One social comment that is deemed potent is to accuse someone of “virtue signaling.” What is it? My definition is: Performing some moral action that others can see and evaluate, and that also can be a form of self-advertisement of one’s moral virtue. One social commentator (Geoffrey Miller) calls virtue signaling “peacocking.” Which says just about all that needs to be said by way of definition.
Think of these as examples: a male peacock display or the roar of a lion – each of these magnifies their “virtues” or strengths or attractiveness. Think, too, in a different register: someone announcing “I like Wendell Berry” or “We’re living off the grid.” Or, speaking of one’s Ivy League degree, or making it clear one’s driving a hybrid car or that one’s a vegan. That one drinks only fair trade coffee. In yet another register, saying “I hate Capitalism”or “I despise Socialism.”
Virtue signaling has found a home in Twitter outrage and in public boycotts. Some virtue signal over divestment in Israel or saying “I’m a Calvinist”or “I’m not a Calvinist.” Others know what happens when they wear “MAGA” hats.
While some use “virtue signaling” only for the other side, I don’t want to fall into that trap. Those who have studied virtue signaling know two sides: some virtue signaling is good because public acts of morality can produce cohesion in society around that good, it can promote what is good, and thus can form community around the good. But more often today the expression is used pejoratively. Sometimes the virtue signaling is little more than hypocrisy and self-promotion, or just censorious outrage.
I have sought to find the essential components of virtue signaling and have (not so cleverly) found I can alliterate them (and I’m not a fan of alliteration, but this is no stretch):
First, virtue signaling is conspicuous. Thorsten Vleben established clarity about “conspicuous consumerism,” and with virtue signaling we are talking about owning a jet or expensive clothing, etc., as “peacocking” one’s wealth and therefore high status and therefore one’s virtue. One could, alternatively, do the right thing at the right time – generosity, benevolence – and not try to draw attention to oneself. But, still, it becomes known.
Second, virtue signaling is often costly. Some pay socially for their actions; some pay financially. Some students will surrender study time to protest something while others will protest just to make a scene. There is often a strong altruism in virtue signaling.
Third, virtue signaling is comparative, and here it is rarely good. Virtue signaling involves comparing oneself to the others who aren’t morally discerning enough to do what they are doing. I’ve not met any virtue signal-er who wasn’t looking down on those not doing what that person thinks is so obviously right.
Fourth, virtue signaling is censorship. The comparison of “Third” bleeds into censorship when the virtue signaling ramps up the words. In fact, the words are often judgmental and patronizing.
Fifth, virtue signaling is collective. It occurs alongside others, and thus becomes a social action with others that forms rather inevitably to an Us vs. Them. One might decide to denounce such persons with words like “woke” or “politically correct,” but even that denunciation is clear evidence of the collective nature of some virtue signaling. The denouncers, by the way, as David French just wrote, become just as denunciatory in return. The collective game is on.
Sixth, virtue signaling is congratulatory. I’m convinced much of this virtue signaling – the bad sort from both sides – is driven far too often by a desire to be approved and to be congratulated. Sometimes I see pastors or theologians or writers state their view in order to get approval from whom they want approval. A robust, heated defense of inerrancy or against women in ministry can often be seen for what it is: virtue signaling so the principals will jot them an email of approval. There’s a subtle “clap for me” at times.
Seventh, virtue signaling is about control. The aim, so it seems to me, is to announce one’s moral posture and virtue in a way that means “we ought to be running the show” or “you should choose me as your model or leader” or “join us and we will make a better world.” This kind of control, ultimately, masks the next step: a cancel culture that will eliminate the other side.