Tweeted about this earlier, but this is a better medium for the length...
Lately I've been hearing the term "virtue signalling" used as a cheap put-down, mostly against leftie-type folk expressing leftie-type views. (James Bartholomew claims to have coined the phrase
I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
I'm surprised that Bartholomew doesn't mention visible displays of patriotism such as flying one's national flag or telling a soldier "thank you for your service"; as far as I can see this is one of the most widespread forms of "virtue signalling" per Bartholomew's definition, but I've never heard it described as such.
Part of why I dislike the term is that in practice, it almost always seems to involve equivocation. Bartholomew's explanation describes it as a form of deception, giving the impression of virtue without having to sacrifice for it - perhaps "feigning virtue" would be a more precise word for the concept as he explains it.
However, almost anywhere that I see somebody accused of "virtue signalling", it's coming from somebody who has no way of knowing (or hasn't bothered to find out) whether that accusation of deception is true; it's simply assumed
that target's apparent virtue is feigned.
This is bad for obvious reasons (making unnecessary assumptions about a stranger's motivations is a bad thing) but it's also bad for subtler reasons. The equivocation and imprecise terminology gives the impression that signalling virtue (in the everyday meaning of those words) is a Bad Thing, and this is simply bullshit.
Certainly, people can signal virtue (real or feigned) for bad reasons. I'm sure everybody's met the holier-than-thou activist who's noisily embraced a cause because it gives them an excuse to be a dick, or to get laid.
But signalling virtue can also be a positive act. Couple of examples from my own experience:
#1: Back in November 2014, my work was running a White Ribbon Day event. I have very mixed feelings about WRD but at that stage my attitude was still "maybe it can be salvaged". This was not long after the murder of Mayang Prasetyo and close to Trans Day of Remembrance, so I asked the organisers if I could do a bit for TDOR as part of the WRD event and they said yes, so I did.
A few months later, somebody from my office came to ask me for advice about a scary mental health issue. I didn't know her well at all; the only direct interaction we had was occasionally saying hi at afternoon trivia or in the break room. But of everybody in that building, she'd decided that I seemed like a safe and possibly helpful person to ask about this stuff.
I'm still not sure how she decided that. Possibly my TDOR talk gave her the idea that I might be a good person to ask, possibly something else entirely that I don't remember. But either way, she needed to talk to somebody with a particular virtue
and she'd picked up some kind of signal
that suggested that might be me.
(I like to think that she made a good choice there. I wasn't able to fix everything for her, but I was able to help her find confidence to talk to other folk who could help.)
#2: Last week, somebody on a mailing list for stats professionals made a throwaway joke that involved deadnaming a famous trans person. I responded to the effect of "hey, as a point of etiquette, deadnaming trans people is impolite, I would like trans people to feel safe and welcome in our profession, so please let's not do this".
Usually when I have an issue with somebody's behaviour, the chances of resolving that are better if it's handled in private. Telling people off in public usually encourages them to get defensive rather than reconsider their behaviour. In this case, though, I felt that my reply needed to be public, and a lot of that boiled down to "virtue signalling": I wanted any trans people on that list to know that somebody had their back.
And it worked. I already knew of one person on the list who would appreciate that gesture, but almost immediately I got a thank-you from a stranger whose colleagues don't yet know that she's transitioning, but who trusted me enough to sign her email with a different name to the one that appears in the headers.
So if "virtue signalling" is what it takes to show a vulnerable person that someone's on their side (and perhaps to influence bystanders in the same direction), I refuse to be shamed for signalling.
If I fail to live up to those assurances, then
by all means, shame away.