Virtue-signalling was a term first popularized by James Bartholomew, who defined the concept as thinking that expressing a particular opinion makes you morally superior. Almost everyone makes political statements that are partially for social validation. The token hashtag commie slacktivists, people who unironically have ‘contrarian’ in their Twitter bio, and your disinterested middle-class parents who make the occasional remark about political correctness gone mad over dinner.
Whilst the first example is straight-up virtue-signalling, the other two represent virtue signalling’s oft-forgotten brother, known as vice-signalling. Virtue-signalling is usually saying left-wing things because you think that it makes you sound like someone who is cool, righteous, and cares a little bit more than everyone else. Vice-signalling is usually saying right-wing things because you think it makes you sound like someone who is cool, free-thinking, and follows the collective a little bit less than everyone else.
Depending on what subcultures you associate with, one form of signalling may be more advantageous than the other. If you’re reading Trigger Warning, you’re probably familiar with both concepts, or at least have encountered them regularly without thinking of them in such terms.
Vice-signalling types love to mock virtue-signalling types, and vice versa. “Male feminism is a beta mating strategy” is cut from the same cloth as “you only shitpost and edgepost for attention.” The probability of an extended discussion about virtue-signalling involving the word ‘meta’ is close to 100%; such conversations inevitably descend into the stunning and brave revelation that talking about people doing things for social validation is done partly for the purpose of social validation itself.
Condemnation of virtue-signalling and vice-signalling is almost always hypocritical. More importantly, it is only useful in extreme cases. It usually functions as a way of derailing discussion from the validity of the beliefs that one is accused of “only holding because they’re cool or edgy.” Any value that accusations of virtue and vice-signalling might have in criticising performative activism are lost in the fact that such accusations are themselves centred on attacking character rather than content.
Give me a solid argument against tweeting #BringBackOurGirls being a useful enterprise, rather than using questionable hashtags as an opportunity to portray the outgroup as morons. Show me why that race realist constantly posting on your Facebook group is wrong about everything they claim to believe, instead of simply mocking the fact that you think they might be saying controversial things to get attention.
Just because something is virtue or vice-signalling doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, even if higher degrees of virtue and vice-signalling are arguably correlated with a lack of independent thought. Don’t use it to shut down debate, and make an effort to be charitable to those you suspect might be engaging in a moderate degree of signalling, because chances are you (and most of your ingroup) do exactly the same thing.
A more extreme position that I’ve sometimes seen defended holds that everything is (and always will be) virtue/vice-signalling, leaving no possibility for truly virtuous political statements because all public human action is singularly/selfishly orientated towards being popular, getting laid, or some variation thereof. This is a rather boring objection that misses the point of what being virtuous, (if there is such a thing) actually involves: a cultivated character of being disposed towards right action for its own sake that is (here’s the key) experienced in the first-person. Read some phenomenology and recognise that there is more than one useful way of analysing the world.
Though we should strive towards it, we don’t live in a virtue ethicist’s utopia where everybody does everything because they’re motivated purely by the intrinsic value of goodness and the pursuit of human flourishing. We live in 2016 (!), where virtue-signalling and vice-signalling are dominant norms that provide incentives for many people to discuss important things that they otherwise never would. The worst case scenario is that nobody virtue-signals or vice-signals because holding ‘progressive’ or ‘contrarian’ viewpoints doesn’t make you any cooler. The better scenario is that people talk about important issues because, in part, doing so makes certain people think that you’re cool.
Until we’re all utterly selfless saints, that’s the best we can hope for.
Daniel Pryor is an undergraduate at Durham University in the UK. He works as editorial assistant for Young Voices Advocates, holds a position as Fellow of the Centre for a Stateless Society, and has an unhealthy obsession with free market anarchism. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielPryorr.