“Virtue signalling” is a phrase more de riguer among political pundits than “YOLO” was among the youth. Apparently coined by James Bartholomew in the Spectator it has since been deployed by everyone from the Daily Mail‘s professional overexposer Liz Jones to Radio 5’s resident chinscratcher Nicky Campbell. It describes, states Bartholomew, “the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous”. When a famous person dies, for example, one is liable to feel that one should express sadness even if one is unmoved because it might look good to others.
Bartholomew was not as original as he might like to think. The idiosyncratic economist Robin Hanson has explored the concept of “signalling” for years, going so far as to suggest that it determines most human behaviour. From posting on Facebook to selecting a new pair of trousers, we spend our lives conveying our qualities and affiliations to other people. From our statuses to our sweatpants, we are saying “I am good”, “I am interesting”, “I am sexy” and “I am like you”. It plays an essential role in the formation of identity and trust.
This concept has been perceived as tiresomely faddish and depressingly reductive. The financial commentator Noah Smith has sighed that, according to Hanson, “Fashion isn’t self-expression — it’s signaling. Leisure isn’t about fun — it’s about signaling”. Can it not be both? When teenagers get involved in musical subcultures and buy new clothes, and cut their hair, and paint their nails or pierce their lips it is informed by their need to appeal to their peers, yet it would be foolish to think that they don’t like the music.
This is one of several qualifications to be made if “virtue signalling” is to become a useful element of the English language. That we use our promotion of our beliefs to emphasise our righteousness need not mean we do not believe them. Bartholomew notes that when people tell you they hate the Daily Mail or UKIP “they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded”. True, but it also likely that they hate the Daily Mail and UKIP. Human motivations contain multitudes, and that which is self-serving can also be sincere.
Mr Bartholomew is a man of the right, as one can tell by his examples. Yet something else that must be said about virtue signalling is that its use is not restricted to particular people. When a Conservative or a libertarian sneers at the Guardian or the Green Party there may well be an extent to which they are signalling that they are admirably right wing, freedom loving or patriotic. When an unaffiliated blogger charges both sides with virtue signalling, he might be signalling that he is intelligent and independent-minded enough to be above the fray. It is universal and differs only in form.
Form matters, though. The nature of virtue signalling depends on what signals are considered valuable. Where social status can be obtained through signalling that which is also advantageous to ourselves and those around us it can be a blessing. Where social status is obtained through signalling that which is useless or destructive it becomes more of a curse. How we signal is also important, as while Bartholomew restricts his definition of virtue signalling to that which is written or said, we communicate our qualities through everything from tweets to donations to acts of violence.
The problem of virtue signalling in the modern age is in large part a problem of scale. When the world was not so criss-crossed with roads, flights and wireless connections one demonstrated one’s virtues in one’s own community. On such a local scale, one’s beliefs regarding, say, the proper treatment of poor people in one’s neighbourhood had to be actualised in one’s behaviour. Modest and productive virtues could take precedence. Now we think on such a global scale, and use such globalised means of communication, we signal our virtues with our attitudes towards the African poor or gun politics in the United States, issues which we can either do nothing about or have little idea of how to change for the better.
The prioritisation of political opinions is also, I think, connected to the decline of religious faith. Participation in religious rituals used to be a good means of conveying one’s essential virtuousness. Politics, with its quasi-religious rituals, has been a replacement, allowing us to demonstrate our purity, our passion and our allegiance to a tribe. This often has the unfortunate consequence of making problems with depend on cold empiricism and logical reasoning distorted by sentiment and partisanship.
For virtue signalling to be put in its proper place would depend on a change in what is valued and rewarded – not fashionable opinions and stirring rhetoric but actually effective and honourable ideas and deeds. This will be a long and complicated task but we could start by spending more time in our communities and less on Twitter.