Virtue Signaling

Robert Burns wrote

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”[1]

Today I want to turn our attention on liberals, a category in which I would put myself as would many of you. I want to explore a couple of terms used about liberals which are not considered complimentary. One is “virtue signaling.”

“Virtue signaling” is the practice of advertising ones own righteousness. I’ll use myself as an example.

When hybrid cars first started to appear on the market, I realized that if I had one it would reduce my own personal carbon footprint, which is what I think we all should be doing to avert climate change. It was many years before I could afford one, but I finally managed to buy a Prius with 125,000 miles on it, and I drove it to 240,000. I am now on my third Prius.

I drive it to get from point A to point B every day, but my driving it also has a moral dimension. Without saying a word to anyone, I have some satisfaction from knowing that I have lightened the load of carbon my driving generates into the atmosphere. And I have a choice of how much signaling I do about my virtue. I can keep quiet about the car I drive and since driving hybrids is hardly unusual these days, most people in this area would not notice that I was driving one. Someone asked me the other day how I liked my Prius, but it was the first time in years. But if I wanted to be a complete jackass about it, I could bring up in every conversation the great mileage I’m getting and how much I’m contributing to solving climate change. I could wear Prius sweatshirts and get a vanity plate which reads MYPRIUS.

There was a joke a few years ago which asked what do you call the atmospheric condition represented by a parking lot full of Priuses? Smug alert.

Of course, hybrid technology is now passe. I have a neighbor in Brewster who drives a Tesla, which is all-electric. I haven’t ridden in it yet, but just seeing it in his driveway makes me all consumed with virtue envy. Someday.

The phrase Virtue Signaling has been kicking around for more than a decade, but it seems to have gotten a boost from a 2015 article in The Spectator, a British journal, by a writer named James Bartholomew.[2] The article was entitled “The Awful Rise of Virtue Signaling,” and the first example he uses is that of Whole Foods, the American grocery chin, now owned by Amazon, which had just started appearing in Britain when the article was written. It started this way:

“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

This strikes a chord with me. I have been bothered by the corporate image projected by Whole Foods for years. It seems to me so phony, such a blatant attempt to dress up a business corporation as the emblem of progressive values. Bartholomew continues:

“The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”

Bartholomew didn’t refer to it, but another example of the irritating breast-beating by a corporate titan is the phrase which was Google’s motto until very recently, “don’t be evil.” Volumes of religion and philosophy and literature have been devoted to the question of what evil is, and Google’s motto insults the intelligence of all those who have wrestled with evil by implying that it is enough to have a code of conduct which can be reduced to these three highly abstract words.

But back to Bartholomew; he notes that one type of virtue signaling depends on anger:

“‘I hate 4x4s!’ you declare. This is an assertion that, unlike others, you care about the environment.”

I think the 4x4s to which this refers are four-wheel drive vehicles, which can go off-road into remote wilderness areas. Bartholomew explains why the phrase “I hate 4x4s” is virtue signaling:

“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”

Now the idea that when you do good, you ought not boast of it, is ancient. It is front and center in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in the passages I just read (Matthew 6:1-6). Don’t show off your piety, says Jesus. Don’t brag about your generosity. Pray in secret. When you give alms, don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.

At bottom, Jesus’s ethic of modesty and humility is based on the notion that the only one who needs to be impressed with your righteousness is God. No one else need know.

In Bartholomoew’s original article, he makes the point that virtue signaling crosses political lines. But since that article, most of the use of the term in cultural criticism is to critique progressive people or forces.

For example, a site named funnyjunk ran a meme, a photo circulating on social media which showed several affluent college-age women holding up a hand-drawn multicolored sign at an airport saying “Welcome Refugees.” Over this image was superimposed lettering which said “Virtue Signalling: the very public act of showing how humanitarian you are at the expense of common sense, personal safety and national security.”

This was clearly a posting from someone who did not approve of the sentiments the women were expressing, and we might assume, did not believe in liberal immigration as a policy. But I followed the comments on that meme to an “analysis” of sorts by someone who was further to the right than the creator of the meme, and that commentator did not see anything funny about it. The analysis was sprinkled with four-letter words, and a peculiar abbreviation started popping up: SJW. I was scratching my head, and finally had to consult a dictionary to find out that SJW was short for social justice warrior.

Think about that for a second. Social justice warriors, a put-down term for people. If you asked the women in that picture holding that sign in the airport, they might say that they were part of a group meeting some refugees and wanted to be as welcoming as possible. Or they might be taking part in a political demonstration relevant to some aspect of immigration policy. They would be likely to say that the sign reflects their deeply held values. They might even welcome the term social justice warriors.

But doesn’t this illustrate how any little verbal plaything can get weaponized in the culture wars? The original use of “virtue signaling” was not to cast aspersions on the progressive values themselves which were being communicated, but rather the shallow or hypocritical or boastful way they were being used. But now the term has become a separate indictment against the values themselves and those who hold them, and the term Social Justice Warriors reinforces this.

Former President Obama weighed in on a related issue this week.[3] Speaking to an audience of young activists at the Obama Foundation, he said “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, ... you should get over that quickly.”

“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

He said it’s easy to be judgmental, and to criticize people over social media, but at the end of the day that doesn’t create change. He talked about conversations he’s had with his daughter Malia, who is a student at Harvard...

He said, “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.”

In a way, Obama’s criticisms echo the original criticisms of virtue signaling in Bartholomew’s article. Simple pronouncing yourself allied with one position or another does not make change happen. And if you are hypocritical about it or call attention to your own righteousness, you’re not going to make much headway.

Now I said that the term “virtue signaling” had become weaponized in the battles between left and right in the culture wars. You might think that Obama in criticizing the “call-out” culture and judgmentalism is positioning himself somewhere to the right of his audience. But the significant divide is generational. Obama is a late Baby Boomer, as I am an earlier one. Though he is multiracial and I am white and we have different perspectives because of these social locations, we both have a sense of how much has changed in the United States in race relations in our lifetimes. People in college now know that only through history books and documentaries. They did not live it.

And they are just as impatient with the lingering injustices of this age as my generation was in the 1960s. I’m not saying that they are wrong; we have a lot of injustice that my generation did not take care of and which they will have to. But it comforts me to hear President Obama telling them that the world is full of ambiguities and people are full of flaws.

But let’s put the weapons back in their sheaths for a moment. I am interested in the notion of virtue signaling. One branch of ethics is called virtue ethics, and it was practiced by the Greeks and the Romans and the Chinese. Virtue ethics says the way to the good is not to make detailed rules but to train people in virtue.

When we stand outside on Main Street holding a sign protesting the latest act of gun violence, are we not having a conversation with the community? Are we not saying “we ought to be able to do better than this”? Are we not trying to reinforce values, to make sure they are not lost or forgotten?

Back in March of this year, two psychologists published an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times titled “Are You ‘Virtue Signaling’? Probably. But that doesn’t mean your outrage is inauthentic.”[4] They wanted to test whether people behaved differently on moral tests if they thought someone would know about it as compared to when they thought they were being anonymous.

They said that “virtue signaling” arose when a person was displaying moral outrage not because they were genuinely angry but to impress others.

“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.’”

This is so because the either/or premise of the question is based on a model of the human mind which has been disproven in experimental situations. The authors, Jillian Jordan and David Rand at Northwestern and MIT, respectively, summarize what they are about to publish this way:

“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.”

The end result of their investigation is this:

“What our findings show is that asking whether outrage is “pure” is the wrong question... [O]ur findings ... suggest that if an individual is motivated by a desire to signal her virtue, that does not necessarily mean she is faking her outrage. Of course, people do sometimes fake or exaggerate their outrage to look good. Our point is that the presence of strategic motives does not itself make a moral reaction inauthentic.”

I think this is profound. We are capable of acting morally whether anyone is watching or not.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the people to whom I looked for approval in my life, the people who shaped my sense of right and wrong. Most of them are dead now. Later this month, I will gather with my four siblings for a reunion we have every two years. I find that when I spend just a few days with them their voices echo in my head for weeks afterwards, because they were so common in my life for its first twenty years.

Who do we act for? Who is the audience of our lives? If we are practicing virtue, who are we signaling to let them know we are practicing? Have the people whose opinion used to count with us been replaced by a new set of people who share the values we have now? Have we left the tribe of our childhood and created a new tribe who are outraged by the same things we are?

Jesus said do your good deeds in secret, so only God will know. But that’s no way to organize a movement for social change.

Remember that the same Jesus in the same Sermon on the Mount also said (Matthew 5:14-16),

14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

So we have these two terms, Virtue Signaling and Social Justice Warriors, which are being used in public discourse in a snarky way against progressives, suggesting hypocrisy, insincerity or group think. As we try to bear witness to our values, to let our light shine, we can try to avoid these labels. We should take Robert Burns’ advice and try to see ourselves as other see us, ask how any action would be perceived in the rumor mill.

But if you have done that homework and the injustice is still burning in your gut, go out there and signal with all your heart. Embrace the put-down. Yes we are virtue signaling.

Back in the early nineteenth century, when the orthodox ministers in New England Congregationalism wanted to put down the liberals among them, they called them the worst name they could think of: Unitarians. It took years before the liberals realized that their best response was to embrace the name.

Let’s face it, in the present culture wars there is plenty of outrage to go around both on the left and on the right. Outrage is a staple of right-wing talk radio and television, and it has made many media personalities rich and elected many politicians. Outrage speaks to levels in the brain below that of conscious thought. If someone else is worked up about an injustice which you don’t see, you will tend to see their emotion as phony or boastful. In this sense we all do virtue signaling, for we all try to build consensus around whatever is outraging us.

The phrase virtue signaling as a put-down turns out to be shallow and self-defeating. A recent post making the rounds on social media asks a pertinent question with which I’ll leave you: what if constantly accusing people of virtue signaling is the real virtue signaling?


Reading for Virtue Signaling Matthew 6

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

[1]“To A Louse On Seeing One On A Lady's Bonnet, At Church





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