Once, “subversive” would have been an accusation. Now it is liable to be a compliment. Once heresy was a crime punishable by death. Now, a “heretic” is likely to attract our esteem.
Hierarchy still exists, of course, and dogma abounds, but every intelligent person signals against it. To be high status is to be “original” and “iconoclastic” – an “outsider”, a “maverick” and a “contrarian” – opposing the “mainstream”, the “conventional” and the “status quo”.
Even the most powerful attempt to position themselves as underdogs speaking truth to sinister elites. Hillary Clinton, a one-time Secretary of State who is the favourite to win the US Presidential elections, argues, with a straight face, that she is not “establishment”.
This is, I think, a quirk of Enlightenment individualism. The Enlightenment did not end rigid power structures and unquestioned articles of faith but it did undermine their moral status. It became almost as worthwhile to vice signal as to virtue signal.
Virtue signalling promotes one’s goodness. Vice signalling exhibits one’s transgressions. This need not entail GG Allin-style sex and violence – though it can, of course, depending on the circles that one moves in – but apparent rebelliousness against societal convention; “apparent” because its purpose is more to assert one’s personal identity than to advance one’s purported beliefs. This is how a Che Guevara t-shirt can become a mass market commodity.
What makes for effective vice signalling? It must present a clear distinction between a dissident and principled ingroup and a dominant and corrupt outgroup. It must exploit genuine grievances with the establishment. It should be characterised by charisma and wit. It should offer at least the hope of making progress. All of this makes one’s vice signalling appear high status. It makes one attractive and imitable.
The effectiveness of vice signalling depends on the premise that one’s ingroup is rebelling against one’s outgroup. It should not appear as if is the other way around. In the modern world there have been interesting shifts in power.
Progressivism has always been a transgressive force. It explicitly opposes tradition, elitism and inherited privilege. Even as it has occupied cultural institutions, and as social mores have been revolutionised, it has maintained its “outsider” credibility. There are two reasons why this has been the case. First, the institutions it opposed have not been destroyed but defanged. One can seem transgressive when opposing the royalty, for example, even when doing so incurs no risks. Second, progressives extend the boundaries of their demands. What would have been radical in 1966 is considered reactionary in 2016.
There is a point, however, at which aristocrats begin to look foolish in rags. As people have lost careers, livelihoods and even liberty for expressing opinions that were once uncontroversial the power of progressives has become obvious. As, for explain, Amnesty International, established to campaign for political prisoners, demands that children have the right to sex reassignment surgery, it has become apparent that progressivism is more radical and challenging in its ideological intentions than it might once have appeared.
This accounts for the success of GamerGate and the alt-right – transgressive movements against that which was once trangressive. It has become high status to signal against the left as well as on its behalf. Cultural libertarians, of course, are pathological vice signallers. That is their shtick. What is more interesting that reactionaries are using these tactics.
It might seem odd that authoritarian ideas are being promoted in the spirit of rebellion. As when Trotskyites and Maoists took to the streets, however, effective vice signalling depends not on being anti-authoritarian but on being anti-whichever-authority-happens to-be-powerful. Still, it is ironic that defenders of tradition and hierarchy are exploiting our anti-Establishment, individualistic impulses.
There are dangers of vice signalling that I have written of in “On the Perils of Being an Intellectual Outlaw”. There is another question I would like to ask here, though: what are its ends? Personal advancement, of course, and mere contrarianism, but let us think with more ambition for a moment. If outsiders hope to make their heresies doctrinal, “vices” must be translated into virtues. That which seemed transgressive must appear conscientious. This is challenging for revolutionary movements if their identities were based on being oppositional, and helps to explain the internecine conflicts that tear them apart. If one’s ambitions transcend nihilistic mischief-making one must have beliefs because one thinks them principled, not merely as other people think them perverted.