lederhosen: (Default)
[personal profile] lederhosen
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.)

Bartholomew's explanation:

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.

Date: 2016-04-10 10:43 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
The idea of "virtue signalling" (in the literal sense, not the thinly-veiled insult sense) has been around for a very long time in sociology/anthropology/critical theory circles; albeit under different names. It is, of course, something with multiple layers of interpretation— exactly as you say.

The big problem with VS is, of course, when people do in fact use it as mere keywords to try to gain access to various communities. The whole issue with "nice guys" loudly proclaiming their feminist credentials being a prime example. Another being when companies economically support events for, e.g., women in computing just so they can say they're "making change" even though they're taking no steps to actually realize change in their own practices. The biggest danger with VS in my opinion isn't any one individual claiming virtue when they're not virtuous; rather, it's when so many people do it that it serves as systemic resistance against actual change by coopting the movements and terminologies of change.

Date: 2016-04-11 09:15 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
Yeahno, definitely. The idea that all communicating of virtues is superficial/dishonest is bogus. A big part of why I'm out and vocal about various things at work, online, etc, is so other folks in similar positions realize they're not alone / have someone they can talk to. I've had a bunch of folks come up to me over the years thanking me for how my being open about things helped them address/explore their own issues, even though these thanks are often the first 1-on-1 interaction we've had. Just being there, being visible, can help so much.

A big part of the issue here is the fact that the term as Bartholomew uses it is intentionally disingenuous. My being out/woke isn't "virtue signaling", in the sense that this appellation of being "virtuous" is not my aim; I couldn't care less whether folks call me "virtuous" or not. (Whereas clearly my actions do communicate the things I believe to be virtues.) But this fact is beside the point; Bartholomew et al.'s use of the term is specifically designed to erase the communication of leftie-type belief structures (because these beliefs are antithetical to his own) and to establish images of leftie-type people as being vain and sycophantic (because such an image helps to discredit their person, and hence further hide their actual position). That is, Bartholomew asserts that any communication of belief structures he disapproves of is only ever done for superficial/dishonest reasons; that assertion is core to the meaning of his coinage "virtue signaling" —no matter the details of how anyone actually communicates their beliefs and virtues.

Here in the US there's been a whole lot of co-opting of movements lately. It's especially strong with gender/sexuality minorities ("pinkwashing") and with women-in-tech (no special name as yet). A lot of companies (especially tech companies) make loud announcements about their support for GSM rights or hiring women or whatever, but their contributions to events is just buying indulgences while they continue their practices of supporting/creating systemic injustice.


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