatiously displaying confederate flags, football players kneeling for a public prayer after scoring a TD, wearing a MAGA hat to a Trump rally, etc. (With the caveat that I don't think those things actually signal virtue.)

  32. Victor Mair said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 12:19 pm

    Just saw a woman downstairs in the cafe drinking from a plain white carton labeled starkly:

    BOXED
    WATER
    IS
    BETTER

  33. Chandra said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 5:35 pm

    Some of the comments here exemplify very well the problem with terms like "virtue signaling" and "slacktivism".

    I'm gay. I want allies to put rainbow filters on their FB profiles. No, one person's choice to do so may not have a resounding and immediate effect on the world, but those bigger changes depend on smaller incremental changes in social attitudes, and those happen when people are able to influence others in their immediate social circles. When I post something in support of another marginalized group that I'm not a part of, I don't do it to make myself look better, I am very specifically thinking of the people in my social circles who are not likely to be informed about these groups, and who may have their worldviews expanded a little bit by reading/seeing it.

    Could people do more? Absolutely, and those of us who care enough do. But it would be unrealistic of me to expect the majority of people to be that highly invested in an issue that doesn't affect them directly, so I will take small attempts at support over nothing.

  34. Andrew Usher said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

    Marc Foster seems to have missed the point of the original post, and instead took the opportunity to vent his political bias. Ignoring that, the point was that the _phrase_ 'virtue signaling' seems to have been adopted popularly by only one political side, it's not because only one does it. The thing is done by both sides, and on non-political issues as well (religion is probably what inspired the term). And the 'virtue' in 'virtue signaling' is not meant to be itself a moral judgement – that the thing being signaled is actually virtuous (good); merely that the people signaled to consider it so (or pretend to).

    I do think that today in America the left does it more than the right, and more obviously, but a few decades past it was probably the reverse. Politics is mutable but human nature remains, and communicating in ways that are not completely sincere is part of human nature we're not getting rid of.

    For, in reality, it is not a stretch to consider it 'the moral equivalent of bullshit', and that is actually a good comparison. Both can be completely true and still insincere, because it doesn't really matter if the bullshitter believes his own bullshit, or is the virtue-signaler really believes in the cause he stamps his approval on. In both cases it is something he wants to say regardless; and yes, of course, many of our common social 'politeness' rituals are insincere in the same way, though generally not very consequentially.

    Another commonality is that both can quickly change their tunes if it becomes clear that the rhetoric is harming themselves of the cause, whereas someone persisting in expressing himself is likely sincere (or has some other substantial reason). In other words the virtue-signaler is not risking himself, and may well be benefitting by conformity (and we know that most people prefer to conform, consciously or not) to his group.

    Finally the last sentence, that in certain circles the term 'virtue signaling' itself has become signaling, may well be, regrettably, the case. I would rather it remain a neutral term for a certain type of language and of behavior.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  35. M said,

    April 3, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

    Yes, it is mistaken to believe that "virtue signalling" necessarily tends to describe deceptive activity.

    It also encompasses targets in a general sense who are believed not to have any substantive consistent set of moral principles or substantive, consistent character, formed by life experience and moral reasoning, and who instead support moral notions on the basis of their general social approval and status value.

    It's essentially more about believed "authenticity" as a whole, than necessarily deception (which is specifically intentional and self aware inauthenticity).

    For a "virtue signaler" to not even be consciously deceptive or hypocritical, then, doesn't improve them in the eyes of the accuser; it simply confirms that the formation of their moral ideas is shallow and naive (that they are then lacking enough self awareness to be consciously deceptive, and rather are simply vapid).

    Virtue signalling complaints about the inauthentic development of moral ideas then, probably are most plausible for fast changing, new developing moral ideas that its most plausible that could be adopted as a sort of game of fashion to boost individual status. The 'signalling' of moral ideas that are the tried-and-true 'conventional' ideas, on the other hand, seem less plausible in that framework.

  36. Andrew Usher said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 6:17 pm

    I'm not sure if that last comment was in any way replying to me; but it doesn't disagree at all. There's a reason I used 'insincerity' (= his 'inauthenticity') rather then 'deception'

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